The primary school population in the UK is soaring as a result of rising birth rates and immigration, with predictions that by 2020 the system will have to cope with an extra 800,000 children and need the equivalent of 3,200 new primary schools.
There is currently an acute lack of primary school places and the problem has been exacerbated by successive governments ignoring warnings about the impending crisis. Only a third of new free schools are primary schools and Labour even cut the number of primary schools available.
Prof John Howson, senior research fellow at Oxford University, said the shortage of places for five-year-olds was the “biggest problem” facing schools in England.
The current coalition government has pledged to invest £4 billion over four years to create additional capacity in primary schools, but there are fears the response is too tardy and will not be enough to ease pressure in all areas.
“The last government was fixated on rebuilding every secondary school when it should have been diverting some of that many into building places in the primary sector.”
Some council are already seeking an increase in the maximum class size for infants from 30 to 32. With the urgency of the problem it seems unlikely that Britain can get the necessary infrastructure into place to properly handle the increased demand and there are widespread fears of children not being able to attend their local school.
“In some cases, there will be a lot more demountable classrooms taking up space in school playgrounds because we haven’t built enough new primary schools. And in some cases, that may mean that we have to take emergency measures like converting other buildings into primary schools.”
While the adequacy of the response to the crisis is in doubt what is certain is the acrimonious division of blame between the two leading parties. Labour are saying the figures show that the governments needs to be more in touch with real needs instead of promoting pet projects, while the Conservatives attribute the blame to the policies of Brown’s Labour Government.
In the words of Gavin Williamson, Conservative MP for South Staffordshire:
“Labour didn’t just ignore clear warnings of a surge in the primary school population, but they actually went against them – cutting funding for extra school places and ordering councils to cut surplus places.”