London Facing Terrifying School Places Drought

London has a lot to offer to families with children. Big parks. World class theatres. Dinosaurs, real and imagined.

One thing it’s sadly struggling to offer, though, is education. This morning London Councils published the latest in a series of hysterical reports pointing out that the city has, literally, more children than it knows what to do with. By 2015-16, the number of children in London will exceed the number of school places to teach them in by 90,000. The next year, that shoots up by nearly a third, to 118,000.

This is a national problem, of course: last month the National Audit Office repeated its warning that the country as a whole would be 250,000 school places short within 18 months. But, it’s fair to say, London’s got it worst. The city makes up something like 13% of the British population, yet is facing 42% of the shortage. London Councils concludes that the city needs an extra £1 billion to solve this problem.

How we got into this mess is a matter of some debate. Birth rates have been growing for more than a decade. The recession has made people less likely to leave the city for suburbia when they have kids. The fact London’s population grew by nearly 1 million people in 10 years and nobody seemed to notice was no doubt a contributing factor, too. (The right-wing press and those lovely people at Migration Watch know exactly who they blame, of course.)

All of this, though, should be manageable, and the fact it hasn’t been is a mark of humiliating political failure by, well, just about everyone. The last government spent a fortune building very impressive, but tragically few, secondary schools, while entirely ignoring the demographic bulge about to hit the primaries. The coalition scrapped all this. But it also scrapped most of the budget meant to pay for school buildings, and has disproportionately focused its efforts on its pet policy of opening ‘free schools’. A lot of these, vexingly, are in areas that already have quite enough school places already.

The result of all this is unlikely to be gangs of feral children, roaming the streets because no one taught them their times tables. What it will mean is bigger class sizes, more crowded schools, and prefabs sprouting up all over the place. We’ll also see a growing number of lessons taught in ad hoc environments like converted offices and retail environments, rather than in anything that you’d actually recognise as a school.

In the long term, though, the problem is only going to get worse. Last February, a “demographic consultant” predicted to the London Assembly’s Planning Committee that the city’s population would hit 10 million over the next two decades. That means a 25% increase in the number of kids. They can’t all be home schooled.

Image courtesy of ChrisGoldNY, taken from the Londonist Flickr pool

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Article by Jonn Elledge | 95 Articles | View Profile

  • Tae

    “The right-wing press and those lovely people at Migration Watch know exactly who they blame, of course”

    You say blame like it’s not a *simple verifiable fact* that immigration, and the associated increase in fertility rates among immigrant communities, aren’t the reason behind the increase in the number of children in London. When it is.

    • Jonn Elledge

      It is one factor of many. The fact it’s the one certain people choose to highlight over all the others says more about them than it does about objective reality.

      • Tae

        What are the other factors, then?

        • Jonn Elledge

          Changing birth rates. A longer window in which women can and do conceive. A correction after unusually low birth rates in the 90s. And, in London specifically, people becoming more willing to raise children in town, rather than fleeing beyond the M25.

          • Tae

            The ONS disagree with you.

            “The impact of non-UK born women on fertility is largest in London. This is due to a high proportion of the childbearing age population in London being non-UK born, and lower UK born fertility in London than the UK average.”


            Foreign born mothers drive population growth in London, while UK born women have fewer kids in London than elsewhere in the country.

            Stating that immigration and immigrant parents drive population growth in London, and hence the strain on public services that this article highlights, is simply the truth, with the other causes you highlight being minor drivers of growth.

            The fact Newham and Tower Hamlets have the fastest growing population of any local authorities in the UK – and among the highest foreign born population – proves that point.

            I think your comment about it ‘saying more about them than it does about objective reality’ is a shame. It’s sad you choose to cast aspersions on people who simply highlight the truth.

          • James Guppy

            I don’t think it’s really relevant where the children come from – if they get a proper education, they will be an asset to the capital/country. I think the comment about the Daily Mail was intended to highlight that white middle class people feel they have some God (or Tory) given right to be ahead of “other” people in getting an education.

  • S P

    Whether on the left or right its pointless to tip toe around the principle reason. That being immigration. Many people have arrived, and they have a higher birthrate. The ONS figures show this clearly. It wasn’t foreseen by the more clueless members of parliament and statisticians. Now we have a big problem, with large associated expense at a time of a deficit of £120 billion. Even taxing the rich more (which I agree with) the finances don’t add up, and immigration was supposed to bring financial benefits but is causing financial strain, in addition to the hopeless leeches in the city and the effect on society and the economy they have caused.