The UK has many problems at the moment – an NHS in crisis, a crumbling road infrastructure and persistent inflation that means millions of families can’t afford the basics.
We also have a nationwide schools funding crisis, with the National Association of Head Teachers concluding that “schools are at breaking point as funding is not keeping up with the expenditure schools face” and that 66 per cent of schools were having to cut essential support staff.
We need a Labour government as soon as possible to help fix this funding crisis. However, in Brighton and Hove we have a specific problem that won’t simply be resolved by increased government funding.
We have too few primary age children and many schools are under capacity. I want to explain why this a problem and how your Labour council is going to tackle it.
Schools work to a “published admission number” (PAN) which is the number of children they plan to take each year in reception.
Some schools are “one form entry” which means they are structured to take a single classroom of children each year (and have a PAN of 30) while a few schools in our city are setup to take four classrooms (and have a PAN of 120).
The total of PANs across the city represents our capacity for primary children in our schools. In recent years a significant problem has built up – we have drastically fewer children in our city than the capacity in our schools.
It is forecast that by next September the city will have over 600 “excess places” in primary schools – equivalent to 20 empty classrooms of children.
While this might seem like a good thing to parents – more choice of schools and smaller class sizes – I must be honest with residents and explain that this is having a catastrophic impact on our primary schools.
The simple fact is that schools are almost entirely funded on a per pupil basis. A one-form entry primary school will be structured to have enough teachers and support staff for one classroom in each year group.
If they take significantly less than 30 pupils per year, they do not receive enough funding from the government to employ that many staff.
As was reported earlier in the year, primary school heads are telling us that they are having to cut staff who support children that most need help – those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
So, while half-empty classrooms might not seem like a big problem, the truth is that it’s already having a devastating impact on our schools and, importantly, on the children who most deserve our support.
This isn’t a problem that will develop over the next few years – it is already a crisis.
Schools have just finalised their budgets for the coming year and more than half in Brighton and Hove (53 per cent) are in deficit.
Many are saying there is nothing more they can cut. That is why we must take action now, for the good of children in our city.
Our shortage in primary school numbers is partly due to a falling birthrate but it’s also because Brighton and Hove has become so unaffordable.
The sad truth is that young families often move out of the city to nearby parts of East and West Sussex because they cannot afford a decent family home in Brighton and Hove.
That’s why this Labour council is so focused on driving through a radical housing policy – building as many affordable council homes as possible, buying back units where appropriate and taking on unscrupulous landlords.
However, those measures will take years to make a material impact on the number of children in the city. That’s why we must act now to reduce primary school capacity in the city.
This will help fill up classrooms and ensure schools get the funding they need to provide a broad and supportive education to all pupils.
It won’t be easy, and some parents will understandably be upset if capacity is reduced in their area.
Over the coming months we will be sharing a plan to tackle the issue. We will be open and transparent and we will explain why we are making changes.
We will ensure that any actions taken are based around the welfare and best interests of children. If staff capacity has to be reduced in some schools, we will work collaboratively across the city to find jobs for redeployment.
The message from teachers and governors has been clear: the issue has been kicked down the road for too long and this Labour council must act in the interests of children who will be denied support if the problem isn’t addressed.
Councillor Jacob Taylor is the deputy leader of Brighton and Hove City Council and co-chair of the Children, Families and Schools Committee.