Cllr Brigid Jones, Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services at Birmingham City Council, blogs on an issue that is always of huge interest to parents and young people across the city – school places…
The city council is today (Thursday 12 March) hosting a Basic Need Day for other Local Authorities who are interested in learning from our successful approach to planning for school places.
The city is leading the way on some innovative school place planning with our massive programme of providing additional primary and special school places.
There has been a fair bit of coverage recently about what we call ‘education sufficiency’ – in other words, ensuring there are school places where they are needed across the city.
It’s a complicated issue, and often counter-intuitive. The population is increasing and we are expanding schools to cope with this, so why on earth would we be against a new school opening?
Well, of course things are never that simple. The city is vast, and different areas have different needs.
We have to consider increasing birth rates, families moving into and out of and around the city at various times of the year, new housing developments and, of course, funding, all of which makes forecasting pupil place requirements (‘basic need’) a real challenge.
It’s no good having new schools opening in one part of the city when the places are needed elsewhere. And it is a very big problem if schools open where there are not enough children to fill all of the places in the area, as it spreads resources too thinly.
And an added complication is the fractured nature of the education landscape, with increasing numbers of academy conversions and the opening of free schools, both of which answer directly to the Department for Education (DfE).
As a council, we can’t control numbers at academies and free schools. Some consult us about their intentions to expand or open, but others don’t, meaning that it’s very easy for us to waste money expanding a council school, only to find out that a new free school is opening up next door and our extra places aren’t needed.
This is a very real problem in some areas of the city at the moment, and means we have an increasing number of schools struggling to keep up large buildings with low pupil numbers.
So in order to deal with all these issues, we publish our annual ‘education sufficiency requirements’.
This document sets out where we think places will be needed so that we can work with our education partners to provide sufficient, suitable, high quality education where it is needed. We update it every year because things change so fast!
It’s an incredibly detailed document that takes great skill to put together, and great credit should go to our officers who do this under increasing pressure in terms of time and resources, and in a constantly changing landscape.
For a start, primary places are planned at ward level, and secondary at district level – because parents tend to want their primary-age children to be within short walking distance, but don’t mind older children getting a bus.
We look first at birth rates, and then conversion of these to actual applications to reception class, moves from primary to secondary school, demand from neighbouring authorities, net migration, ‘competition’ for places, parental preference, housing growth and long-term ONS projections… the list is long and the planning complex.
There are also a lot of myths to debunk. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t actually need any more secondary places in the city – we have more than enough to go around already.
Our areas of greatest need are in special and primary schools, but providers prefer to focus on opening new secondary places.
We ask the DfE to make sure that new free schools and academy expansions are in line with basic need but we do not always get their agreement.
And if central government policy operates separately to our duty to provide sufficient places this causes a real problem. Not only will be have limited opportunity to influence the location of free schools so they sit with basic need, but having them in the wrong place can add significant cost to the public purse.
Where’s the sense in opening schools that aren’t needed when the money could be spent of fixing existing buildings and giving children a better education in the places we already have?
We know we could get this right for the children of Birmingham if we can get everyone moving in the same direction.
It can’t just be a case of ‘let’s open a new school’, because we need the right number of places in the right locations.
So let’s do the maths and all work together on this.