School Places (Bristol)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:30 pm on 11th October 2011.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 1:30 pm, 11th October 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Scott. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate a matter of great concern to many of my constituents and to parents across Bristol. I thank the Minister for having a meeting earlier today with all four Bristol MPs, the council cabinet’s lead member on schools, children and young people and the council officer who deals with those issues. It was a useful meeting, although, unfortunately, the Minister did not produce a large cheque at the end of it.

As I explained to the Minister this morning, Bristol faces a crisis in primary school provision: there simply are not enough primary school places. The number of four-year-olds—that is the age at which children start reception class—has increased by 20% in Bristol over the past four years. This year alone, we needed an additional 14 reception classes. Demand is projected to rise steeply over the next couple of years, tailing off a little, but then taking off again. It is estimated that Bristol will need a minimum of an additional 3,000 places by 2015.

Bristol has seen the fastest growth in pupil numbers in the country. The council estimates that the current percentage change in primary school numbers is three times the rate across England. According to Office for National Statistics projections for population growth between 2008 and 2015, the increase on 2010 levels will be 11 times higher in Bristol than the national average. Judged against its own historical standards and national comparisons, therefore, there has been unprecedented growth in Bristol, and I ask the Minister to consider the city’s special case for urgent funding.

There are a number of reasons for the rapid increase in the primary school-age population. Bristol is a popular place to live for many reasons, including economic and cultural reasons. Immigration is also a factor, although it is not the only cause. This is a city-wide problem, as the Minister will have seen from the map we showed him this morning; it is not a problem just in the inner-city areas, where black and minority ethnic populations are traditionally concentrated.

In areas such as St George, which is in my constituency, the pressure on school places has come about as a result of gradual demographic change, as older people who have lived in these areas all their lives have died or moved to sheltered accommodation, and younger people have moved in because these are cheap places to live. Obviously, those younger people go on to have families.

The recession has meant that parents who might previously have opted for private education can no longer afford it. Equally, improving education standards in Bristol mean that parents might be less likely to opt for private provision or to take their children out of the Bristol local authority area and to schools in north Somerset or south Gloucestershire, which has been a major factor over the years. There have also been major housing developments, and there is an urgent need to build more housing in Bristol, so this problem will not go away.

This year, Bristol city council had to find an additional 250 places to ensure that all reception-age children could start school in September. It has had to resort to adding modular classrooms to already stretched schools. Although those classrooms are an improvement on the Portakabins and huts we might remember from school, they are still not an ideal, permanent solution. One school has had to convert its information and communications technology suite to classroom use, which, again, is not ideal.

The council has had to spend £5.3 million on such temporary solutions. There is no guidance from central Government and no clear view on the way forward to enable the long-term planning we need. Spending money on temporary classrooms, rather than permanent school buildings, is a quick-fix solution, and it might prove to be an inefficient use of scarce resources in the long term.

Some schools, such as May Park in my constituency, have increased from two to four-form entry. Obviously, that does not solve the problem in itself, because the new pupils will move up next year, and so on through the school, creating an additional need for classrooms if each year is to have four forms. Schools such as May Park are doubling in size, which creates additional pressures, because the dining halls and other facilities—particularly the play facilities—are not designed to cope with the numbers. When I visited Air Balloon Hill primary in my constituency last week, I was told that it had to spend £90,000 on a new electricity generator because the addition of a few extra modular classrooms meant that the existing generator was unable to cope with the demand.

As I said, the local authority has been quite imaginative, and it has done all it can to put in place temporary quick fixes, but we need more radical and lasting remedies. The task is becoming greater with year-on-year growth in the four-year-old population. By 2015, it is estimated that Bristol will need a minimum of 100 additional classes, which is equivalent to 14 one-form entry schools. Depending on housing development and migration patterns, the 3,000-place shortfall could be quite a significant underestimate, and it is suggested that the figure could be as high as 5,300.

The pressing priority is September 2012. The council has 11 months to find 15 additional reception classes. Legally, it must provide those places, but that is not the only reason why failure is not an option. As all the other MPs in Bristol will confirm, parents are coming to us because they simply cannot get their children into a school that they could physically deliver them to in time each morning. I have met parents who have a child in a school at one end of the city and who are being told that their next child, who is starting reception class, has to go to a school several miles away. However, public transport in Bristol is pretty abysmal; we have the worst traffic congestion of any city in the country. Parents tell me that they will have to give up work, particularly if they work shifts and can no longer use breakfast clubs and after-school clubs because there are fewer of them. Parents are also having their child care credits cut, so it is more difficult to fund child care. Physically, parents are not able to be in three places at once; they cannot get to work on time, get one child to school and get another child to a child minder. Parents cannot manage the logistics of getting their children to their schools. Even though the new term has started, some children still do not have a school place to go to.

On a more positive front, the local authority has a strategy to resolve the crisis, as the Minister heard this morning. Its children and young people’s services have been working with the local education partnership and developers. They have detailed plans for rebuilds and have identified potential sites for new schools. The standardised designs can be constructed quickly and efficiently. Importantly, estimates suggest that they offer a 20% reduction in building bulletin guidance. Unfortunately, the stumbling block is a £110 million funding gap.

To give an example that I mentioned to the Minister this morning, Air Balloon Hill primary school has spent £500,000 on working up detailed plans for the major building works it desperately needs if it is to continue as a four-form entry school. The work must start by February next year if the school is to be ready for a four-form entry 2012 reception class, but it needs £4.5 million if that is to happen. As I am sure the Minister will tell us, the figures will be looked at in November, so it could be into the new year before the school has any idea whether it will get the additional funding it needs. Obviously, other schools across Bristol will be in the same position and will be seeking similar sums.

Capital funding for 2011-12 has been reduced by 20%, and the budget was necessarily strained by September’s pupil increase, leaving the council in a position where it cannot begin to address next year’s shortage. The Secretary of State announced an extra £500 million in July to fund basic need nationally, but the council needs a degree of certainty about what its share of the money will be and when it will receive it.

The methodology for allocating basic need funding also means that Bristol is unlikely to receive its fair share. The Department judges basic need according to the surplus of all primary school places across the local authority. That will change in the next few years as the increased population moves up through the school, but there is technically a surplus in primary school places in Bristol at the moment because there are spare places—classes of 25 or 26 pupils—in years five and six. However, that does not really help someone with a four-year-old who needs to start school immediately. I urge the Minister not to do this netting off of surplus places against shortfall, but to look at how many pupils we need year on year, because children will otherwise be sitting at home unable to go to school.

Bristol has recently—this September—received funding for a new school, but it is not the school that the city desperately needs. Following concerted campaigning from some parents in one part of the city and Charlotte Leslie, Bristol can now claim to have the largest free school in the country. However, it is a secondary school and it does nothing to address need in the city.