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Pupil place planning: An urban problem and a rural challenge

Predicting and planning for pupil placing is difficult in both urban and rural areas, but there are solutions...

Posted by Hannah Vickers | June 20, 2017 | People, policy, politics, money

By Peter Foale, education manager at Willmott Dixon

Planning pupil places is a tricky business at the best of times. Every local authority has its own ‘model’ which underpins its work. New housing developments, the regeneration of existing housing, changes in birth rates and the movement of families in and out of an area, often combine to make the year-on-year demand for school places difficult to predict, let alone forecast over a medium or long term.

When you couple this unpredictability with the long-running and unresolved debate about what constitutes the ‘ideal’ size for a school, the issue begins to escalate. What size supports the best organisational structure and delivery of the school curriculum? What size ensures both educational and financial sustainability? How big is too big? How small is too small? Most importantly, when do local authorities call time on schools in their jurisdiction; either closing those with too few pupils which are proving too expensive to run or, as urban schools reach their capacity, find the funding and land to develop new schools on?

Why is this important to our sector?

Well, we know primary school numbers are continuing to rise, and this current bulge is starting to work its way through into secondary schools. The pressure on pupil places is immense, particularly in urban areas, so spending the available limited capital budgets on new accommodation, to get the greatest benefit and meet demand, can become very difficult. 

For urban authorities, size is rarely an issue, although the ‘how big is too big’ question is increasingly rearing its head, particularly for primary schools. One London authority we have worked with has seen a 40% rise in demand for primary school places over just eight years, and this is not unusual - others have seen even greater increases. Even when authorities are confident in their forecasting model, the biggest problem they face is, of course, that no one is making land any more. Because of this, school sites are often small and landlocked. Roads around school sites may be narrow and green spaces are heavily guarded by local communities.

There is often a misinformed opinion of small rural primary schools, where they are perceived as lovely, friendly little places which are filled with young children and the best teachers

In rural areas, the numbers game is more complicated and, in some ways, more difficult to resolve. There is often a misinformed opinion of small rural primary schools, where they are perceived as lovely, friendly little places which are filled with young children and the best teachers. Although this may be the case for some villages, for others, rural schools present their own set of issues for local authorities to address.

One of the primary problems faced by authorities trying to plan school places is that, for all their apparent charms, rural schools can be ruinously expensive to run in comparison to bigger schools. Because of this, hard questions also need to be asked about the ability of a two or three class school in meeting the needs of every child, from the most able 11-year-old to the least able four-year-old. Small rural schools can also struggle to recruit staff who will often be expected to take on a much wider range of responsibilities than their colleagues in larger schools, while having very limited opportunities for professional development or progression. 

Rural secondary schools with 200 or 300 pupils often find it difficult to deliver a full curriculum offering with specialist teachers in all subject areas and are facing the same recruitment difficulties as small primary schools. Although a lot of villages still have their own primary schools, they are often challenged with pupil enrolment issues, as soaring housing costs often price young families out of the area. 

So, what is the solution to this problem?

Although there is no straightforward one-size-fits-all solution, local authorities can employ a number of approaches to work to resolve this growing issue.

Some authorities are already reserving potential school sites and have earmarked suitable brownfield sites that can be used as a suitable location. There are non-school buildings that are, to a greater or lesser extent, suitable for redevelopment as schools. However, in most cases, the only answer is extending existing schools, however unsatisfactory that may be. This means schools often lose their limited outside space to new buildings, while increasing the number of children on site. With that in mind, it is crucial there is a safe way for contractors to work in often crowded, occupied sites with limited vehicular access. 

It may seem obvious, but the challenge for designers and contractors alike is to work with their clients to come up with safe, sustainable, deliverable and potentially repeatable solutions that can be produced on and off site quickly, while providing good value for money

It may seem obvious, but the challenge for designers and contractors alike is to work with their clients to come up with safe, sustainable, deliverable and potentially repeatable solutions that can be produced on and off site quickly, while providing good value for money.

In cases where an extension is required, Connect, or even an entirely bespoke approach, may be a valid option. Connect buildings are designed to be independent of the current school buildings, regardless of the school’s layout. The suite of designs can be personalised through flexible design options and, in the case of ConnectUp, can be completed in as little as four weeks on site.

Alternatively, when an entirely new school is required, Sunesis offers a suite of designs for inspirational new school buildings delivered to fixed costs and timescales – often supporting schools when they are faced with pupil placement issues.  Sunesis can deliver its construction programmes in as little as 26 weeks for a new 1FE school. Sunesis, which is part of Scape Group, answers the often urgent need for new schools, which can be delivered quickly and cost-efficiently.

Not only is Sunesis practical, it is attractive too. Sunesis designs are focused on creating truly outstanding learning environments which are light, airy, vibrant and above all inspire children at each of our schools - this is of the utmost importance. Thanks to solutions such as Sunesis, we are able to support this rapidly growing issue in a practical and innovative way.

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