A Serious Shortage of School Places on the Horizon?
Geoff Welsh is the County Councillor for Blaby and Glen Parva as well as District Councillor and Chairman of the Scrutiny Commission at Blaby District Council.
He is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on the Children and Families Overview and Scrutiny Committee at Leicestershire County Council.
To have a place for their child at a good local school is something that parents expect. We more or less take it for granted. It may well be that some parents in Leicestershire will be in for quite a distressing shock!
The 1996 Education act places a statutory duty on the County Council to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of school places in the county. The subsequent 2010 white paper 'The Importance of Teaching' re-enforces this role, requiring the county council to promote educational excellence by 'ensuring educational excellence by ensuring a good supply of high quality school places'
So parents would reasonably expect the Council to have discharged this duty and planned for sufficient places. Unfortunately, that appears not to be the case. There are certain areas in the county where predicted pupil numbers are exceeding the number of available places.
For example; next September in Blaby District there will be over 7900 pupils chasing under 7800 places. This is predicted to rise to over 8000 pupils in the following year with the same number of places. Where will these 200 extra pupils go?
There is a similar problem in other areas of the county too. By 2015, Hinckley and Bosworth will be short by around 100 places and there will be a shortage in Oadby and Wigston too.
The County Council may well claim that they have fulfilled their duty because across the county as a whole there are enough spare places. For example, there are currently nearly a thousand spare places in Charnwood Borough, but unless the County Council plan to bus children to Loughborough from the South of Leicestershire, these places aren't going to be able to fill the gap!
What we need in Leicestershire is competent cross-county planning. Such strategic planning must be done in partnership with the Districts and the Boroughs. As new housing is approved, the developers must be made to set money aside under the section 106 rules to build new education places. Both the County and the planning authorities need to clearly define the requirements and substantiate them to allow the planners to force the developers to pay. It is of no use to parents to see the County and local authorities squabbling over whose fault it is.
Money for new schools and classrooms is also being set aside by central government. Schools Minister David Laws recently wrote to Liberal Democrat members at County Hall, explaining that local authorities are able to hold competitions to attract a free school or academy provider, and to even build their own if no suitable proposals arise. The County Council has the means to get new schools built if it is willing to pursue them.
There will be an increase in planned house building in the county as local authorities publish their local development framework core strategies, including the large sustainable urban extensions around the city. The County Council needs to set up a strategic partnership with the boroughs and districts to, alongside central government provision, put in a place a robust plan to immediately address the shortfall of school places in the county, and plan ahead to deal with the further growth in demand over the next five years.