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Schools: Primary School Places

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 3 June 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their role in dealing with the current and projected shortages of primary school places.

My Lords, statutory responsibility for providing school places rests with local authorities, supported by funding from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. To provide for growth in pupil numbers, the department has allocated more than £1.2 billion to fund extra school places between 2008-09 and 2010-11.

My Lords, I declare an interest as joint president of London Councils, representing the London boroughs. The Minister will be aware that the shortfall in places for reception-age children over the next five years is predicted to be more than18,000. While the funding that she has announced is extremely welcome, it is a short-term measure. The London boroughs are concerned about the likely postcode lottery, since some authorities will not even be eligible to apply for emergency funding. Will the Minister give us some comfort over the long term by, for instance, relaxing the rules so that loans can be given by central government, to be repaid when property prices have risen and local authorities are able to realise assets and repay them?

My Lords, I reassure the noble Baroness and all those concerned about the provision of school places for reception-age children—and even London Councils agrees—that in September there will be plenty of places available for children starting school. Obviously, with changes in the birth rate, there is a lag between the children being born and when they start school. Local authorities have access to the information about rises in birth rate, so in theory the system should work well to predict increases in birth rate and, therefore, the need for more school places. However—

Excuse me, my Lords. The Government accept that there have been some unpredictable rises in some places, and we are committed to working with local authorities to deal with the issue.

My Lords, what measures are the Government taking to ensure that the projected shortfall of 5,000 primary places next year will be addressed? How confident is the Minister that concerned parents will have places for their children this September?

My Lords, as I have just said, I have confidence that this September school places will be made available to all those children starting school who need them. However, as I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, this is a complex issue. The birth rate is predictable; there is a four-year lag between birth and starting school. Local authorities have a responsibility to make their assessments, but we recognise that in some parts of local authorities there have been very unpredictable changes in the number of children needing to start school.

My Lords, how are the Government planning for sufficient primary teachers to take account of this unexpected bulge in the number of children starting school?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, as the noble Baroness is aware, we are working very hard on teacher recruitment. We will make the most of changes in the economy to encourage all those who are interested to come into teaching. We are making the funds available. The number of teachers that we have in staff now compared with 10 years ago has increased substantially. We have 41,000 extra teachers in the workforce, so I am confident that we will be able to meet the increasing need.

My Lords, are there contingency plans in place to provide additional funding, be it for staff or for finding premises that may be necessary at short notice?

My Lords, local authorities are working hard. They have met with my right honourable friend Jim Knight. Detailed plans are being put in place, and the need for 2007 will be met. It is important to make sure that the systems are in place for future resource allocations, so that where there are changes in the birth rate and in particular hotspots, these challenges are met adequately.

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I am a joint president of London Councils. In my 15 or so years in that role, I have never known that body more anxious and expressing stronger views about what it sees as the inadequacy of the provision for children starting school over the next two or three years. Will the noble Baroness take on board the fact that for some of the London boroughs this is an extremely serious issue? I hope that she and her colleagues will recognise this.

My Lords, I do take this issue very seriously. It is an issue in London, and I know that London Councils is very concerned, but it is also an issue in some boroughs outside London. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is working hard with local authorities to make sure we come up with the right solution.

My Lords, are we recruiting and retaining sufficient secondary school head teachers? How are the vacancy rates looking? Are we giving head teachers the support they need?

My Lords, I think that tomorrow we have a discussion about head teachers. There is an enormous amount of work to be done to make sure we recruit and retain enough high-quality head teachers for primary and secondary settings. An enormous amount of work is going on to ensure that that happens.

My Lords, will the Minister ensure that the current difficulties do not result in reducing the proportion of teachers able to identify the presence of dyslexia and other related difficulties in children in primary schools?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to use this as an opportunity to draw attention to the need for a broad mix of skills in primary schools. I will certainly ensure that this issue is considered.

My Lords, is not one of the reasons for an unexpected increase in the need for primary school places the increasing popularity of the state sector rather than the private sector? Will my noble friend comment on that?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. There is rising confidence in the standards of state education throughout the country, which is obviously to be welcomed. It has many effects. There is also, of course, the impact of the recession on some parents’ ability to pay for private education, meaning that some are having difficulty and are drawing on the tremendous resources of the state education system and the tremendous results from our primary schools.