About three in five planned free schools are slated to open in areas with rising numbers of surplus pupil places, analysis by Schools Week has found.
And half of mainstream primary and secondary schools in the “pre-opening” stage are in areas where more than 10 per cent of places will be “spare” next academic year.
Council bosses warn the findings “demonstrate the need for a more coherent system with local authorities at its centre with strategic oversight”.
But school leaders behind free school projects, some of which have been in the pipeline for more than six years, said the figures did not tell the whole story, with housebuilding expected to drive demand in specific neighbourhoods.
‘We’ll cancel free schools when need not there’
Pupil numbers are expected to shrink 12 per cent over the next decade as a population bulge from the 2000s baby boom moves out of the school system.
Primary numbers are already in freefall and set to drop by 760,000 in 10 years. This is already putting pressure on schools, particularly in areas such as London where emigration is making things worse.
Andrew McCully, the Department for Education’s director-general, recently told MPs the department looked at every free school project, “even though an initial commitment may have been given”, to ensure the places were needed.
“We have continued to take free school projects out of the system, to cancel them, when the need is not there.”
Schools Week cross-referenced the free schools “pipeline” with government predictions of spare places in 2021 and 2023.
Of 87 planned mainstream primary and secondary free schools, 54 were in areas where the number of spare places was predicted to rise this year.
Forty-four were in areas where more than 10 per cent of places would be surplus in 2023.
‘Place-planning doesn’t tell full story’
In Hartlepool, about 20 per cent of primary places will be spare in 2023, up from 14.3 per cent in 2021.
Plans for St Joseph’s C of E Primary School were approved in 2016. Its proposed sponsor, the Melrose Learning Trust, hopes to open the school in 2025.
Roger Ward, the trust’s chief executive, warned that “pupil-place planning calculations do not always correlate with the local situation”.
The school will be based in the expanding Wynard Estate, where “thousands of new houses are being built. It’s a rapidly growing estate; hopefully the school will grow alongside it.”
In the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, the estimate of spare places has been revised up from 13.5 per cent in 2021 to 15.9 per cent in 2023.
Greatfields and Mallard primaries, sponsored by Partnership Learning, have been in the pipeline since 2016.
Roger Leighton, the trust’s chief executive, said it recently withdrew a proposed secondary school “when it became clear that there would not be sufficient demand until 2030”.
But because primary provision must be “very localised”, looking at council-level vacancy figures “does not work for primary-place planning”.
The primary schools would be in neighbourhoods with “significant” new house-building.
Fords View Primary School was supposed in open in Dagenham this September. It will now open in 2027, 11 years after it was approved.
TVI Learning, the school’s sponsor, was not the original bidder but took over the project. Paul Jordan, its chief executive, said issues such as Brexit, the 2019 election and the Covid pandemic had contributed to the delay.
‘We need a more coherent system’
Premier Advisory holds a government contract to support free school bids. Charlotte Pearce Cornish, its director, said the challenge came when there were delays to opening once the school was approved, “which can mean that local demographics have changed”.
Steve Crocker, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said Schools Week’s findings were “not surprising, but they demonstrate the need for a more coherent system with local authorities at its centre with strategic oversight”.
“Too often, we see free schools opening up miles from where they are needed, placing further pressure on already stretched transport budgets, or subsequently closing costing millions to the public purse and disrupting education for pupils.”
A Local Government Association spokesperson warned there was a “risk that opening new schools where there are already surplus places could destabilise local education systems”.
The DfE said it “continuously reviews the viability of all schools within the free schools pipeline and they only open when we are confident that they will be good, viable, sustainable and successful”.
Additional reporting by Amy Walker.