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Social Mobility in the UK: What is the Impact of School Place Planning?

Jon Andrews, Director for School System and Performance and Deputy Head of Research, Education Policy Institute (EPI) provides an overview of the primary and secondary school place landscape, and the impact this is having, and will continue to have, on social mobility.

Over the last ten years the number primary aged children has been increasing. This has largely been driven by an increase in the birth rate at the start of the century, rather than the direct effects of migration, but we have also seen an increase in the number of children born to non-UK born parents.

Those increases amongst younger children are now slowing and by next year the population is expected to stabilise at around 4.7 million. But of course, what we will now see is that population bulge moving through secondary school, and numbers there are going to be increasing until the middle of the next decade.

The increase of 600,000 in the total school age population is equivalent to an extra cohort moving through the system. Most growth in capacity comes from the expansion of existing schools and the pressure on schools is clear. The proportion of primary schools that are over capacity has increased – from 20 per cent in 2010 to 22.5 per cent by 2016 – and average class sizes in infant schools are now higher than they were ten years ago (27.4 in 2017 and 25.6 in 2007). The proportion of pupils that are in classes over 30 has also increased (1.7 per cent to 5.4) but this at least appears to have now stabilised.

To date, the increases have not hit secondary schools. In fact, the proportion of secondary schools that are over capacity has actually fallen significantly over the same period (28 per cent to 14 per cent). That is likely to change as the population bulge now heads their way.

Clearly, for a lot of schools, further growth might be difficult – they may face physical constraints if nothing else – so a new school is sometimes the better option.

Most new schools are now delivered through the Government’s free school programme due to the free schools presumption. The presumption arrangements require local authorities to seek proposals to establish a free school where they have clearly identified the need for a new school in their area. The authority is then responsible for providing the site for the new school and meeting the associated capital and opening costs.

Our research shows that, so far, free schools have helped to meet the need for new school places with growth higher in areas of basic need. However, places have also been created in areas with a surplus of school places which risks the sustainability of both the new free school and existing provision – and taking funding away from where it might be needed

And there’s a more fundamental issue if the government is to achieve its objectives around social mobility. We do not just need more school places, we need new school places in high performing schools. That means addressing two key challenges.

The first is the geographic disparity in high quality provision.

It is too early to reach any definitive conclusions on the effectiveness of free schools in raising pupil outcomes. Large numbers have yet to be inspected by Ofsted and even more have not yet had results published in performance tables. What we do know is that the programme has so far been ineffective in reaching areas of low school quality – indeed free school places are more likely to be found in areas of high performance (such as London) than in the areas of low secondary school performance (such as the north east). As the free schools programme continues, the government is right to encourage applications from those low performing areas.

The second challenge is the disparity in access for different groups of pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

While free schools are more likely to be located in areas of high disadvantage, disadvantaged pupils in these areas are less likely to be admitted than would be expected. In the most deprived areas, 24 per cent of reception aged pupils in free schools are eligible for free school meals versus 32 per cent in other schools.

The government is also encouraging the growth of faith schools with capital funding for new voluntary aided schools. But we know that faith schools are often socially selective. They admit more pupils with high prior attainment than the average and fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds than would be expected given the areas that they serve. Any of the small gains we might see in attainment would come at the risk of increased social segregation with a risk of lower social mobility.

There’s also the expansion of grammar schools. We know that in selective areas there’s a benefit for those who attend grammar schools but at the same time there’s a penalty for those that miss out. And those pupils are disproportionately from poorer backgrounds.

And what of some of our most vulnerable children? In debates over good school places relatively little is said about the needs of the 110,000 pupils who attend special schools. Our research has found that these pupils are, on average, travelling three times as far as other pupils to get to school each day. For some pupils these distances could become a real problem. A reliance on home to school transport leaves pupils many pupils at special schools vulnerable to cuts in local authority budgets and changes to local provision. In the absence of alternative arrangements, these pupils could end up being forced out of the system all together.

If we want an education system that is world class – both high attaining, and highly equitable – then we need to address these challenges.


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