No easy ride as government stymies parents attempts to set up new school

Recent decision by Balls suggests there is a surplus places rule, despite government denials


When local authorities identify a need for a new school they are statutorily required to initiate a competition that any bidder can enter. The winner of the bid will then run the new school.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, not only do local authorities almost never initiate competitions unless there are significantly more pupils than they have made provision for, but when there is a competition they manage the process and, following a Government concession ,are allowed to enter their own bid, which clearly, as the incumbent,  affords them advantages over any outside competitors. So there is not much evidence of a level playing field. It also suggests a conflict of interests.

Choice, competition and the quality of existing schools are rarely factors.

The surplus places rule comes in to play too. There are currently around 793,000 empty places in the English school system.  The surplus places rule, posits that schools cannot expand, and no new schools can be created, if surplus places already exist in a local authority. The Government has long held that it does not enforce such a rule, but it protests too much, given that the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) does require local authorities to prove that new school places are needed. Nearly all authorities and particularly those in disadvantaged areas have surplus places .Competition, of course, relies on excess capacity to work efficiently.  The Governments denial that there is currently a rule against surplus places, though technically correct, is essentially disingenuous. There are reams of surplus place guidance for authorities, combined with no pressure or duty for the local authority to allow surplus places. Indeed, the DCSF guide to setting up schools explicitly states that where approval is given for a new school which adds surplus capacity, local authorities will need to “consider parallel action to remove the surplus capacity thereby created”. The admissions code has similar guidance – if a school expands, the local authority should shrink another. This looks very much like a surplus places rule writ large. The Tories for their part have made it absolutely clear that they will abolish the surplus places rule, if they win the election.

Which brings us on to parents efforts to set up new schools. The Tories say that there are far too many obstacles to setting up new schools and  that it is particularly difficult for parents to set up schools with  the surplus places rule representing a significant though not  the only obstacle. The Tories we know are championing more involvement of parents in setting up new schools, citing demand from parents (the New Schools Network claim there is strong demand). The Government, on the other hand, remains unconvinced. First, because they don’t buy the claim that there is a demand. Secondly because they believe it will be costly. Thirdly because they believe it will be divisive and lead to a fragmented system. Significantly, and in contradictory vein, the Government legislated four years ago to make it easier, in theory at least, for parents to set up schools   But there have only been three applications for parent-promoted schools since this legislation made this possible -with just one approval to date.

To add insult to injury, for those supporting more parental involvement, Children’s Secretary Ed Balls has just rejected a call from a parents’ group wanting to set up a new secondary school in Kirklees. Mr Balls claimed that opening the parents’ school would have undermined the viability of a planned academy and that this would fragment the local organisation of schools while sharing the budget would have a negative impact on other schools.  Crucially, he added, that where there was already a surplus of places, it would be a “poor use of resources” to set up another school.  “We’re very supportive of new schools where there is a need. But it’s not a free lunch,” he said.   So, there we have it from the horses mouth, there is a surplus places rule in operation. You can’t draw any other conclusion or inference from what Balls says.

So we now actually have a clear dividing line here between the Government and the Tories.  The Government will keep the surplus places rule in place (while probably still maintaining that it doesn’t exist). The Tories will abolish it, claiming it does exist.  And the Government it will do nothing more to help parents to set up schools. The Tories on the other hand will make this a priority.   So this appears to be one of Ed Balls much vaunted dividing lines. Take your pick


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