Annal Nayyar – Watchdog warns of school place shortage

Annal Nayyar – Watchdog warns of school place shortage -Uncertainty as to whether £5bn funding boost can meet demand for an extra 256,000 schools places by 2014 is exacerbating pressure on local authority finances, an influential Commons spending watchdog has reported.

According to the Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) study into capital funding for new school places, the Department for Education (DfE) has slowly improved how it shares funding, but could do still more to target cash to areas that need it most.

Plans to collect data from local authorities on the costs and methods of delivering school places could help, since costs vary according to local factors such as the cost of land.

Margaret Hodge PAC Margaret Hodge warned councils will struggle to provide new school places.

But the MPs stated: ‘We are concerned that the scale of financial contributions expected from some local authorities for new school places introduces wider risks to the on-going maintenance of the school estate and may exacerbate pressures on local authorities’ finances.’

Additionally, the report, based on an earlier National Audit Office study, finds the DfE doesn’t have a good knowledge of what value for money in delivering school places looks like or whether it is being achieved.

Because local authorities cannot respond to demand by closing academies or free schools, in the way they could directly maintained schools, the MPs recommends councils must instigate mature discussions which involve the community to resolve any mismatch.

 

Chair of the PAC, Margaret Hodge, said growth in demand is concentrated in particular areas of the country, and without sufficient resources to provide new places, some authorities would be forced to sacrifice facilities like music rooms or expand classes beyond the statutory 30 children per class.

‘The Department believes that the money it is contributing for new school places will cover all the costs. But, in 2012-13, nearly 65% of authorities were having to dip into their maintenance funding to pay for the extra places, storing up unknown maintenance costs for the future,’ Mrs Hodge said.

Schools Minister David Laws said: ‘Margaret Hodge is right that there is a severe need to ensure there are enough school places but she has failed to pin the blame where it belongs – at the door of the last government of which she was a member.

‘Her report correctly states that the department ‘failed to adequately plan’ for the rising population, but does not explain that the responsibility for this failure lies with the previous schools secretary, Ed Balls, who ignored the rising birth rates reported by the ONS.’

Chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander yesterday announced government spending proposals to allocate a further £7.5bn by 2021 to fund an additional 500,000 school places.

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