The NEU believes that all children have the right to a place in a good local school; to be taught by a qualified teacher; in classes that are not overcrowded; and in buildings that are fit for purpose and provide all the facilities necessary for a good quality education.

Yet Britain is facing the worst shortage of school places for decades. This is resulting in overcrowded classrooms, primary schools expanding beyond an optimum size and children travelling further to school.

Government Statistics show that the nursery and primary school population has risen steadily since 2009 to reach 4.6 million in 2018. The population is projected to stabilise in 2019 at 4.66 million before starting to fall. The secondary school population rose to 2.85 million in 2018 and is projected to continue increasing until around 2025, reaching an estimated 3.28 million.

Government policies have made it harder for local councils to keep pace with rising demand for school places.

Analysis of government figures by the Local Government Association (LGA) has found that by 2023/24, 71 English councils (52%) may not be able to meet the need for 133,926 secondary school places. The LGA analysis says that 13 authorities were looking at a shortfall in 2019/20, rising to 25 councils in 2020/21 and 54 in 2022/23.

Some of the worst impact of this has been felt in the capital. London has been facing an increase in demand for school places for a number of years. A combination of rising pupil populations, spiralling building costs and lack of available land is putting increasing pressure on London boroughs to provide places for pupils.

According to  London Councils, overall pupil numbers are set to have grown by 23% – compared to 14.5 per cent nationally between 2010/11 and 2019/20. Demand for secondary schools is expected to rise by 36,335 places by 2022/23 while, for the first time for years, there is an overall slowing of additional demand for primary places. 

London’s local authorities, head teachers and school governors have worked together to expand existing schools and build new schools where necessary but a lack of adequate funding from government had meant that many London boroughs have had to use their own resources (including borrowing) in order to keep pace with demand.

The unpredictable nature of the factors involved means that many local authorities are finding it more challenging than ever to forecast demand.

Population changes are not a new phenomenon and local authorities, who are responsible for providing sufficient school places, have traditionally been able to plan to meet rising and falling demand. The significant factor in the current situation is that, since 2010, the Government has undermined local authorities’ legal powers to deliver new school places.

Local authorities have lost the power to plan and build new maintained schools, because the Government says that any new school must now be a free school.

Since 2011, free schools have created chaos in school place planning and supply. According to the National Audit Office, the DfE itself estimates that 57,500 of the 113,500 new places in mainstream free schools opening between 2015 and 2021 will create spare capacity in some free schools’ immediate area.

Furthermore, local authorities cannot direct an academy or free school to expand as they can in the case of maintained schools. Academies and free schools have brought in an irrational competitive marketplace for school places rather than the rational planned provision that local authorities were able to guarantee in the past.

In a YouGov Poll commissioned by London Councils in 2015, 78% of parents agreed that local authorities should have the ability to influence all schools in their area to find more school places or expand.

The NEU believes that the solution to the school place crisis is to give local authorities back the legal powers they need to plan and provide enough school places in their local areas and for the Government to provide sufficient funding to enable them to do so. The Government must also take serious steps to address the growing teacher recruitment crisis.