Primary schools to rise to 1,000 pupils in places shortage

Primary playground There are 5,500 fewer primary schools than the last time the primary population was this size

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A growing number of primary schools will have 1,000 pupils or more - as extra classes are added to cope with a rapid increase in the birth rate.

Instead of one or two classes in each year group, there are plans for some schools to have six forms in each year.

The Local Government Association says councils would "step up to the plate" to ensure enough primary places.

The Department for Education says it is providing £4bn for areas "facing the greatest pressure".

It is also relaxing building regulations so that new schools can occupy a smaller space - secondary schools by 15% and primary schools by 5% - but the DfE says this has nothing to do with the shortage of places.

Supersize schools

The rise of supersize primary schools reflects urgent efforts to find places for the surging numbers of pupils - with official figures showing that an extra 455,000 places will be needed in England by 2015.

David Simmonds, LGA The LGA's David Simmonds says bigger schools are going to increase

If expansion proposals are implemented it would mean Birmingham, Brent, Waltham Forest, Newham, Redbridge, Hillingdon, Bromley and Barking could all have examples of primary schools with capacity for about 1,000 pupils and in some cases up to 1,200.

There are many more schools which will be expanded to take 90 or 120 pupils in each year, with proposals for some schools to double their intakes.

Brent Council, in north London, has published a report showing it will need another 23 classrooms.

It already has more than 500 primary age children which are not placed in any school - enough to fill a traditional size school.

An earlier report included a shortlist of four primary schools which would have capacity for more than 1,000 pupils by 2014-15.

A spokesman said Brent Council was doing "absolutely everything it can, working closely with local schools, to create more spaces... but it is a real challenge".

Spikes in population

Earlier this week, John Howson, a research fellow at Oxford University's education department, described the shortage of primary places as the "biggest problem" facing the school system.

The shortage is not only in the biggest cities - there are pressures in places such as Winchester, Bristol and Bournemouth.

Start Quote

There are limits to how far a primary can grow and still retain the ethos that makes it special and welcoming to young children”

End Quote Russell Hobby National Association of Head Teachers

But compounding the challenge is that the pattern of population growth is very uneven - with a surplus of places in some parts of the country.

There are even big differences within cities. In Birmingham, the birth rate rose by 25% between 2000 and 2007.

But within this average, there are wards with a primary-age population projected to rise by more than 50% and others where there is zero increase expected.

In response to such local pressures, there are plans for Nansen Primary in Birmingham to expand from 630 pupils to 1,260 - which means moving to six forms per year group.

There have been many different local proposals to finding enough space for extra pupils - including temporary classrooms, converting empty shops, developing split-site schools and in Barking there was a suggestion for pupils using a building in different shifts.

Parental choice

But it is also putting pressure on parental choice.

In response, Tower Hamlets in east London is considering changes to its admissions policy for next year, including a system which would recognise how far children would have to travel to their next available place if local schools were full up.

It also means a distinct change in the image of a typical primary school.

John Howson This is the biggest challenge facing the school system, says John Howson, Oxford University research fellow

Between 1950 and 2010, the average size of a primary school in the UK remained relatively constant, in a narrow range between 180 and 220 pupils.

There were also 5,500 more primary schools in the early 1970s, when there was last such a demand for places.

David Simmonds, chairman of the LGA's Children and Young People Board, says much bigger primary schools are now going to become "less unusual".

But Mr Simmonds, deputy leader of Hillingdon Council, is confident that local authorities will be able to cope with the pressure.

The decision to expand existing schools in urban areas, where land is scarce and expensive, is often the most practical way of creating more places, he says. In rural and suburban areas, there might be more opportunity for new schools.

The response of parents can vary, he says, in what is an "emotive" subject.

Big is beautiful?

Parents wanting to get children into an oversubscribed school might welcome the creation of more places - while those at the school might be less enthusiastic about such major changes to pupil numbers.

There can also be practical questions such as parking congestion around schools, he says.

Start Quote

We're creating thousands more places to deal with the impact of soaring birth rates on primary schools”

End Quote Department for Education

The response from parents to previous stories on the BBC News website also shows that there are supporters of bigger schools - with emails arguing that they provide the capacity for more activities, sports and specialist staff.

Head teachers' leader Russell Hobby backed the expansion of existing schools as the best response to the places shortage.

"However, there are limits to how far a primary can grow and still retain the ethos that makes it special and welcoming to young children. Primary heads are more than capable of handing the logistics, but it is the culture and pastoral care that are at issue," said Mr Hobby, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers.

"Primaries can run well at 500 or even 700 pupils, but then you're stretching it."

The shortage of primary places also runs across political fault lines.

Local authorities have a responsibility to ensure enough places - but the government has a "presumption" that new schools should be free schools or academies, outside of local authority control.

This has raised questions about whether the political investment in free schools is at odds with the strategic need to meet the demand for places.

Mr Simmonds, a Conservative, says councils should work with potential free school providers and that there should not be any delays as a result.

But he says it is clear that tackling this places shortage is going to be a priority.

"For the next five years, almost all the capital spending will be on primary places," he said.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "We're creating thousands more places to deal with the impact of soaring birth rates on primary schools. We're more than doubling targeted investment at areas facing the greatest pressure on numbers - over £4billion in the next four years.

"No-one is saying it will be easy balancing demand for places with retaining the sort of character and ethos that parents want. Our job is to put the capital and the policies to help councils and schools to make the right decisions."

Are primary schools being expanded in your area? What are your views on such changes?

Big is Bad, when it comes to schools and the communities and the environment. This is exacerbated by the policy of the free choice of a school, instead of a policy that the school is an important agent in creating a healthy local community and giving priority to those, who live locally. Large schools have difficulty, as any large organisation does, in creating a mutual supporting community. The school problem is then felt by the local community. Today, driving on roads is much better in the holidays. With big schools, the traffic will be worse. Economies of scale have bad community and environment impacts.

Ian, Woking

Our nearest primary has around 670 pupils and is increasing by another form of entry to four, each class with 30 pupils. This school is already in special measures. If it continues to grow as planned, there will be very little outdoor space for the children to play or exercise. This school is one of about 8 that are planning an additional form of entry in our borough (Waltham Forest). How are these children going to have any quality of schooling when the space and resources they have are so limited? It isn't just about cramming in more and more children into one school - planning should be about long-term adjustments to school capacity to reflect the needs of the community, not squeezing children into schools that are already at the limits of their resources.

Tamsin, London

Why does the government think that large schools are cheaper to run? Most large school have too many middle managers, being paid to not teach a class. Small schools only require a head and deputy, saving a lot of money in salaries. Also, so called experts in teaching PE, etc are actually not that good and a good classroom teacher can do better and make links for the children across the curriculum. Having taught for 20 years, my view is that a small school is better for children, staff and parents and actually a lot cheaper.

Persephone, Glasgow

I work in one of these "super schools" with over 840 pupils..rising to over 1000 in the next couple of years...and I fully agree that the correct ethos and attitude is vital to help the school succeed. This comes with hard work that all the staff do to make sure that it is welcoming and a vibrant place to work. The key message for whatever size school is to make sure that all the children enjoy school and fulfill their potential. Large schools can be an excellent place for this as the opportunities that arise for the children and staff can be more varied and challenging. A large school is not something to fear or be worried about....just ask some of the 800+ children here at mine...or the many 100s who have left in the last 10 years...they all seem to be enjoying school or have fully enjoyed their time here!

Mark, Harlow

Comments: My children (now in their 30s) attended a large primary school in South London - 150+ in each year group - 5 form intake in the 1980s in Croydon. At the time the schools were good thanks to strong management, especially in the Infants section. I don't think excellence is a function of size, it's a matter of great leadership and dedicated, innovative and motivated staff. There are wonderful large schools and mediocre small ones, and vice versa.

Brandon, Yateley

As supply teacher I visit many schools where classrooms are too small. There is barely enough space to squeeze between tables and some kids are up against the wall.

GG, London

Fleet has had hundreds of homes built in the last few years, with around 1,800 built at Elvetham Heath and they are currently building two large estate adding another 1,000 houses top the town, get they refuse to build many more schools. Many schools are being extended and the town's secondary schools are completely full. It is not good for the education of the children as how can one teacher be expected to cover 36 children and teach them all to a high standard, especially when a minority will be disruptive meaning the others get less attention.

Benjamin, Fleet

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