UK & World News
Secondary Schools Face 80,000-Place Black Hole
Schools are facing a potential shortfall of 80,000 new places by 2020, new figures show.
A report released on Friday by the Local Government Association (LGA) says a third of local authorities in England and Wales need to take urgent action to increase school places to meet rising demand.
Peter Fleming, of the LGA, told Sky News: "Local government has been working really hard, particularly in primary schools. Over 90,000 primary school places were created last year.
"But of course those kids are going to grow up. And what we are concerned about is that those kids have places in secondary schools in the future.
"Free schools open wherever they want, and may not open where the demand is.
"This free-for-all is all very well, but without a planned approach, it will mean that in certain areas, you won't have enough places for all the kids."
Schools have been struggling to keep up with a surge in population, with high birth rates and immigration boosting population in many towns and cities.
The Government has already provided funding for 260,000 new school places in areas facing a shortage.
Now the LGA says changes in school policy, which mean local authorities cannot create new schools but instead rely on free school and academy providers - who are not accountable to councils - is compounding the problem.
Mr Fleming said: "A number of the changes the Government has made, the fact that any new school now needs to be a free school or an academy outside local government control, means that the ability for local authorities to make sure that there are enough spaces in particular areas is becoming much harder."
At Riverside School in Barking, East London - created two years ago to meet demand in the area - major plans are being discussed that would see the school move to a large brownfield site, where it would run alongside two new schools.
The school, currently leasing a site in another industrial estate, has obtained £30m of government funding for the project, and says it was lucky to secure land for the plans, such is the pressure on space.
Although run by the head of a nearby local authority-maintained school, Riverside is a free school.
Headteacher Roger Leighton said he supported the Government's policy of free schools and academies, but that meeting the demand for places was a serious problem.
He said: "I'm a great supporter of free schools, but I do understand that for local authorities it's harder now in this mixed economy to move quickly to create school places.
"In London in general there are lots of people interested in setting up new schools but I'm sure there are parts of the country where local authorities are obliged to put new schools out to competition who don't necessarily get lots of high-quality applicants, which slows the whole process down."
The Government refuted claims that demand for new school places could go unmet.
In a statement, the Department for Education said: "We are giving local authorities £5bn to spend on new school places over this Parliament - double the amount allocated by the previous government over an equivalent period.
"This funding has already led to the creation of 260,000 new school places, all of which are in areas where there is a shortage of places, and many more new places are planned. We have also confirmed a further £2bn for basic need up to 2017.
"We have provided local authorities with the funding they need to provide new places. It is now up to them to spend this money efficiently and effectively, and we will hold to account any local authority that fails to do so."
Friday's report also highlights the pressure on space for badly needed new school building projects.
One parent at Riverside School told Sky News he was unhappy with the fact that schools were resorting to using industrial sites to accommodate new buildings.
He said: "There were very few places available when I registered my daughter, so I had to bring her here - this wasn't my first choice of school.
"I don't like the area - it's very industrial. When school closes there is hardly anybody around, I don't really feel it's safe for kids."