Schools expand but more space still needed

Russell Hargrave looks at the challenges ahead for local education provision

Mission Grove Primary School

New classrooms for Mission Grove Primary School in Walthamstow, which were built on a different site to the original school building

As children return to their classrooms after the summer holiday, local schools face growing pressure to guarantee enough room for pupils in the years ahead.

The population of Waltham Forest is expected to grow by another 18,000 people over the next five years and the council has claimed that meeting the additional demand for school places is “very much high” on its agenda.

Waltham Forest Council’s official projections up to 2020 confirm that plans are in place to help schools cope with rising demand, especially for the next two years. But they also show the scale of the challenge, with greater pressure on classroom space likely to be spread unevenly across the borough’s schools.

Documents produced by the council’s education scrutiny committee reveal the extent to which schools have already been squeezed. The number of primary school age children in Waltham Forest increased by 23 percent between 2007 and 2015, while the number of secondary school age children grew by nine percent.

The same report shows that 61 so-called ‘bulge classes’ were added to secondary schools over this period, a system under which schools agree to accommodate an extra 30 pupils in a given year to ease pressure on admissions elsewhere.

Similar measures are anticipated at some primary schools after 2018/19, although the council has declined to confirm how widespread this may be.

This burden will not have the same impact on every part of Waltham Forest. Primary schools to the north of the borough in Chingford are predicted to face ‘significant pressure’ for space, while the council expects primaries in both Leyton and Walthamstow to have unfilled places.

Some worried parents have drawn attention to ‘black spots’ where there are relatively few primary schools to accommodate new pupils, including Walthamstow Village and Bakers Arms, on the boundary with Leyton. Where some schools have recently expanded to guarantee more space, such as Walthamstow’s Mission Grove Primary School, they have ended up on two separate sites.

One local mum, Alison Griffin, told the Echo that the picture is further complicated by the impact of newly-established free schools and academies, which are run outside of local authority control and can make planning for space even harder.

Her sons, aged eight and ten, attend a local authority controlled school close to home. “I’m lucky that I live somewhere where there are available state schools on the doorstep,” she said. “But this is a privileged position.”

A further factor is the anticipated cuts to the council’s education budget, estimated by the local National Union of Teachers branch at 10.8 percent in real terms over the next four years. This will not affect new school buildings but is likely to hit other education services.

In Alison’s view: “My impression is that [the council] is doing the best it can to expand schools and make sure that there is as much state school provision available as possible. There’s only so much they can do.”

Asked about future planning on school capacity, a Waltham Forest Council spokesperson told the Echo: “We recognise that a growing population means more school places are needed in the borough, which is why over the past few years we have been working hard to ensure these are put in place.

“In 2014 we created an extra 1,080 primary school places and the next year a further 1,290 primary places to meet the needs of our increasing population.

“We are also creating additional places for children at secondary schools, and in 2017 we will deliver an extra 600 secondary places.

“We expect the population in Waltham Forest to increase by 18,000 from 2016 to 2021 so providing the services that people will need, including school places, is very much high on the council’s agenda.”