Northamptonshire’s education system is heading for a crisis with a shortage of secondary school places in some towns from this September.
Kettering, Corby and Northampton are the areas most affected – Northampton is 150 Year 7 places short already for September and some Corby pupils will be bused nine miles to Oundle to go to a secondary school there.
The authority says it is ‘facing a severe and immediate risk of failing to meet its statutory duty to provide a sufficiency of secondary school places’ in the three towns.
Its Schools Organisation Plan is also forecasting that “there will be a deficit of secondary school places in the county as a whole from the 2019/20 academic year onwards and for as long as projections are available”.
A previous baby boom which is now hitting secondary school age, migration to the county, the number of new homes being built, and the authority’s reliance on academy trusts and free schools to provide the additional spaces are all behind the problem which will impact in just six months.
The council, which is the local education authority, is planning to create temporary places at existing schools to meet the immediate shortfall and is adding extensions to some secondary schools, but it looks like that will still not be enough.
There are currently 47,040 secondary school pupils being educated in Northamptonshire and the council’s education officers say the number is expected to increase by 22 percent by the end of 2026.
However, these figures do not include the higher pupil numbers predicted due to housing growth so the authority says “the actual number of pupils attending secondary school within the county will be significantly higher”.
It says that as a minimum an extension to six existing schools and two new secondary schools are needed by 2023.
Problems the council is going to come up against include the size of the site needed for a secondary school, which is at least eight hectares. The authority says this is a particular problem in urban areas where demand for places is increasing fast.
And with unitary councils being proposed for next year the problem will be passed over to these new authorities.
The council’s leader Matt Golby said at this month’s cabinet meeting: “Schools are going to be a big question as we move to unitary as well. Whether we set up two local education authorities and how we are going to provide the infrastructure is a massive, massive ask and so that is another big strategic question that we need to be dealing with on this road to unitary.”
Despite being critical of the free schools system which it says has at times seen schools built in areas where there is less of a need, the authority is banking on free schools getting it out of its hole.
The report says: “The council has initiated discussions over the purchase of a number of sites on which new schools will be located and is also engaging with the office of the Regional Schools Commissioner regarding sponsors for these proposed new schools.”
The ability of the local education authority to control new school places is limited by the academy system. A total of 40 of the 42 schools offering mainstream secondary provision are run by academies or have free school status.
The report says: “This severely restricts NCC’s ability to increase capacity at schools in a given area of the county, as any increase requires the approval of the academy trust that operates the school. The result of this is that NCC is unable to increase capacity at existing schools, should the academy trust refuse, or is forced to pay a premium to achieve the required result.”
New school places are paid for by a combination of basic need grant funding, given by central government, 106 contributions from developers and borrowing.
But the Government has recently changed the calculations for the basic need grant, which is the largest single source of funding for new school places.
In 2020/21 the authority will receive nothing, due to a review of previous years payments.
The place shortage issue will be the subject of a report being considered by the cabinet when it meets next month.
Opposition councillors say the Conservative-run county council, which is due to be scrapped next year, have known about the looming secondary school place problem for years and failed to tackle it.
Liberal Democrat leader Chris Stanbra said, despite the academy trust landscape and changes to the policy from central government, the authority has to take some of the blame for what is about to happen.
He said: “The council may be between a rock and a hard place but it is the county council’s responsibility to ensure there are sufficient school places. It is their fault. The county is also responsible for school standards and I think they have taken their eye off the ball for some time. We as a council need to take a lot more action and pay closer attention.”
In addition to the places issue, concerns have been raised over education levels in Northamptonshire, which are ‘not at the level we want them to be’, according to the cabinet member for schools on the county council.
Cllr Fiona Baker made the admission last week as the council supported a motion from the opposing Labour Party calling on the authority to do what it could to raise standards.
According to the council’s latest performance report, only 64 per cent of secondary schools are graded as good or outstanding by Ofsted. The remaining 36 per cent are ranked by school inspectors as requires improvement or inadequate. The motion, from Cllr Julie Brookfield, called on the council to make education a priority, and to ‘intervene to ensure a trust acts more swiftly’ when it identifies that an academy is at risk of underachieving.
A spokesman for Northamptonshire County Council said: “The county council has been working with academies and schools in the town to provide temporary additional capacity for Year 7 pupils.
“A report is scheduled to go before the council’s Cabinet next month outlining details of measures which are being proposed.
“Additionally, this month it was announced that £12.2 million expansion projects will create a total of 450 additional pupil places in Kettering, allowing schools to increase their admission numbers to support continued growth in the town.
“Going forward, our growing county means that we are continually faced with the challenge of providing more school places in the future and we will continue to work with our partners to make this happen.”
There are no spare places now in Corby. Some Year 7 pupils living in the town are being offered a place nine miles away at Prince William School in Oundle.
Plans for a new free school also appear to have stalled. The school, which is being sponsored by the Cambridge Meridian Academies Trust, had been planned for a site off Geddington Road but now an alternative location has been earmarked just outside Weldon. An opening date was marked for this year but work has not yet started.
Two new secondary free schools have opened in the town in the past three years, but there are still 150 Year 7 places short this September. These pupils will be placed in existing schools.
The report says: “NCC does not have sufficient funding available to deliver a new secondary school to serve Northampton town, while meeting demand in other areas of the county. The provision of a new secondary school in Northampton remains the biggest single challenge.”
Plans for a new free school were dropped in 2018 and the council now says its strategic planning team is seeking a new bid by talking with a number of academy trusts.
After 2023 3,000 additional places will be needed for the Dallington Grange and Upton developments.
To meet Year 7 demand this year Kettering Science Academy and Southfield School have put on a ‘bulge’ class. Both schools have also recently had large extensions approved to increase numbers, Kettering Buccleuch Academy will take on more students and there will be an expansion at Latimer School and Montsaye in Rothwell. Plans for a new secondary school at Kettering East now look unlikely until after 2023 because of development delays.
After the coming academic year the council says Wellingborough secondary schools will be full. An expansion is being planned at Sir Christopher Hatton Academy and the council is talking with the town’s other schools to increase their place numbers.
There is no new school planned for the area and the council says it is entering into discussions with existing schools to increase capacity instead. It is expected an expansion will be needed at Manor School in Raunds.
There is a surplus of places in the Daventry area. The council is progressing plans to expand Guilsborough Academy and is planning to open a free school in Overstone Leys which is anticipated to meet the demand for secondary places in Northampton. After 2023 there may be a secondary school required to meet the need for places from the Daventry North East development.
SOUTH NORTHANTS Overall the area has surplus capacity but the council says some schools such as Sponne and Caroline Chisholm are full. There are also potential expansions at Campion School and Chenderit School.
Sarah Ward, Local Democracy Reporter