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Short-termism won't help school place crisis

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04 July 2014
School pic If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That’s what we tell our children and it was in that spirit that the Mayor of Lewisham Sir Steve Bullock and I last week met education minister, David Laws, to discuss the pressure on primary school places in London. This was the second ministerial meeting we’d had on the subject in 6 months.

The huge competition that parents are experiencing for school places is a symptom of the government’s woeful short-term thinking and its disregard for inner London boroughs. Lewisham is increasingly a place where young families want to live and this is reflected in a dramatic increase in our birth rate. There were 1000 more births in Lewisham this year than in 2001 and to meet this new demand Lewisham Council have created nearly 3000 new school places over the last six years. Of course, creating school places is no tick-box exercise – it requires new classrooms, changes to play space and funding from the government. Nevertheless, a place at a good local primary school for your child is a basic expectation for any parent and you’d expect the government to agree.

However, despite assurances, Lewisham council faces a £19m shortfall in funding leading up to 2016 meaning desperately needed permanent new places aren’t being created.

Absurdly for a government that aspires to another term in power, this problem is only going to get worse; even government ministers must realise that primary school children have a nasty habit of getting older and progressing to secondary school. By 2017 demand for secondary schools places in Lewisham alone is predicted to outstrip supply by 300 pupils and by 2019 that figure will have risen to 520 pupils.

No serious solution to this problem is being offered. While the Government are happy to spend money opening Free schools in leafy areas of low demand,  to date, no proposers of Free Schools with secondary age children have been able to secure a suitable site in Lewisham. Land in Lewisham, and in London more widely, is a scarce and expensive commodity – if a school doesn’t have a site, it can’t teach children.

Parents know all too well that we have a crisis in primary school places now, a secondary school place crisis just around the corner and a huge shortfall in funding to councils: it’s nearly enough to make you think that the government can’t be trusted with education. When not succeeding means failing children it may be time for that well-known proverb to be changed to ‘if at first you don’t succeed, move over for someone else who will’.

This piece was written for the South London Press and appeared on Friday 4th July 2014

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