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Only two decades ago, schools in London were among the worst-performing in the country. The subsequent campaign to improve state school provision has resulted in a remarkable turnround, so that many London schools now vastly outperform their counterparts in the rest of the UK.
This, combined with the enduring success of London’s well-known private schools, has drawn families from all over the world.
However, an impending shortage in school places, set to hit schools in the capital harder than elsewhere, threatens London’s hard-won primacy as a centre for education excellence.
The shortfall in places, due to take hold in September 2014, is caused by the biggest birth boom in the UK since the spike immediately after the end of the second world war. While this will affect cities all around Britain – a total of 256,000 extra places will be needed by this time next year – London, with its high number of immigrants and growing school-age population, accounts for 42 per cent of the deficit nationally.
The demographic data explain starkly why the capital will be under fire. Census figures show that between 2001 and 2011, the capital’s school-age population rose by 107,000, a growth rate of 8.2 per cent compared with 0.2 per cent in the rest of the UK. London’s primary-age population is also increasing at twice the rate of the national average.
To cope with this, the capital needs to create 83,470 school places between 2014 and 2017 – the equivalent of 199 new primary schools or 80 new secondary schools. Expansion on this scale would mean building enough classrooms to cover 151 full-size football pitches.
Unsurprisingly, schools around the capital are already feeling the pressure. Gascoigne Primary in Barking, east London, is already the largest primary school in England, and Bob Garton, its headmaster, is running out of space to build new classrooms or park portakabins. Despite having increased capacity to 1,200 pupils, Mr Garton has to turn down more and more pupils, and he says many parents in Barking and Dagenham now have to contend with having children at two or three schools.
“What happens is the children who are in Barking can’t get a place in Barking,” Mr Garton says. “They are then ... being placed in schools a distance away, or they’ll have siblings in two other schools. That is really difficult. You’ve got two or three children in your family, they’re young children, so you’ve got to take them to school. Where do you go first – where would you drop them off first?”
Barking and Dagenham, in common with other local authorities around London, has campaigned for more funds from the Department for Education to pay for new places. Small amounts have been pledged as a stopgap, but the new £820m announced for school places in England under the Spending Review will not become available until 2015.
David Simmonds, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, and a Conservative councillor in the London borough of Hillingdon, says delays such as this are crippling for schools.
“The challenge at the moment is getting the money for the projects on the ground,” he explains. “The processes for getting funding from central government involve a lot of bureaucracy, and we don’t have 18 months to go through all that when a child needs a place next term.”
The consequence of this, the councillor says, is more pressure on teachers, who face increasing class sizes. “We are already seeing many schools where the number of children in the classroom has gone over the 30 limit that used to apply,” he says.
In fact, research published this month by London Councils, a body representing the capital’s 33 local authorities, found that councils are spending £9,000 a pupil of their own funds to create the places needed. This comes at a time when London boroughs have had to contend with a 35 per cent funding decrease over the current spending review period.
The problems faced in the capital are made worse by the fact that higher property and construction costs make it more expensive to build new premises. Even the coalition’s flagship free schools are struggling to find adequate sites in London to set up new education institutions, and London Councils argues that ministers have not taken property prices in the capital into account.
There is, however, yet another reason why state schools in London are feeling increasingly stretched. It appears that rising school fees in the independent sector are also taking their toll, and some parents who would traditionally have sent their children to private schools are now falling back on the state.
Research conducted this spring by the Good Schools Guide found that charges for the eldest pupils at 50 highly academic day and boarding schools had gone up by almost 5 per cent between September 2011 and 2012 – significantly higher than the 2.2 per cent inflation rate over the same period. The researchers suggested that London day schools and boarding schools were increasingly relying on foreign parents to afford higher fees, while British children were in some cases “falling out” of independent education.
Back in Barking, the local authority is less concerned with why it is facing a places crisis than how it can plug the gaps. Rocky Gill, deputy leader of Barking and Dagenham Council, is meeting headteachers to discuss contingencies for a worst-case scenario. This could include splitting the school day into shifts, so that half the pupils attend from 8am until 2pm, while the other half comes in from 2pm until 8pm.
Another idea is a three-day school week, with some pupils attending Monday to Wednesday and the others Thursday to Saturday.
Mr Gill says that unless the government can provide the necessary funds, these measures may become necessary.
“These aren’t top of the options, because we want to provide everyone with a place in the current system,” he says. “But the problem is very real and we have to have a plan.”