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Education policy needs urgent attention as clock ticks on school place shortage

The number of pupils in England’s schools is rising rapidly. Our latest research reveals that local authorities predict an additional 729,000 primary and secondary school pupils by 2020 – a 10 per cent increase on the current population.

Accommodating all of them would require the equivalent of a staggering 24,000 extra classrooms, or more than 2,000 new schools.

This is a huge challenge for local authorities, and it comes at a time when the government is busy turning schools policy on its head through its free schools, academisation and now grammar school reforms.

While councils have less control over local education, they remain legally obligated to provide every child with a school place. This puts them in a confusing and uncertain position, which means delivering sufficient new schools and classrooms is a perpetual challenge.

Government chaos

The construction industry has made great strides in creating the technology to help: standardised design, rapidly deployed high-quality classroom extensions, and the growing numbers of larger ‘super schools’ that take several thousand pupils.

However, the lack of a uniform strategy from government and the seemingly endless tinkering with schools policy leaves local councils with their hands tied when it comes to putting expansion plans into action.

“But the impact of Brexit on immigration and future population trends is difficult to predict”

The pupil population increase of the past few years has resulted from two main factors: a rising birth rate and higher levels of immigration.

But the impact of Brexit on immigration and future population trends is difficult to predict, with the likelihood of a fall in net migration in the longer term, but the very real possibility of a surge in migration ahead of Brexit in 2019, as EU nationals rush to the UK before free movement officially comes to an end.

Today’s 2020 projections could be even higher by this time next year.

Joining forces

The government must not be distracted by Brexit or by top-down structural reforms in education. Meaningful collaboration with local authorities and the construction industry is the only way the country will be able to deliver the record numbers of places required in time for 2020.

The clock is already ticking and we urgently need clarity on priorities, funding and responsibilities if we are to rise to the school places challenge.

Mark Robinson is chief executive of Scape Group

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