How does it add up? The difficulties of planning future schools for Darlington (From The Advertiser Series)
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How does it add up? The difficulties of planning future schools for Darlington
THE squeeze on primary school places in Darlington has become a key issue for parents this year, with many worried about what the future holds for younger children. Councillor Cyndi Hughes, cabinet member for children and young people, spoke to Vicki Henderson about the difficulties of school planning for the coming years.
“IT'S a really complicated issue,” said Cyndi Hughes, the Darlington Borough Council member who oversees youth matters in the town.
“For me, it’s about trying to show parents the complexities of it all.”
The scramble for school places for children joining reception classes has been tougher than ever this year, with a number of schools across the town over-subcribed, some for the first time ever.
A combination of a spike in the birth rate, housing development and a jump in the number of families moving to the town, as well as cuts in the government budget for school expansion, has been blamed.
But some parents have accused the council of not being prepared for the rise in pupil numbers and missing opportunities in recent years to extend schools or provide extra places.
As the council prepares to launch consultation on the future of school places in the borough, Coun Hughes said the nature of population changes makes it difficult to predict where the pressure points will be each year and added: “It’s not a question of ‘who made a mistake?’. We’re working on projections.
“The complexity of the school places issue is not just based on where people live and how many children they have - there are questions of funding.
“We last did a study of this kind in 2003. It’s going to be a challenge but we have got much better at communicating with our partners about the birth rate and projections are getting better. I believe we can step up to the challenge.”
Coun Hughes has seen the pressures on school places first hand as ward member for Park East, which includes Skerne Park School where admissions are determined on the distance children live from the school - this year demand was so high children who live only 0.3miles away from the school were unable to get a place.
The council has a pot of £4,862,793 to provide extra school places next year but must walk a tightrope between easing pressure on places now and ensuring that places are available in the right areas of the town in years to come, with a number of large-scale housing developments planned for the next five years.
Coun Hughes said: “We will consult far and wide. It has to be transparent and people have to understand the decisions and feel they have been a part of the process. We want to work with the schools and the communities to come up with solutions.”
The leader of the Conservative group, Coun Heather Scott, acknowledged some of the difficulties the council faces in projections but argued that work to resolve the situation should have started much earlier.
She added: “We have been saying for some time that there would be pressure on primary places as the birth rate increased - the council has known for the last few years that it was on the up. I know it’s difficult, but really this is such a serious issue that they should have been making more effort to collect the information.”