A guest blog by Sandwell Council’s cabinet member for Children’s Services Councillor Simon Hackett.
We are facing a big challenge to provide enough school places at a time of rising population. Not only have we seen an increase in the birth rate – a 26% increase in 10 years – but we have also seen a year on year rise in children and families choosing to move to Sandwell.
I became cabinet lead for Children’s Services in 2013 just at the time we were beginning to respond to meeting this demand. Recently we’ve been concentrating providing extra places in primary schools.
Our task has not been easy as we have had to fight hard to convince government to give us enough money to fund new school places. And government legislation does not allow councils to open new schools – so we have had to look at other ways to meet the demand.
I’m proud to say we have created nearly 4,500 new primary places since 2011, all of them by extending 30 of our existing schools most of which are rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted.
This September we plan to provide 480 new places across Sandwell including plans to expand our most popular, oversubscribed primary school; Lightwoods in Bearwood.
Despite a huge increase in demand we’ve managed to maintain high numbers of children getting their preferred primary schools. We now have 88% of parents applying for reception places getting an offer of their first preference school last year with 95% receiving one of their first three preferences.
As children move through the schools system the demand for places will inevitably move to secondary schools.
We have already identified a need for 4,800 new secondary school places by 2024 and this may increase further. Again we are responding quickly and effectively. Sandwell will be one of the first councils to open a new secondary school through the government’s “Academy/Free School presumption” route. Darren blogged more details about Q3 Academy Langley.
We are currently in talks with all of our secondary schools as we need to provide new secondary places but the government has not made this easy for us. Most of our secondary schools are self-governing academies and whilst the responsibility continues to be on the council to provide enough places, we are dependent on the academies to cooperate with us. It may prove even more difficult following the government’s announcement to make all schools into academies by 2022.
There is also the unwieldy and unpredictable Free School process to take account of which to date has not been of any help to us in providing new places.
However we continue to press on and I am in no doubt that the successes we have seen in meeting demand in primary schools will follow through into secondary schools despite the huge challenge.