The £320m announced in the chancellor’s Spring Budget to build a new wave of grammar schools will come as welcome news to the construction industry, as the government commits to injecting more cash into local infrastructure.
However, while this announcement looks set relieve pressure felt by local authorities buckling under the weight of demand for more school places, in reality it’s a move borne more out of ideological stubbornness rather than one that delves deep enough to really tackle the shortage.
Free schools and the weakening of local authority control of education already makes planning for more school places and school building extremely difficult – causing a real headache for local authorities who need to increase capacity in areas that need it most.
Add into the mix the controversy and potential resistance that highly political grammars could create locally, not to mention the problems that already come with the negotiation of land for free school sites, and we could see new grammars take years to materialise.
Time is a luxury this government can ill afford. Our own research finds that the UK needs more than 2,000 new schools by 2020, or 24,000 extra classrooms, in order to cater for the 730,000 extra school pupils the government predicts we will have by 2020.
Unlike existing schools, new grammars will require new teachers, a new curriculum and the creation of a robust process for selection of pupils, which will inevitably take time to pull together.
“This reflects a government prepared to invest in its grammar school vision over futureproofing successful structures already in place”
The £216m set aside for refurbishments is not enough, and reflects a government prepared to invest in its grammar school vision over futureproofing successful structures already in place.
The most cost-effective option
As such, the chancellor’s announcement is just a drop in the ocean that is our school building challenge.
Government resources are best deployed to address the capacity issue within existing schools’ structures, and to extend and provide additional places that way. This is both the most cost-effective option as well as the most time-efficient.
Until the government listens to the industry and takes pragmatic action, it cannot claim to be safeguarding the futures of young people.
Mark Robinson is chief executive of Scape Group