School places crisis hits local boroughs

St James Hatcham primary school in New Cross, Lewisham Photo: Cat Wiener

Lewisham had to find 500 new primary places at short notice while Croydon was forced to conjure up an extra 297 places as the  shortfall in primary school places across the capital soars.

As schools went back this week, it was estimated that as many as 5,000 four to five-year-olds in London were either without a reception class or being educated in temporary classrooms; 2,600 extra places have had to be created in at least half of London’s boroughs.

Lewisham Council failed to get a penny of last year’s £140 million emergency London funding and had to find £4 million from other budgets to create 510 additional places for the start of the school year; schools such as Brindishe Primary in Lee were forced to take in a ‘bulge’ class – a whole extra cohort of 30 children – at short notice. The council admitted: “It has been a challenge to find the additional primary places needed this year.”

In Croydon, where 297 extra places were created, a spokesman for the council told East London Lines:

“In 2009 the council created 411 additional reception places, and this year we are opening a new school. Croydon has responded to the demand for additional classes by providing additional classrooms and the refurbishment of existing spaces on school sites. There are no primary school-age children who have yet to be allocated school places for this academic year.”

He added that Croydon hoped that next year it would receive government capital funding to guarantee ‘appropriate permanent accommodation’ for all additional pupils.

The crisis is blamed largely on the rapid rise in London’s birth rates – by 20.5 per cent since 2001/2002, compared with the national figure for England of 16.8 per cent – which has meant more school-aged children. In addition, the recession has meant that children who might otherwise have gone into the private sector are now attending London borough schools, while the sluggish housing market has meant that those who might have moved out of London have stayed put. Overall, London has had a growth in demand for primary school places 143 per cent higher than the rest of England.

Over the next four years a 28,000 shortfall is estimated unless the government provides a cash injection of £480 million for new schools and classrooms, London councils have warned. But, with education spending set to be cut by between 10 and 20 per cent over the same period, and school building programmes being scaled back, the crisis looks set to deepen.

Some projections have suggested that London population levels will peak by 2015-18, making councils reluctant to invest in new school building programmes and risk being left with empty schools on their hands within the decade, but education officials insist that the problem is right here, right now and needs to be tackled. In the words of London Councils’ executive member for young children, Steve Reed:

“This is quite clearly a problem that won’t just disappear…while the current focus is on cuts, this is an area where we need much more investment, not less. The real test of a government is not how much it saves, but what it chooses to spend its money on. Ensuring a decent start to the education of young Londoners seems a very good place to start.”

See also Mayor approves £4m funding for extra classrooms on East London Lines.

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