The claim

“Labour is today publishing analysis showing that there will be a shortfall of 120,000 primary school places by September this year”

Labour Party press release, 23 July 2013

The background

Labour’s education swots say they have found something new in a report published back in March by the National Audit Office (NAO). And it’s not good news.

Parents are in for a “summer of worry”, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said, because this September there will be a shortfall of 120,000 primary school places.

FactCheck wonders how such a red alert could have gone unnoticed for four months.

If it’s true, Labour deserves top marks for flagging it up. FactCheck investigates.

The analysis

In March, the NAO issued a warning that if the government didn’t react to the shortage of primary school places, there would be a shortfall of 240,000 places by September 2014.

The figure is based on estimates from the Department for Education which, crucially, take into account rising population numbers.

The report states: “The Department estimated in February 2013 that 256,000 places, 240,000 primary and 16,000 secondary, are still required from May 2012 to 2014/15, reflecting the fact that local authorities have continued to forecast increasing numbers of pupils.”

The shortfall however, doesn’t fall in a nice equal pattern across the country.  Some schools have extra places going free, while others are buckling under the weight of demand.

The NAO looked at the figures across England and found that 113 of the 326 local authorities in England will have far too many places – with a surplus of more than 5 per cent expected by September 2014.

But on the flip side, it found that 32 local authorities will have a shortfall of more than 5 per cent.

London authorities are facing the biggest shortages – Croydon, for example, is worst off with predictions of a 15.8 per cent shortfall. Waltham Forest, Sutton, Slough and Redbridge are all facing shortfalls of more than 10 per cent.

If only parents could up-sticks and find jobs in the Derbyshire Dales by 2014, they would find a surplus of 23.7 per cent primary school places – or in North Warwickshire, there is expected to be a 38.8 per cent surplus of places by 2014.

Today, the government insisted that it will create 110,000 extra primary school places by September, on top of the existing 400,000 surplus primary school places across England.

The Department for Education also told us: “We are spending £5billion by 2015 on creating new school places — more than double the amount spent by the previous government in the same timeframe.

“In addition nine out of ten primary free schools approved last month are in areas of basic need, and last week we announced a further £820million to create 74,000 extra places where they are most needed.”

But Labour argues this is not enough – claiming that even with the extra 110,000 there will still be a 120,000 shortage.

So how did Labour come up with that figure?

It found a table in the NAO report (Figure 4)  showing population estimates based on local authority aggregated forecasts.

These figures show that by this September, local authorities are expecting the number of pupils to rise by 230,000.

Labour’s maths is this: 230,000 extra school pupils minus 110,000 extra school places = 120,000 places still needed.

Yet not only are these population increases already factored into the NAO’s forecast, but Labour is confusing pupils with places.

Yes, councils expect the number of pupils to rise. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be space for them.

For example, if one council expects the number of pupils to rise by 10 per cent, but has a 10 per cent surplus in school places, it’s not a problem.

But another council might expect the number of pupils to rise by 10 per cent yet only have a surplus of 5 per cent – and then it is a problem.

The verdict

Labour gets a black mark for misleading people with the wrong figures.

As stated above, Labour quoted population figures instead of school places and these are not the same thing.

Worse still, the population figures have already been factored into the forecast shortage of school places.

It’s also worth us pointing out that using global figures for an issue so poignantly local is meaningless.

Labour’s warning will ring true in Croydon, where parents face a 15.8 per cent shortfall of school places by 2014.

But it will ring hollow in North Warwickshire, which faces a surplus of 38.8 per cent in the same year.

By Emma Thelwell

Read more: Who’s to blame for rising primary school class sizes?