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Special report: How Brighton and Hove schools places are running out
5:00am Thursday 3rd April 2014 in News
Council chiefs in Brighton and Hove issued the stark warning that school places in the city are rapidly running out of space and voiced concerns that not enough was being done to tackle the problem before it was too late.
At the heart of their argument is the council’s school organisation plan for 2013-2017, laying out the mammoth task facing the authority in its battle to supply enough school places.
The report states that the council’s current stock of places can meet demand until 2017, but by that point every school in the city will be full, or nearly full.
The pressures facing the council have mounted this year. The problem of spaces in the primary school sector has been apparent since 2003, with those children now growing up and preparing to enter secondary school.
Council papers have already called for an urgent review into school places, stating: “The applications for secondary admissions procedures for 2014 has revealed significant pressures on the present admissions arrangements, based as they are on catchment areas and a system of random allocation.
"It is clear that these pressures will grow as the number of pupils reaching secondary age increase.”
One of the major problems facing the city when it comes to schools is a lack of space to build a new one.
With the sea on one side and the South Downs on the other there are not many large open spaces in the city that could be developed into a school site with all the things that go with it – including parking and sports facilities.
The green spaces that are available, like the city’s parks and existing playing fields, are well loved by residents and many are protected by planning regulations, meaning that they could not be built on even if the council wanted to.
Another problem for the council is a lack of available brownfield sites, which are not protected by regulations and could more easily be converted into a school building.
And under new government policy any new school is expected to become an academy or free school. This means the council cannot simply decide to create a new school and move forward with plans straight away.
This problem is highlighted specifically in the council’s own school place plan.
It states: “In the national policy context, which requires any new school proposal to be advertised first of all to potential promoters or sponsors of an academy or free school.
"While this offers the potential for increasing the already wide diversity in our school provision, it may also bring elements of delay and uncertainty.
"The two free schools opened in the city by 2013, the Bilingual Free School and King’s School have added to the diversity of our provision but both are currently experiencing difficulty in finding a permanent site.
"This is the case for the small number of other potential sponsors known to have expressed an interest in developing new schools here.”
Council leader Jason Kitcat said this was a major factor in solving the issue of school places. He said that councils maintained the responsibility for meeting demand for places but had been hampered in its ability to supply them.
Councillor Anne Pissaridou, Labour’s school spokeswoman, said: “Ever since the Tory-led Westminster Government removed councils’ powers to build new schools in 2011, local authorities across England have been severely restricted when it comes to creating new school places.
"Decisions over new free schools are taken by the Education Funding Agency, a central government quango.
"That’s why the cross-party Local Government Association has called for the power to build new schools to be returned to councils.
“Even so, the current administration should have done far more to ensure we have the secondary school places we need. As it stands, there is no indication of where the 1,500 places we need by 2019 are going to come from.”
A spokesman said the council was currently meeting demand for places, but figures show the demand is quickly catching up with the supply.
He said: “There were 2,344 applications for secondary school places for September 2014 and 2,550 places available. So overall across the city there are currently enough secondary school places to meet demand.”
A total of 82% of parents had been offered their first place and 95% were offered one of their top three preferences.
If the council is unable to attract sponsors for a new school, it is able to plan to build one itself or it could make use of existing schools and expand them.
But the council’s own report highlights that the majority of the schools in the city – both primary and secondary – are already very large and could present both a practical problem in terms of building and managerial challenges in terms of pupil numbers and staff if they are made to be larger.
Admissions numbers for the current academic year show more than double – and sometimes three times – the number of declared preferences in applications compared to the number of places.
Among the most popular schools is Dorothy Stringer. Council figures show that the school received 1,085 preferences – 493 as first place preferences – for its 331 available places.
In total for all the secondary schools in Brighton and Hove, the figures show the council received 2,290 first preference applications for the current academic year – with 1.931 parents getting that choice.
Another problem facing schools is applications from parents outside the catchment area, which puts extra pressure on schools already struggling to fit children in.
The admission figures from the 10 secondary schools in the city show that 1,638 applications were received from outside the catchment area with Dorothy Stringer again attracting the most with 379 applications.
And many schools are investigating what they can do to take on new pupils if required and have highlighted the major problem they are facing.
Andrew Stephenson, business manager at Varndean School, said: “The biggest thing for us is that the local authority wants children to go to the schools in their own catchment area.
"Where we are, in north Brighton, the population is growing quickly and in the next five years we’re expecting to maybe have to accommodate another 120 children.
"In our school we’re already quite forward thinking in how to deal with that. The local authority is getting grants from the Government and we’re hoping to work closely with them.
"What we don’t want to do is take away any green land and what we’re going to do is build additional classrooms in the roof space above the school hall and quad.”
He added: “Realistically in terms of new schools, with consultations and planning, building a new school could take seven to 10 years, by which stage the problem’s already rearing its head.
"In Brighton we need to deal with that now. In a sense it’s a problem, in another it’s an opportunity. It’s possible for smaller free schools to be set up but even then it could take three years to complete. A couple of schools are undersubscribed."
Financing is proving a challenge for new schools and expansion.
At the end of last year Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, announced Brighton and Hove would receive capital funding of £3.9 million for 2014/15, £12 million for 2015/16 and £12.6 million for 2016/17.
Last week council officers moved to quell fears that schools were rapidly running out of places, saying specifically that places would not run out by 2017.
But forecasts for secondary age pupils in Brighton and Hove show that after 2017 the council is planning for a potential shortfall in places with the problem becoming gradually worse in every subsequent year to 2021 when there could be as many as 150 pupils unable to get a school place unless something is done.
Brighton and Hove’s Conservative schools spokesman, councillor Andrew Wealls, said: “It certainly is now going to be a challenge to deliver the extra secondary school places required but we really shouldn’t be in this position.
"I have been saying for the last two and a half years that the administration needs to work with academy and free school providers to get them to set up schools in the city - which the Government will fully fund - to increase parental choice.
"However, with backing from the Labour Group, they continue to bury their heads in the sand. I agree that we now need a fresh look at the catchment areas but this wouldn’t have been necessary had the administration acted more proactively.”
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