Councils face £1bn shortfall for school places

A further 130,000 primary school places will be needed in the next three years, researchers warn
A further 130,000 primary school places will be needed in the next three years, researchers warn (AFP Photo/Mychele Daniau)

London (AFP) - Local authorities are struggling to fill a £1 billion "black hole" in national funding for school places, with councils abandoning building projects and borrowing money to meet the shortfall, researchers warned Wednesday.

More than three quarters of councils in England said they did not receive enough money from central government to create the extra places needed between the school years 2011/2 and 2016/7, according to a survey by the Local Government Association (LGA).

Many councils have borrowed money or used cash intended for building programmes and repairs to crumbling classrooms in order to plug the gap, the LGA said.

It said some councils had gone to "extraordinary lengths" to ensure that no child is left without a place, including using temporary buildings and, in one case, putting a playground on a roof.

Changing demographics and an increased birth rate have added to pressures on school places in recent years, particularly in London and southeast England, according to the LGA.

Councils created 90,000 extra primary places last year, but a further 130,000 will still be needed by 2017/18, along with 80,716 new secondary places by 2019/2020, researchers warned.

Councillor David Simmonds, chairman of the LGA's children and young people's board, said: "This research lays bare the financial impact on councils of providing school places, which stands at more than £1 billion over a five-year period.

"The scale of this black hole is such that the cost of the creation of new school places cannot be met by council taxpayers."

The warning comes as children across the country prepare to return to classes in September after the long summer break and amid widespread concerns about expanding class sizes.

The website Netmums said many parents fear for the education of children who are being herded into "cattle classes" in schools that are bursting at the seams.

One in five parents polled said they believed schools were cramming too many children into a class, with many fearing their child would get "lost" in the system, Netmums said.

The Department for Education (DfE) said it was making "every effort" to stop the increase in pupil numbers affecting class sizes.

"Through our education plan, we are giving councils £5 billion to spend on new school places over this parliament... leading to the creation of 260,000 new places in shortage areas," a DfE spokeswoman said.

"We have also confirmed a further £2.35bn to support councils to create the places needed by September 2017. And there are plenty more school places in the pipeline, with councils planning to create at least 300,000 extra primary places by next year."