Tuesday, 24 May 2011

We need time to give school places consultation proper consideration

Headteachers and governors in Brent have been sent a consultation document on the 'Development of a primary places strategy 2011/14'. I have long-pressed for a borough wide strategy rather than the ad-hoc approach of recent years and welcome the consultation. However I am disappointed that headteachers and governors have been given a deadline of June 10th, meaning that they have less than 10 days (taking into account that schools are closed for half-term next week) to consider a response to a complex issue. Some governing bodies have already had their summer term meeting and most will held after the deadline, giving no opportunity for a thorough discussion of the issues. I have appealed to the Director of Children and Families for the deadline to be changed to the end of the summer term.

Although parents are represented on governing bodies I think a wider consultation with parents about their children's future schooling would also give the consultation more credibility. They must be able to say if they want their children to go to primary schools with more than 1,000 pupils or to large 'all through' schools with children aged between 4 and 19.

The document asks if respondents agree with 5 planning principles:
1. Sufficiency of demand - evidence that there is a demand for additional places in particular areas in the medium and longer term.
2. Improvement of learning outcomes - schools identified for expansion must demonstrate they provide a good quality of education. The council will consider current progress and achievement and capacity to improve further.
3. Efficient use of resources - due to the limited capital budget the LA will want to secure the maximum number of additional high quality places within the available budget.
4. Improving local SEN provision - there is a projected shortfall in specialist SEN provision in both special schools and additionally resourced mainstream provision. In expanding primary provision improving the range and quality of SEN provision will also be considered.
5. Diversity of type of provision - The Council will consider different types of provision 'that will contribute to the overall objectives if providing high quality school places, cost effectively in areas of greatest need.

The paper dismisses the most obvious option of new build primary schools: "New build primary schools are currently not being considered as an option because the Council does not have sufficient funding nor the land to build upon. Similarly free schools have been excluded from this consultation because such proposals are outside the decision making of the authority."

Interestingly as you will see below they do see new build primary departments on secondary school land as an option for all-through (4-19) schools. So there is the money for that new build and the land, albeit on a secondary school site. Presumably such schools could be run as separate stand-alone primaries. I fear that in rejecting new build primary schools the Council will open the gates to free school providers.

These are the options the Council is putting to headteachers and governors:

1. Expansion of existing primary schools Advantages include building on current expertise and experience, may support improved learning outcomes particularism in smaller schools. Disadvantage is that there is limited scope for expansion in Brent's primary schools.
2. Establishing all through schools at existing secondary schools The Council see the advantages as increased opportunities for personalised learning through older primary pupils having access to the secondary curriculum, smoother transition between primary and secondary reducing the transfer 'dip', sharing of resources and expertise across phases. Disadvantages include primary schools may find it difficult to compete with larger all through schools in terms of resources and popularity, all through schools usually requite a newly built facility with a higher start-up cost. I would add  that stand-alone primary school pupils would be at a disadvantage at secondary transfer as fewer places would be available to them at secondary schools. All through schools would give priority to their own primary phase pupils. This would increase inequality particularly with regard to the imbalance of secondary school places between the north and south of the borough.
3. Establishing 5 form entry primary schools (this means 150 pupils in each year group). The advantages are claimed to be that this offers more places than conventional two or three form entry schools and that a larger budget would support wider curricular and specialist provision and a wider range of staff expertise. The disadvantage would be that parent  may be concerned about young children attending a large school and the potential impact on child-teacher relationships.
4. Amalgamating schools  This is not explained fully but seems to mainly refer to amalgamation of what are currently separate infant and junior schools. The advantages are seen as providing continuity of progression between Key Stage 1 (Infants) and Key stage 2 (Juniors) and improving the deployment of staff and resources. The disadvantages are that it will not automatically increase capacity and may be difficult and complex to achieve in some circumstances.
5. Bulge Classes This is where a school takes an additional class in a particular year group that then proceeds through the school. It does not increase the overall forms of entry of the school. Advantages are that it provides additional places quickly when there is insufficient provision and it allows for reduction of provision when demand falls. Disadvantages are that physical constraints may not allow for such classes and that parents may prefer a permanent school environment for their children. I would add that in providing space for a bulge class schools may lose facilities such as a school library or IT suite and that their may be overcrowding of halls, canteens and playgrounds. There may be suitable accommodation when children are five which would be unsuitable by the time they are 10 years old. Additionally such classes may suffer high levels of mobility as children leave to take up waiting list places in other schools and new arrivals replace them. Extra resources may be needed for children who have been out of school for some time and have fallen behind their peers. Elsewhere the LA has recognised that some schools may be reluctant to take such children as they fear they will lower their test results and place in the league tables.

Clearly the school places crisis needs to be addressed - every child is entitled to be educated and the local authority is legally obliged to provide sufficient places, but it is a complex issue as demonstrated above, and we need sufficient time to give the options proper consideration.

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