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Meeting demand

84 per cent of local authorities highlighted that identifying appropriate sites is a key challenge in delivering new free schools.

While there is a significant shortfall in places at secondary level, local authorities have plans in place to meet this demand. Fifty five per cent of places required in London over the next five years are considered secure. Two thirds of the new places that are currently being planned are expected to be met by
free schools. The most recent wave of free schools announced by the Department for Education (DfE), Wave 13, targets applications for free schools in areas of the country where there are low performing schools and, in some cases, no demand for school places.

This precludes London boroughs, which are high performing, from applying for new free schools to meet their upcoming demand at secondary level. Therefore London boroughs are keen to work with central government on the criteria for future free school waves, to ensure they address issues such as demand as well.

London boroughs have already developed plans to meet most of the shortfall highlighted in Section 1. 55 per cent of forms of entry (FE) that will be required across primary and secondary over the next five years in London are secured. Many boroughs have plans in place to meet the remaining 45 per cent, but are waiting on formal approval for the plans. Many of the places that have not yet been secured will not be needed for a few years.

The two main ways that local authorities meet demand is through expanding existing provision and working with free school providers to create new schools. Fifty five per cent of demand for places over the next five years is expected to be met by free schools, while school expansions are predicted to account for around a third.

Creating new free schools in London  

Local authorities are relying increasingly on free schools to provide additional school places. Given that free schools are the primary way of meeting basic need, local authorities are keen to work as closely as possible with government to ensure that new schools are set up where there is demand.

In May 2018 the government opened Wave 13 of the free school programme. This new wave signals a shift away from a universal approach to free schools, as it is targeted specifically at areas of the country with low quality provision. The DfE’s map of local authorities that are eligible for Wave 13 funding show that these are predominantly in areas where there is no demand for new places. Despite the fact that London has one of the highest levels of demand in the country, no London borough is a targeted area for Wave 13 due to the region’s high performing schools.

Expansion of existing schools

Expansion is often the more cost-effective option to provide additional school places, particularly when dealing with changing levels of demand and scarcity of land. With the restrictions of Wave 13 of the free school programme outlined at the beginning of this chapter, expansion may be the only option open to some councils to create new school places. Local authorities work collaboratively with academies and the ESFA to secure expansion projects in academies as well as maintained schools. This cooperation is becoming more important as academisation continues and demand increases for places at secondary schools, of which over two thirds in the capital are now academies. In the majority of cases, this joint working enables schools to successfully expand. However, in the small number of instances where academies resist expansion, despite having capacity to do so, councils face a challenge because they cannot direct these schools to expand, as they can for maintained schools.

London is a city where land is at a premium and subject to many competing demands and uses. In a recent London Councils survey, 84 per cent of local authorities said that identifying appropriate sites is a key challenge in delivering new free schools. Site constraints were also the most commonly
cited challenge to expanding existing schools. Many of the required forms of entry currently identified as ‘secure’ by local authorities are reliant on identifying or freeing up appropriate land, and those with sites are increasingly facing planning challenges.

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