Page last updated at 11:38 GMT, Wednesday, 15 July 2009 12:38 UK

Pressure rises on school places

Filling in a form
Councils say the recession is adding to demand for places

A fifth of English local authorities are reporting increased pressure on school places due to the recession, the Local Government Association says.

One reason may be parents abandoning private education to save money. Immigration is also likely to have an impact on demand for places.

Paralysis in the housing market also means fewer families are moving house when their children reach school age.

Ministers have announced £200m to deal with a shortage of reception places.

School Secretary Ed Balls said the funding would be made available to local authorities facing a 15% growth in four and five-year-olds in their area between September 2008 and September 2011.

Mr Balls said: "Birth rate has been rising nationally since 2001 and the government has already specifically made available funding to deal with projected pupil growth.

"While it is clear that some local authorities simply did not plan or budget effectively for how rising birth rates would affect them locally, others are facing exceptional, unanticipated rises in demand for reception-age pupils over the next few years because of a combination of much localised circumstances."

Housing market

The survey by the LGA says that 20% of councils have experienced increased demand for state school places in the past six months - with another 13% of councils expecting extra pressure on places in the future.

The LGA says the recession may be forcing some parents to abandon costly private education in favour of the state sector.

Margaret Eaton, LGA chairman: "We haven't got flexibility in the way we fund education"

However, the latest annual school census actually shows a slight increase in the overall proportion of pupils in England receiving private education.

The census, which covered to September 2008 (so not applicants for this September) showed the numbers in the independent sector rose by 380 on the previous year to 569,080.

David Lyscom, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council, said: "The Local Government Association is trying to get more financial support from the government for education by blaming increasing pupil numbers on pupils coming from the independent sector.

"Contrary to their assertion, there is no hard evidence to suggest that the sharp rise in demand for places at state-run primary schools is due to recession-hit parents choosing state education over the independent sector.

"All evidence points to demographic change as the reason for the increasing pressure on state places. The LGA is basing its case merely on supposition."

Housing market

A bigger factor behind the growing pressure on some state schools may be the lack of movement in the housing market.

An inability or unwillingness to move means more families are remaining in inner-city areas, rather than moving out to the suburbs.

Predicting how many school places will be needed from year to year is a complex issue
Les Lawrence
Local Government Association

There are also signs of the economic downturn in the fact that 15.5% of councils are reporting a rise in families applying for free school meals for their children.

"Predicting how many school places will be needed from year to year is a complex issue," said Les Lawrence, chairman of the association's Children and Young People's board.

"Councils do their best to produce accurate calculations on how many children will be starting in their schools, but it is not an exact science and will vary from area to area."

Immigration

Another factor which is likely to affect demand for school places is immigration.

Co-chairs of the cross-party group on balanced migration, Frank Field and Nicholas Soames, said the percentage of births to foreign born women in England has risen from 17.1% in 2001 to 24% in 2007.

"The need to increase funding for primary schools is a direct result of mass immigration feeding into our population," they said.

"This is a major reason for the pressure on our primary schools but the government remain in denial about the consequences of their losing control of our borders.

"Instead they refer to 'local circumstances'. This is deliberately misleading."

Temporary classrooms

The LGA survey follows warnings about the problems facing families looking for primary places for their children.

This is a problem that appears to be affecting pockets of urban England, with the availability of places unable to keep up with surges in demand.

In parts of London, rising birth rates and fewer private school applications have been blamed for the rise in demand, particularly for places for four and five-year-olds.

A report earlier this year by London Councils said 25 of the capital's 33 authorities were experiencing capacity problems or were expected to within two to three years.

In the worst-hit areas, councils have been building temporary classrooms or making plans to expand schools.

Secondary schools

Mr Balls also announced that six local authorities - Barnet, Bolton, Hampshire, Peterborough, Sunderland and Wigan - would join the government's building schools for the future (BSF) scheme to refurbish or rebuild secondary schools.

"These are challenging times when every penny of taxpayer's money is rightly scrutinised," he said.

"But I am clear that allowing six new projects joining BSF each quarter this year is prudent and affordable and means that areas will benefit as soon as possible."

Mr Balls said another six local authority projects would join the programme in three months time and another six in the last quarter of the 2009-10.

• Complaints about school admissions in England soared last year, the Local Government Ombudsman has said.

The ombudsman's annual report says complaints jumped by about 50% on the previous year, after new guidelines on admissions were brought in.

More than 1,400 complaints were registered for 2008/9, compared with 942 in the 2007/8.

In a substantial number of cases, there had been "significant fault" with schools' handling of admissions and appeals.



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Number of pupils is set to soar
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