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Schools: Primary School Places

Volume 739: debated on Monday 16 July 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to create 450,000 additional primary school places across England before the next general election.

My Lords, while it is the responsibility of local authorities to manage the supply of primary places, we have doubled the rate of spending on primary school places from the levels we inherited. In addition, we have allocated a further £1.1 billion over the past year, bringing to £2.7 billion the total we have given to local authorities so far to support additional places. We are working closely with local authorities and will work to reduce costs so that every pound spent goes as far as possible.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Can he assure parents that sufficient, properly designed classrooms will be provided to meet all this extra demand? Does he agree that it is unacceptable for teaching to take place in temporary buildings that are not designed for this purpose, as increasingly seems to be the case currently? Do the Government now accept the folly of cancelling the Building Schools for the Future project without having a comparative school-building programme in place? Why are they continuing to give priority to funding new free schools when are not necessarily sited in places of greatest demand and there still remains a shortfall in funding for the more urgently needed extra primary places?

My Lords, trying to work backwards, first, so far as free schools are concerned, of the primary schools that we announced on Friday with proposals to come forward for 2013, nearly 90% of those are in areas of basic need where there is a shortage of places. I agree that good design is important but do not accept that temporary buildings cannot be part of a solution. Local authorities need to be free to make the judgments that they think are best to respond to the pressures that they have locally. Generally, as I said with the figures that I have set out, we have doubled the funding we are putting into primary school places. The birth rate started to rise in 2002; it peaked in 2008; so the Government are trying to address a serious challenge in the problem of the growing numbers that we have inherited.

My Lords, is the Minister concerned about the number of primary school head teachers now nearing retirement and how to replace them? Are the Government looking closely at the pilot of 20 school leaders from primary schools in the Future Leaders charitable trust this year, which was so successful for secondary school leaders? Will the Government be looking at that and thinking carefully about how we secure sufficient highly skilled head teachers for primary schools for these 450,000 children?

Yes, my Lords. The quality of teaching in primary schools is obviously hugely important and I was encouraged to see today that, for the first time, the number of men applying to teach in primary schools has increased. I think all sides of the House would find that a welcome development. I agree with the noble Earl on the importance of the kind of example that he cites and I am sure we can learn lessons of the kind that he sets out.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Greater London Authority’s population prediction shows that there will be more than 150,000 additional primary-aged children living in London in 10 years’ time? Is he further aware that, in addition to funding all the extra places necessary, a particular problem in London is where to put the new classrooms and the new schools? What will the Government do to help access to sites for new schools in London?

The noble Lord is right that there is a particular challenge in London with the availability of sites. We intend to work with local authorities to give them capital and to help identify sites. The responsibility for that resides with local authorities, but I agree that the Government must work with them and help to find ways of making sure that we can find as many sites as possible.

My Lords, given the continued popularity of church schools, and noting that many are oversubscribed, will the Minister ensure that local authorities have regard to the balance of denominational places in an area by involving diocesan boards of education in decisions about where to target the extra funding that he has mentioned?

It is important that local authorities should make sensible decisions about where places are needed, irrespective of the type of school. The Government have made it easier for good, popular schools to be able to expand. Church schools, typically voluntary-aided schools, are their own admissions authorities and so have the ability to expand, but local authorities should address decisions about where to increase places irrespective of the school type.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would not be right for an academy to expand to take in primary school pupils, taking away sports facilities from that academy, in an area where the local authority, in Pimlico, says that there is not a need for more primary school places?

My Lords, I know the case to which the noble Baroness refers. With regard to new primary provision, in many cases where there is new free school provision coming in, there is a basic need. In the specific case to which she refers, it is also the case that we are trying to increase the supply of excellent places and the academy that is seeking to open a primary has done a brilliant job in turning around a school that was previously failing. It became a sponsored academy under the previous Government. If it can extend that to primary school children, I think that it will be doing a good job.

What proportion of children in primary schools, given the pressure on places, is likely to be in classes of more than 30 in the next few years?

I am not able to give my noble friend precise figures, partly because we are working with local authorities to get a better understanding of the particular pressures at a very local level. I am advised that the number of classes of more than 30 has been falling, but we will need to keep an eye on that and the legislation dealing with it remains in place.