School’s out for summer, school’s out forever?
Our intern Caitlin Cooper looks at recent coverage of the shortage of school places and the current battle over education policy.
Year after year as September draws in, the days shorten, and trees shed their leaves, children are packed off to school for the first time brimming with excitement. The first-day-of-school photograph has become an institution ingrained in our collective memory. But you could be forgiven for worrying that this is one institution that will soon near its end.
Apocalyptic headlines this week have screamed of a ‘dire school places shortage’ as the Local Government Association (LGA) released research demonstrating that 1,000 of the 2,777 school districts will face a places shortage by 2015/16. You might worry, that is, unless you are Michael Gove who has happily lambasted Ed Miliband for being ‘too weak to apologise for the shortage of school places his government left behind’, while valiantly attempting to allay fears by reassuring panicked parents that he has ‘more than doubled funding for new school places and we are also setting up great new free schools, which are giving parents a choice of high quality school places’. So, who to believe amid this frenzy of opposing information?
Often we expect the political battle lines to be drawn between the two major parties, but with academies firmly a policy of the last Labour Government, and free schools largely a continuation of the trend for more autonomous schools, the current Labour team has remained fairly quiet on the issue (apart from the expected it’s-their-fault-not-ours comment). This silence has not gone unnoticed by the party’s leadership who are said to be planning to drop Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg during the forthcoming Labour reshuffle. Twigg has suffered as establishing a position on schools policy remains one of the more difficult parts of the Blair legacy which the current leadership is yet to resolve – Twigg’s own ‘Blairite’ credentials are also a thorn for many in the party.
The real fight, it seems, is shaping up between local and central government. The LGA has argued that councils are finding it impossible to plan for the future because of confusion and uncertainty. While the Government struck a blow to localised planning with the 2011 Education Act which legislated that new schools must be either academies or free schools and, crucially, must be authorised, planned, and funded from the corridors of Whitehall.
So while Gove boasts of the new schools opened up under his tenure, there have been numerous reports quoting the National Audit Office’s statistics that only two thirds of new schools were built in areas of need, and only one third offered primary school places. Why on earth, you may ask, would he build school places in areas with adequate capacity?
The answer lies in Gove’s and the Conservative’s belief in the power of the market and competition to drive quality. However, the hands-off approach has left some areas struggling to gain government funding and to find places for their children. And, with the peak of the crisis estimated to hit at general election time in 2015, perhaps there is a hint of panic in Gove’s defence. Especially when some areas, such as Thurrock, are expected to be both 75% over capacity for school places, and to be a major marginal constituency battleground…
So with councils and the Government singing a different tune, perhaps parents of school age children will actually start to dream that the immortal words of Pink Floyd may come true.