England’s rising pupil population: ‘shift schooling’

In only one year there has been a 2.1 per cent increase in the number of pupils at state primary schools in England. This equates to almost 94,000 more children. Ethnic minority pupils made up 71 per cent of the increase.

This latest data from the Department for Education confirms what headteachers and local authority leaders have been saying vigorously for the past couple of years. We need to do something different when it comes to providing pupil places.

The growth in migrants, combined with the baby boom, is putting unprecedented pressure on many of the nation’s schools, and not just in London. The extraordinary becomes the commonplace at a faster and faster rate. Primaries are becoming supersized as the recent BBC profile on Gascoigne Primary in Barking highlighted. There are 87 primary schools today taking more than 800 pupils, compared with 77 in 2014, and 16 in 2010.

Setting aside the not unimportant question of teacher recruitment, what is to be done to house the rising numbers of four year olds in our schools? The government has committed to 500 new free schools over the 2015-2020 period. This will go some way to addressing the question but not enough to solve it, as we nudge inexorably to a UK population of 75 million by 2050.

The orthodoxy of all primary pupils starting school at 9am and finishing at 3.30pm will simply have to be challenged. In just the same way that early years settings offer morning and afternoon places, many urban primaries need to think along similar lines for the entire 3-11 age range. What is common provision in other countries will soon become the norm in England’s major cities.

Take the Indian High School in Dubai with its enrolment of 12,000 students and fleet of 81 air-conditioned buses to transport students and staff. Different grades and ages operate different shifts across the 7.30am to 6.50pm timeframe.

In recent years, I have seen similar arrangements in Egypt, India and the USA, sometimes for religious reasons, sometimes because of shortage of school buildings, sometimes as a result of bold and creative educational thinking. And in the UK a number of state and independent schools have consciously changed working hours for older students to reflect when they are at their most awake! (See www.hamptoncourthouse.co.uk)

Schools historically have been agents of social convenience and control, taking children and young people off the street, so parents can go to work. They have been much more than that of course, and the shape of expanding mass education across the globe is testament to the enduring role of the place called ‘school’.

It is safe to predict that enterprising heads, governing boards, local authorities and academy providers are even now thinking how best to launch consultations with parents about ‘shift schooling’. It’s a practice whose time has come in England. National and local politicians are predictably nervous. The birth pangs of such initiatives will draw negative media attention, for all the wrong reasons. That will pass. The unthinkable will become the everyday. Watch this space.

Roy Blatchford is Director, National Education Trust, and founding director with Deborah Eyre of www.internationaleducationtrust.net

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Open letter to the new Secretary of State for Education 9th May 2015

Dear Secretary of State,

I have had the privilege of working with many of your predecessors and their Ministers over the past 25 years. Distinguished politicians have their framed photographs on the wall in the foyer of the Department of Education, dating back to the early post‐war years. Your photo will one day join them. Your influence over hundreds of thousands of everyday lives will be significant during your term in office, and perhaps beyond.

Education has featured rarely in the national election campaign. At local level on the doorstep, voters spoke only of having a good local school – that was their proper message. The British public has also rejected the idea of politicians ‘weaponising’ the National Health Service. Might you be a pioneer and establish a parallel National Education Service, with a view to taking the detail of education practice out of the political arena? What a legacy that would be.

The distinguished brain surgeon Henry Marsh titled his recent autobiography Do no harm, a singular message he wishes to pass on to all doctors. As the new Secretary of State, please make sure the first question you ask your DfE and political advisers is: ‘Do we need a new policy in education?’ (It seems likely doesn’t it that the government will have bigger fish to fry in the coming parliament.)

There are two key areas of education policy and practice where we need your legitimate democratic leadership:

  1. Establishing a fair funding system for primary, special and secondary schools across the country
  1. Securing a sustainable stream of good entrants into the teaching profession.

Concentrate on these two pivotal issues and you will win plaudits from 25,000 headteachers, voters, and fellow politicians. If you subscribe to the self‐improving school system, you might do little else, besides being a careful and thoughtful guardian. Don’t be tempted to put your indelible stamp on the Office with further initiatives. Rather, leave in five years’ time (Theresa May is a model to follow) proud to have done no harm.

If you stray beyond the two areas above, please opt for sustaining and embedding what has been legislated for in recent times: all schools good schools; raised levels of accountability and pupils’ achievements; the new curriculum and examination arrangements; pupil premium funding.

Finally, daring you to be different in just one direction: suspend Ofsted inspections of good and outstanding schools for one year; afford headteachers the space to shape that self‐improving, self‐ regulating school system. Then go visit a hundred schools and ask their views.

I’m sure the profession, governors, pupils and parents wish you well in your new Office of State. With a little more time, I would have written you a shorter letter. Less is always more.

Yours sincerely,

Roy Blatchford, Director, National Education Trust