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Education: Secondary Schools

Volume 771: debated on Monday 25 April 2016


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government which areas of England will be most affected by shortages of places for secondary school pupils in September, and how they intend to tackle the number of secondary schools that are above their capacity.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen, and at her request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, supporting local authorities in their responsibility to create sufficient school places is one of the Government’s top priorities. We work closely with local authorities to ensure that they are on target to achieve this. This Government are spending £7 billion to create new school places between 2015 and 2021, which, along with our investment in the free schools programme, we expect to provide 600,000 new places at both primary and secondary level.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, it will be of little comfort for almost half of all secondary school entrants in areas of high demand, who have just missed out on their first choice of school. First, will the Minister explain how this acute problem came about? Secondly, what measures will the department be putting in place for monitoring and training to ensure that this is not allowed to happen again?

Let me reassure the noble Baroness that, in fact, the latest figures that we have show that there were over 530,000 applications for secondary school places, yet 95% of parents received an offer from one of their top three preferred secondary schools. We accept that new places do need to be created, which is why we have committed £7 billion over the course of this Parliament to 2020 to deliver 600,000 new places. I also reassure the noble Baroness that, in 2015, there were 430 fewer secondary schools at or in excess of capacity than in 2010. Therefore, although more needs to be done, parents should be reassured that the vast majority do get their children into the school that they want.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that for children, transferring from primary school to secondary school can be quite a difficult and sometimes traumatic experience. They move to a school where they want to still be valued and known. Perhaps because of a lack of strategic planning to deal with the problem, we are seeing secondary schools becoming bigger and bigger. Can it really be educationally helpful for pupils to end up in secondary schools that have over 2,000 pupils?

As I have said, the number of schools with excess pupils has gone down. Bigger is not necessarily worse, but I completely accept the noble Lord’s point that the transition from primary school to secondary school is particularly important. That is why a lot of primary schools collaborate with secondary schools in their area and give primary school pupils the chance to visit secondary schools so that they understand that transition. A lot of secondary schools are looking at how they can help their new intake of young people get used to that situation. A lot of work is being done, and a lot of that is school-to-school work, because it is well known that that is an issue for many children.

My Lords, the Minister said that 90% of parents get one of their top three choices. What percentage get their first choice?

For primary schools, 87.8% got their preferred choice, and for secondary schools, 84.2% got their top choice.

My Lords, would the Minister care to ensure that in debate about the future role of local authorities the term “local authority control” is not used? Quite rightly, the Minister referred to local authority responsibility. I speak as somebody who was involved in the bruising business of discussing the allocation of schools as part of local authority planning. Will she ensure that local authorities are treated with the respect that they deserve and not accused of controlling?

I am very happy to say that local authorities, schools and regional schools commissioners are all working very hard together to help ensure that where there is a lack of places, those places are provided. Of course, local authorities can also work collaboratively with existing schools to help set up new schools that come within their patch. I am very happy to say that local authorities are playing their part in what is an important issue for all parents and children in their area.

My Lords, it is good to hear the Labour Benches animated about this subject—if only they had been so animated when they were last in government. The number of secondary schools in England fell by 83 between 2005 and 2010 despite falling rolls, compared to a net increase of 48 schools in the past five years. So does the Minister agree with me that this is a good example of the Conservatives taking action where Labour failed to?

What I can say is that, under the coalition Government, 600,000 new school places were created. With the £7 billion of extra investment that will go in during this Parliament, we expect to deliver a further 600,000 new places by 2021. All parents should have access to a good school place for their children, which is why we are delighted that 1.4 million more children are now in good or outstanding schools compared to 2010.

My Lords, the Minister said in answer to the question from my noble friend Lady Donaghy that the Government would aim to provide 600,000 new places by 2021. That figure falls some way short of the Office for National Statistics estimate of almost 1 million places being required. Are not the Government depending to a reckless degree on the establishment of free schools—something that the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, knows quite a bit about—popping up in the right places, which rarely happens? Will the Minister accept that with the responsibility for school places in their area remaining with local authorities, they should now be given the powers to direct academies to expand to cover the growth in the number of school places required?

As I said previously, I think that local authorities, schools and regional schools commissioners are working effectively to help deliver the school places that parents and young people in their areas deserve. Central government now provides funding for new school places three and a half years in advance so that local authorities can plan effectively to ensure that all young people in their area have access to a good school place. We need a collaborative system, which is what we are seeing.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that, in view of the fact that independent schools have such small class sizes, to maintain their charitable status for tax relief they should be persuaded to take those children in their area who do not have state school places?

What we need is a thriving private but also state system. We want to make sure that all parents have access to a good local school place, which is why one of our priorities is making sure that, within the state system, there are enough good school places for young people. That is why we are extremely proud that more than 1.4 million more children are now in good or outstanding schools than in 2010. That is a very good step in the right direction.