Brighton and Hove News » Planning school places and the trade-off between parental preference and grade advancement

There are many reasons you can cite as to why 12 years of Conservative government has let our city down. Here’s one: a huge increase in the cost of living, creating an affordability crisis.

Rising costs for people’s scholarships mean that many who live in our city are struggling with the cost of housing, fuel bills and overheads.

The costs of raising a family in a city like Brighton and Hove have risen dramatically. And therefore, many young families are overpriced.

Councils like ours are fighting tooth and nail to build, introduce and buy more affordable homes. But one of the consequences of these 12 long years of Conservative politics is that the number of pupils in our schools is decreasing year by year and is expected to do so in the future.

It doesn’t just happen here. A survey of 71 councils in England found that 63 had seen a drop in school entry applications – just eight had seen an increase.

As a city, we have a large number of excess – or extra – places open in our elementary school classrooms that cannot be filled.

This number has increased over the past few years and we expect we will have 770 vacancies by 2025.

Over the past few years, we have sought to address this issue, following the government’s recommended threshold of a surplus of approximately 5-10%.

A financial challenge

Schools receive government funding in direct proportion to the number of students they have. The uncertainty around the number of students in a given year means that they can predict a total number of students, but then there are far fewer of them attending school.

This puts a strain on their budget – and could mean they end up going into debt. Financial planning is becoming increasingly problematic, in addition to years of cuts to school budgets by the central government.

Unfortunately, the work to remedy a growing surplus of school places in our city is therefore becoming increasingly urgent, driven by the need to help schools manage their budgets and our desire to stop the increase in debt and to keep all schools open.

When schools go into debt, this is covered by board funding – generated by council tax, business rates, other grants and other fees and income.

It’s the money we also use to pay for municipal services – from rubbish collection to social work for children.

Sadly, the council has little money to fund this debt after 12 years of central government cuts, robbing Brighton and Hove City Council’s budget of £100million.

We want to keep schools open, but the challenge is daunting.

“Parental Preference”

Rather than responding to the problem, the government pursues a firm commitment to “parental preference” above all other factors.

As school places continue to decline in our city, to keep schools open, we urgently need a cross-school approach, where larger schools, especially those closer to alternatives or those with good resources, adjust their PAN (published admission number) to respond to the fall in the birth rate.

This gives smaller schools – often located in areas with fewer alternatives or higher levels of deprivation and disadvantage – a chance to stay open as school places are more evenly distributed.

Yet repeated rulings from the Government Schools Adjudicator have made it clear that ‘parental preference’ is the main factor in how they decide on the number of pupils admitted to the school.

A recent study published in the Journal of Social Policy made a key argument about how to address this issue that I’ve heard repeatedly over the past few years – that something other than parental preference should be considered in how zones plan places in schools.

This is ironic, given that declining student numbers and huge deficits will likely lead to more school closures, especially of smaller community schools – not fewer.

In the study, they found that Scottish parents are more satisfied than English parents with the outcome of the school admissions process.

The difference? Parents in Scotland are normally allocated the nearest school, rather than being given a choice, which can ultimately disappoint them.

Left with a declining crisis and wanting to protect all schools, councilors worked with all parties even before I was councilor to resolve these issues locally.

But the strategies we have pursued so far will not guarantee that student numbers will increase again or that decisions about our NAP locally will not be reversed by the government.

We’re listening

In this year’s consultation, we followed the direction of the schools referee with gritted teeth. It was made very clear to the counselors that there would be an impact on our ambitions to make things fairer for disadvantaged students.

The consultation was postponed until later than usual to try to encourage the big schools to play their part.

But in the face of objections from major schools, as well as the fact that the number of students in some schools (such as volunteer-assisted schools and academies) was beyond our control, we felt at that time that the Opening a consultation on options for student places was our only option.

Throughout the consultation, I made it clear that my decision was not made. I wanted to listen to the debate and the discussion that took place.

I urged councilors from all parties to attend the consultation meetings. I met directly with as many head teachers and governors affected by the proposals as possible.

The result of this significant commitment is that this year advisors will be asked not to make these specific reductions.

We know that this still leaves us with a large number of free places. Many people we spoke to during the consultation made it clear that they want all schools in the city to play their part in reducing the total number of excess places in our city – especially large schools and schools located in areas where there are accessible alternative schools.

Many schools also told us that they felt they were managing their budgets well under the current circumstances. I want to thank the schools for their continued application of stretching budgets when things are so tight.

what we do now

We’ll look again – and hope for continued commitment from larger, volunteer schools, working together to solve the problem.

We know that the decline in the number of pupils tells us the reality: it is likely that we will have to continue on the path of reductions in places in the years to come.

This may well mean that some of the schools we consulted this year will be included in future consultations.

I hope, after hearing the sentiment of some parents loud and clear, that some schools that had previously rejected our calls to review their PAN will reconsider their decision.

We know the data predictions have proven to be accurate. Over the past few years, the council’s forecast of the number of places available has been between 96 and 99% accurate when examined against the applications received.

Unfortunately, this only further underscores the likelihood that we will continue to see a reduction in the number of students in the city. Unfortunately, this is not something that will go away.

But we will be compliant with a government that is unwilling to act fairly and that tramples on schools that serve more peripheral or disadvantaged areas of our city.

For a government seemingly determined to discuss ‘race to the top’, it should reconsider its commitment to pursuing a policy of parental preference at all costs – while genuinely tackling the cost of living crisis.

Until he does, we will face persistent inequalities within our school system.

Councilor Hannah Clare is the Green Deputy Leader of Brighton and Hove City Council and chairs the Children, Young People and Skills Committee.

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