September 9, 2013 8:07 pm

Free thinking: Can Michael Gove’s pet policy plug the gap?

Pupils wait for school buses in the playground after the Mayor of London opened the West London Free School on September 9, 2011 in London, England©Getty

The shortage of school places is not only creating problems for teachers – it has also become a vexed political issue. Michael Gove, education secretary, argues that Labour ignored warnings about the imminent capacity squeeze, slashing 200,000 primary places and reducing the amount spent on areas of population growth.

By contrast, Mr Gove says, the coalition has taken “swift action” to repair the damage caused under the previous government by doubling the funding available for new school places and setting up “great new free schools, which are giving parents a choice of high-quality school places in areas Labour neglected”.

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Critics of the free school reforms argue that since these are demand-led, local authorities and ministers cannot direct the creation of schools where they are most needed. This pitfall is evident in the newest wave of 93 free schools that opened this month. None of the London boroughs most affected by the shortage of places – Barking and Dagenham, Newham and Waltham Forest – have a new primary school on this list.

For Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking, the government response is “simply not good enough. Playgrounds and playing fields are under threat as schools struggle to make room. Facilities like music rooms get closed as heads struggle to find more classrooms for our children,” she wrote earlier this year. It is not right that the government is putting huge amounts of money into their pet projects with academies and free schools whilst councils like ours aren’t getting the money we need to create more school places.”

Fiona Mactaggart, Labour MP and former primary school teacher, says she faces a crisis over school places in her Slough constituency, to the west of London. “We are struggling to achieve sufficient places, and the free schools movement doesn’t necessarily provide places where they are needed,” she says.

While the MP is not against the creation of academies or free schools, she says the fact that these institutions operate outside the local authority means that there is no one body that has oversight of provision in any given area.

“The changes to the school system under this coalition have skewed the capacity to plan,” Ms MacTaggart says. “I am not against having a variety of different types of schools, but what I think we do have to have is the ability to plan.”

Bob Garton, headmaster of Gascoigne Primary school in Barking, England’s largest primary school, says ministers should not be relying on piecemeal school start-ups catering only to small numbers of pupils. “Free schools don’t want to build five-form entry schools because they’re so big,” he says. “It’s about 90 per cent of primary schools that have had to take in extra classes in each year group, and that’s such a massive problem, just building a small free school or academy won’t alleviate the problem – it’s got to be a borough-wide initiative.”

The headmaster also fears that the long process of achieving local consent for a free school is impractical when places need to be found urgently. “I feel this is an emergency situation which needs direct action, and government needs to realise that,” Mr Garton says.

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