Spring Budget: Further education devolution needed to fix broken school estate

Councils have urged the government to further devolve powers for education funding to local government following the chancellor’s promise in the Spring Budget to open 500 new free schools by 2020.

Philip Hammond also announced that £320m would be made available to fund up to 140 new schools, including independent-led, faith, selective, university-led and specialist maths schools, with 30 of these schools to be opened by 2020.

However, only £216m was put aside for investment in school maintenance, a figure that council leaders have warned is not nearly enough to repair the UK’s damaged estate, which the NAO reported would cost the government £6.7bn to improve to at least satisfactory conditions by 2021.

In his Budget speech, Hammond said: “Good schools are the bedrock of our education system, but we need to do more to support our young adults into quality jobs and help them gain world-class skills.

“Pupils typically travel three times as far to attend selective schools, so we will extend free school transport to include all children on free school meals who attend a selective school. Because we are resolved that talent alone should determine the opportunities a child enjoys.

“We’ll invest in our existing schools too – by providing an additional £216m over the next three years, taking total investment in school condition to well over £10bn in this Parliament.”

But Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People’s Board, argued that while the new money is a step in the right direction, Whitehall must still “commit to devolving school capital funding to a single local pot to allow schools and councils to work together to tackle local challenges”.

He added that councils needed further powers to be devolved to a local level to allow authorities better powers to manage demand for school places and the building of new schools.

“Whilst today’s announcement that additional funding will be provided to establish new schools and repair existing schools is positive, as a result of the rising demand for school places councils must be given back powers and be appropriately funded so that they can directly commission the building of new schools,” he said.

“Councils have a statutory duty to ensure every child has a school place available to them but they fear that they will no longer be able to meet the rising costs for the creation of places if they aren’t given the money or powers to do so, and have to continue to rely on the secretary of state in Whitehall to take all the final decisions.”

Central to Cllr Watt’s reasoning is that at a local level, councils can more easily ensure new schools are established in the right places and meet the needs of local communities. Overall, he argued, authorities “must have a role in determining where new free schools are created”.

“Local authorities know their areas best and are eager to work with applicants with a strong track record to identify potential school sites,” he stated.

“Councils are clear that they must have a say over whether or not selective schools are introduced in non-selective areas. As champions of local families and children councils should have a say on the type of school introduced to their area, this should not be left to individual free school proposers. 

“While councils are extremely supportive of transport being provided to children most in need, any new provision must be fully funded and not place an additional financial burden on councils.”

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