Michael Gove should be held to account over the crisis facing London’s schools

I would like to see Michael Gove asked the following question: does he stand for every school child, or just those who attend academies and free schools?

Annie Powell is a governor at a Southwark school

Last month the body that represents London’s 33 local authorities issued the government with a stark warning: without additional funds, councils will soon be unable to guarantee a permanent school place for every child in the capital.

It is slightly surreal to think that this could happen in 21st century Britain, but the threat is real. As the report by London Councils states, ‘the problem…is so acute that London boroughs…face a funding shortfall of close to £1.04 billion to ensure that every pupil in London has a permanent school place up to 2015/16’.

This represents 118,000 primary and secondary school pupils who, unless urgent action is taken, will not have a permanent place by 2016.

While this news was widely reported last month, the full extent of Michael Gove’s responsibility for the impending crisis in London’s schools was not conveyed. Coverage focused almost exclusively on the rapidly rising school-age population in the capital and London’s inadequate funding settlement (London has 42 per cent of all place shortages in England but will only receive 36 per cent of the basic need capital allocation for 2013 to 2015).

Missing was an analysis of how Gove’s aggressive implementation of the academy and free school programme has made the pressure on places much, much worse.

Funding academies where there is no shortage of places

If this government has successfully conveyed one message since it came to office, it’s that it doesn’t have much money to spend. You’d therefore be forgiven for thinking that the limited funds that are available for new schools would be reserved for areas with a current or impending shortage of space. Sadly, you’d be wrong.

In April the NUT, using Department for Education (DfE) data, showed that one in five free schools has opened, or are set to open, in areas where there is at least a 10 per cent surplus in places. What’s more, funds are often being used for secondary schools in areas where the pressing need is for primaries. Examples given by the NUT include Bedford, which will have a 38 per cent shortfall of primary places by 2016-17 but which saw a new secondary open last year, and Suffolk, where three secondary free schools have opened at a cost of £3.67m despite a 28 per cent surplus in secondary places.

When confronted with this data, the DfE said that the majority of free schools were in areas with the greatest pressure on places and that ‘more than two-thirds of [free schools] planning to open from 2013 and beyond will also be in areas of basic need [areas where demand is forecast to exceed capacity]’. For some reason Michael Gove thinks it is acceptable for a third (or just under a third) of free schools to open in areas where there is no shortage of space at a time when resources are scarce and pressure on places is severe, particularly in London.

Stephen Twigg has been pointing out for some time that free schools are being set up in areas of surplus while over-subscribed areas are neglected, but so far this serious misallocation of public resources has not received the publicity it deserves.

Exempting academies from the duty to expand

Local authorities are under a legal duty to provide every child with a permanent school place. However, they have no power over academies and free schools, so they cannot require them to fill surplus places or to expand.

More than half of London’s secondary schools are academies. This means that local authorities have the extremely difficult task of finding space for all secondary school children with less than half of the area’s schools at their disposal. It is quite possible that the ludicrous situation will arise where local authorities cannot provide every child with a school place even though – and partly because – many of the academies in their area have the capacity to take more pupils. It is almost as if the government wants to put local authorities in an impossible position.

It is worth noting that the burden on local authority schools to absorb London’s growing school-age population is leading to a disparity between the quality of their facilities and those of academies. Building new schools in London is difficult because of relative shortage of space and high land costs, so many maintained schools have been forced to extend their existing buildings within school grounds, occasionally with temporary facilities. Sometimes these extensions eat into playground space with clear implications for children’s ability to play and thus for their well-being.

Overspend on academies

The Public Accounts Committee reported last month that the government had overspent on the academies budget by more than £1bn as a result of an ‘excessively complex and inefficient academy funding system’. This is money that could have been used to meet various pressing needs, including building new schools in London.

It’s vital that Labour step up their opposition on this issue. First, I would argue, Stephen Twigg should put public pressure on Gove to commit to financing new schools only where they address local shortages.

Second, Labour should both draw attention to the harm that the academies programme is doing to children who happen not to attend an academy and highlight that the system is deliberately rigged in favour of academies and free schools in a way which only works (‘works’) if such schools are a fraction of the whole. In this context I would like to see Michael Gove asked the following question: does he stand for every school child, or just those who attend academies and free schools?

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