School’s (Almost) Out of Places

Submitted by: Geoff Ellis

School is the last thing on our minds at this time of year but there are growing fears that there may simply not be enough places in London schools in the next few years. London Councils warn of a shortfall of almost 120,000 places in two years’ time.

How are Waltham Forest schools coping with the borough’s booming population and changes in the education system? Well, it’s a case of so far, so good. This coming September more than 3,800 children will join reception classes in one of Waltham Forest’s primary schools. Since 2009, an additional 690 primary school places have been created.

The Council estimates that almost 300 more places will be needed in reception classes alone over the next six years. Waltham Forest has absorbed the surge in school-age kids better than many London boroughs with an impressive programme of building.

Dozens of schools have had extensive improvements and expansion work but many school sites, especially in the south of the borough, are now full to bursting. One solution to expanding numbers of pupils has been former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s controversial programme to encourage free schools, which are outside central and local government control.

Walthamstow Primary Academy free school is due to open this coming September with two reception classes. But that won’t be enough to absorb all the extra school-age children in the next few years.

The council is now considering creating a new primary school in Leyton or Leytonstone from 2015. It is not in favour of free schools, which do not always create more school places in the areas where they are actually most needed. And, say campaigners, free schools are not just outside the control of local councils, but also of local people.

The picture is similar for the borough’s secondary schools. But here, two new free schools are coming on line just as numbers threaten to exceed capacity. Waltham Forest Leadership Academy in Blackhorse Lane will enrol its first year 7 pupils in September while DV8 Academy will provide places for 16–18 year-olds in nearby Blackhorse Road.

But, by the start of the school year in 2017, the council’s projected figures show a deficit of 209 secondary places – even with the new free schools operating as planned. The council does not anticipate the need for a new secondary school until September 2017.

We wait to hear what its plans are. Waltham Forest has risen to the challenges of growth and development so far, but it’s getting tougher. More cash has been made available but, alongside encouraging free schools, central government has made it more difficult for councils to take the lead in creating new schools of their own.

Crucially, creating inclusive, local schools also depends on the support of parents. Schools bring children and their families together and play a big part in building a strong community. The pressure is building and we need to work together to find the right solution for Waltham Forest.