This article has been corrected, see below
Today the Government announced the opening of 93 free schools across the country, creating an extra 46,000 spaces for primary and secondary school children. However, despite the news, concerns over the shortage of school places show no sign of easing.
While the Local Government Association has warned two-thirds of England's school districts are expected to have more primary pupils than places within three years, the Daily Mail has carried out its own analysis mirroring the concerns. Its research found that "a third of councils are being forced to lay on the 'bulge' reception classes for the term starting this week". These are one-off extra classes which start in reception and progress through the school until more space is found or pupils move on to secondary school.
To reach this verdict, the Mail contacted just over a third of the 152 local authorities in England, enquiring about their plans for the new term at their primary schools. 26 responded. The Mail said that "most indicated there would be more than one bulge class in their area, meaning thousands of children are affected," and nine authorities confirmed that schools in their area had resorted to using bulge classes.
The paper concluded that "extrapolated across the country, this suggests around 50 councils or one in three are relying on them as an emergency solution." Although it's impossible to extrapolate with any certainty.
How does this compare to Department for Education (DfE) data?
The DfE's survey of school capacity presents a slightly different angle on the issue. It found that in 2012 just over 20% of primary schools in England were either full or had pupils in excess of school capacity.
The DfE's statistical release also found that overall there were 31,490 pupils (0.7%) in excess of school capacity.
Of course this shortage doesn't fall in an equal pattern across the country. While some schools are struggling with demand, nearly 80% of schools (13,388) had one or more unfilled places. Overall in the country there were 432,650 (10%) unfilled places.
Where are the overcapacity hot spots?
We contacted the Daily Mail to ask for the list of authorities which replied to their survey, but are still waiting for a response.
The newspaper does say that the list includes Hertfordshire, Nottingham, Barking and Dagenham, Richmond, Rotherham and Wakefield. The DfE release shows that primary schools in these areas presented an excess as a percentage of total places that ranged between 0.1 and 0.5 per cent.
The Mail also adds that Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire, Medway, Rotherham, Sunderland, Wakefield, Portsmouth admitted that they had been using temporary classrooms.
The DfE's statistical release presents a more thorough picture of overcapacity, though the data applies to May 2012. According to their data, the local authorities flagged by the Daily Mail are by no means the worst affected in the country. Areas such as Bromley and Sutton for example, present an excess as a percentage of total places of 2.8% and 3.2% respectively.
The shortage in school places has been at the top of the agenda since the National Audit Office warned this year that 240,000 extra primary places would be needed by September 2014. The NAO had also found that London accounts for 37% of extra primary school places required, while there are more pressure points in Leeds, Manchester, Cambridge and elsewhere.
When we covered the issue we delved into some of the reasons behind the phenomenon, the problem of overcrowding in Key Stage 1 classrooms and whether free schools were being built in areas of need.
Correction 6 Sept 2013: This article originally stated that "the Mail contacted 152 local authorities in England." In actual fact, the Mail contacted just over a third.
Flickr image courtesy of Robin Hutton
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