Some important research from the New Schools Network which has discovered that 71,000 new primary places have been created at schools that are failing or below average.

That means that of the 358,000 new places that local authorities have created over the last five years a fifth were in schools that Ofsted has judged as ‘Inadequate’ or ‘Requires Improvement’.

The following 20 local authorities have each placed more than 1,000 children in underperforming schools:

Barking and Dagenham    2,974
Surrey 2,033

Nick Timothy, Director of New Schools Network said:

“This research demonstrates the clear need for good new schools right across the country. Local authorities have been working hard to meet rising demand for school places, but these numbers show beyond doubt that we need more new schools – not just to meet demand but to improve the quality of provision.

“There are now 93 primary free schools open in England, which will be providing more than 33,000 places for pupils once they are full – but we are going to need more.  It’s vital that local authorities work with parents, teachers and others who have plans to set up new schools so we can get them up and running.

“Opening good new schools is the only way we are going to meet the twin challenge of meeting rising demand for school places and improving educational standards across the country.”

Some argue that there is no “need” for new free schools if there are enough places at existing schools in an area. That – so far as I could understand it – was the Labour Party policy in the election campaign.

But there could well be demand for a new free school even if there are surplus places at bad schools – including where councils have poured money into expanding the number of such places.

Could there be extenuating circumstances? Many of the schools that were failing at the time they were expanded may since improved – after under new management as “sponsored academies”.  Yet that remains an unfortunate way for the council to have proceeded. The suspicion will be that a council was concerned simply with which sites had capacity for building works rather than any genuine confidence of a particular school being destined for improvement.

Alternatively a council might argue that it would have much preferred to have expanded good schools or to have seen the establishment of new free schools but that this was not possible to a sufficient extent. To challenge such a claim would require a knowledge of the details of the different sites and the alternatives bids that were being put forward. In broad terms such a claim seems doubtful. Barking and Dagenham has a high birth rate but so does Brent – which only created 100 new places at failing or “requires improvement” schools. So does Hackney which avoided creating any places at such schools.

There should be a strong presumption against expanding poorly performing schools. That should be the last resort in dealing with a shortage of places. Such a message should be obvious – in the Children’s Services departments in certain town halls it would seem to be a message that has not fully got through.

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