School’s out of spaces

All they wanted was to send their children to the local comprehensive school but a group of Glossop parents were denied even that simple right

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Luca Parsons did not start at his local high school in September.

Instead, because of a local shortfall in school places, he travels eight miles by bus to a neighbouring town.

The schoolboy is one of a number of year seven pupils from Glossop who failed to secure a place at Glossopdale School after it was built too small to accommodate all local children.

“We had no idea there could be a problem until the day they announced the places, in March,” his mum, Alison Parsons, says: “We went through the appeals process but lost the battle.

“We’d never even been to New Mills School, where Luca was given a place, so it was a real shock and he was very upset. If we’d realised it was a possibility, we would have looked around it.”

Around 40 children originally missed out on places but – following a public outcry – an extra 20 were released. The Parsons missed out again though because they live on the edge of town.

In Glossop, questions have been raised about how a new school could be built unable to accommodate local children.

Glossopdale previously operated from cold, dilapidated buildings across two different sites and had a capacity of around 2,000 pupils – but when it reopened on a single site in 2018, total capacity fell by almost 900. The new school cost £23 million.

Meanwhile, demand for places increased as the modern facilities attracted more families. Applications for 2020-21 secondary school places closed earlier this month and parents will have an anxious five-month wait to see if their children get a place.

Catherine Grills – whose son Freddie got in this year “by the skin of his teeth” – believes the location of the school was not thought through.

She says: “In my opinion, they made
a mistake with where they built the school. They built Glossopdale on the far west of the town, close to Tameside and not far from another secondary school there. But because admissions operate on a ‘nearest first’ policy, children from that area were prioritised over families from the other side of Glossop. Maybe in a big city where catchments are smaller this wouldn’t matter but here it does.”

“Local authorities should be able to plan to extend and build new schools.”

After two years of lobbying by parents and local MP Ruth George, Derbyshire County Council has launched a consultation on extending the site to provide an additional 240 places. The consultation ends on 15 November, with the outcome due to be announced in January. Education chiefs expect pupil numbers to peak in 2023-24, followed by a drop in line with national birth rates. These projections do not, however, include planned housing in the area. So far there are 600 houses with planning permission, plus another 250 with pending applications. Other sites could deliver up to 300 more homes in the next five years. In any case, there are no funds secured to cover the costs of school expansion. The council has proposed using section 106 money – contributions from developers for community infrastructure – but George is sceptical. In a letter to Derbyshire County Council, the High Peak MP wrote: “I understand that some section 106 funding is being sought, but with the small and piecemeal nature of plans coming forward in Glossop, this will not be sufficient. Any larger scale development, such as on the old school site, would mean that more places are required than the planned extra classrooms will provide.”

Glossop’s challenges are particular to the town but pressure on school places is a national issue that in many areas is turning into a crisis. A population bulge – the result of a baby boom – is working its way through primary school and many towns and cities will be struggling to accommodate pupils within five years.

Nationally, 15 councils will face a secondary school place shortfall next September, rising to 27 in 2021-22. By 2024-25, a total of 71 English councils – 48 per cent – face not being able to meet demand for places, according to analysis of government figures by the Local Government Association (LGA).

In the north, the worst affected councils are currently Oldham and Tameside – both of which already have a shortfall at secondary level. By September 2020, Rochdale, Bolton, Hull and Wakefield will also be struggling to find places for high school pupils. By 2021-22, the problem will also have hit Manchester, Sheffield and York – and the following year 11 authorities in the North West and Yorkshire and Humber will be at or over capacity. By that point, Oldham will have 17 per cent more secondary pupils than places – rising to 20 per cent by 2024-25.

Primary schools are not immune to the crisis. Already, in the current academic year, Oldham, Bolton and Leeds are at maximum capacity. In three years time, in 2022-23, five North West education authorities plus Leeds will be facing this problem within the primary sector.

Critics say government policies since 2010 have made it harder for local councils to keep pace with the rising demand for places – chiefly the expansion of the academy system, which frees schools from local authority control. Town halls have lost the power to plan and build new maintained schools, because the government says any new school must now be a free school.

By January 2018, 72 per cent of English secondary schools had converted to academy status, along with 27 per cent of primaries. Glossopdale School has unveiled plans to become an academy before next September. If this goes ahead, responsibility for admissions and additional places would fall to the trust running the school rather than Derbyshire County Council. But councils say this independence hampers any efforts to tackle the shortfall – and would like more powers to take action.   Councils created 96,000 school places last year by working with their existing primary and secondary schools and, in some cases, commissioning places in academies and free schools. Of those, 37,000 new places were created in secondary schools.

But education chiefs have no powers to open more secondary schools or
direct academies to expand, meaning parents and children still face the prospect of missing out on a place as early as next year.

They would like the government to give them back the power to open new maintained schools where that is the local preference, and to hand back the responsibility for making decisions about opening new schools. And they want the same powers to direct free schools and academies to expand that they currently hold for maintained schools, which they say is necessary if they are to cope with a surge in primary school pupils moving through the system.

Anntoinette Bramble, a councillor and chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, says: “Despite all odds, councils have been able to provide desperately-needed places for parents looking to secure their child’s place at secondary school in the past year.

“But our secondary school places crisis is now just one year away and this will be the reality for thousands of families without action.

“Councils need to be allowed to open new maintained schools and direct academies to expand. It makes no sense for councils to be given the responsibility to plan for school places but then not be allowed to open schools themselves.”

Teaching unions say the result of the crisis is over-crowded classrooms, primary schools expanding beyond optimum size and children travelling further to school.

The National Education Union argues that academies and free schools have brought in an irrational competitive marketplace for school places rather
than the rational planned provision that local authorities were able to guarantee
in the past. It believes that the solution is to give local authorities back the legal powers they need to plan and provide enough school places in their local areas, and for the government to provide sufficient funding to enable them to do so – while also taking serious steps to address the teacher recruitment crisis.

National Education Union North West regional secretary Peter Middleman says: “The government has known this crisis was coming for ages, frankly. The pupils born during the baby boom are coming through the primary sector now.

“We are critical of the government’s approach to education and the predominance of academy schools, which are out of local authority control. We need more democratic oversight of these schools. Local authorities should be able to plan to extend schools and build new ones where needed, rather than allowing academies to opt out of the system and restrict parental choice.

“The result of all this is that class sizes are up – about a sixth of children are now being taught in a class of more than 30 pupils and average class sizes are now higher than at any time since 1981.

“This is then coinciding with cuts that have led to 10,000 fewer posts in schools and a staff recruitment and retention crisis. The government is underfunding schools in England by £2.2 billion a year.

“All the recruitment targets have been missed for the past six years and we are losing teachers at a rate of about 11 per cent a year. Our surveys show workload pressures are very intense and teacher pay has not kept up with other graduate professions. We know 40 per cent of new teachers leave within five years, something that is particularly acute in secondary. We need to make teaching an attractive proposition at both ends of people’s career – at the start and also as they approach retirement. This is being undermined at present unfortunately.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Local authorities have a long-established and important role in education, and many of them still oversee a large number of schools, as well as having responsibility for important strategic issues like place planning.

“We are determined to create more choice for parents when it comes to their children’s education and we have created around 920,000 school places since 2010, and are on track to see that number rise to a million by 2020.

“Standards have also risen, with 85 per cent of schools now rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, compared to 68 per cent in 2010.

“This government has announced the biggest funding boost for schools in a decade – £14bn more over the next three years. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that this investment will restore schools’ funding to previous levels in real terms per pupil by 2022-23.”

Back in Glossop, Grills and her friends continue to press for their local school to expand and overcome its capacity issues so other families do not have to face the same problems that they did this year.

She says: “I still can’t believe what we had to go through to get our son into the local state comprehensive school. It’s not as if we were trying to game the system in order to get him into the best possible school. We just wanted him to go to his local one.”

Main image: Catherine Grills is campaigning in Glossop (Rebecca Lupton)

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