In the catchment area for Shinfield, Arborfield and Barkham, secondary school waiting list numbers have nearly quadrupled since 2016, according to the Council’s own figures:
By 2023, 447 applications were being put on the waiting list, as compared with 380 in 2020, and 121 seven years earlier. This huge rise comes despite nearly 10% more school places offered over the same period.
The fact is that the big increase in waiting list numbers has happened at the same time as the tsunami of housebuilding unleashed on Shinfield and Arborfield/Barkham, over the last six years or so. That shouldn’t have taken anyone by surprise. Build a lot more houses, and you’ll get a lot more people, including young people. Between the 2011 and 2021 censuses, the number of 10-15 year olds in the Borough as a whole went up by about 2,800. How have WBC coped with nearly 3,000 more middle school-age children? One new school (Bohunt Wokingham, located in Arborfield) has opened in that time, with a capacity of about 1,200. As for the rest…?
Much of the increase in the school-age population has taken place in the areas flagged in 2010 as ‘Strategic Development Locations’. Two of them are near Hall Farm, one each side. The 2021 census’s 10-19 year-old category had 1,969 in Shinfield and 1,040 in Arborfield and Barkham. Say about 2,500 children of roughly secondary school or college age (11-18). Only about half that number are shown in the 2011 census. So there are now a lot more local children and young people needing education, in just these three Southern parishes.
In the last couple of years matters have reached crisis point. The Borough Council realised in 2021 that there’d be more children starting secondary school in 2022 and 2023 than places available in the Borough’s secondary schools. That’s even after the 10% increase seen post-2016. The Council is making efforts to get individual schools to raise their admissions offer. It’s getting St Crispins Leisure Centre to provide two more classrooms (55 pupils) at the expense of daytime users of the Centre. Wokingham Borough Conservative leader Pauline Jorgensen has pointed out that people with learning disabilities and autism, who enjoyed a weekly social event at the Centre, will be among those affected. But those two classrooms’ worth of school places amount to just a sticking plaster. There will again be hundreds of names on next year’s secondary schools waiting list, and a significant numbers of secondary pupils will still have to travel to schools outside the borough.
It’s clear enough how the Council got us into this mess. The enormous expansion of housing it approved from 2010 onwards hasn’t been matched by infrastructure the increased population needed. For secondary school places, this has become critical. When a local authority allows housing development to run way ahead of the services and amenities an increased population requires, we call it over-development. Wokingham Borough stands as a prime example of overdevelopment and how bad it can get, with our communities’ children and their education put at risk as a result.
The consequences for local education of building too many houses don't stop with lack of places. You can sees from the map at the top of this blog post that secondary schools are concentrated in the traditionally built-up areas: Woodley, Earley, Winnersh and Wokingham. Increasing number of children from the overdeveloped southern parishes therefore have to attend schools a long way from where they live.
The Council now says it’s having to cut back hard on school transport costs, which have doubled in four years – from £3m in 2018/19 to £5.8m 2022/23. Its website thoughtfully advises parents considering their children's future school to think about transport to and from it. But the same thought doesn't seem to have occurred to WBC itself, when it approved plans for thousands more houses. They meant thousands more children, some of them eligible for discounts on school buses. So: more school bus places will be needed. Obvious? Not to WBC, apparently.
Thanks to the cutbacks, dozens of Shinfield pupils are reported to have missed out on school bus places at the start of this autumn term.
I hear there are Borough Council Executive members wondering what number of new houses our neighbourhoods in Shinfield and Arborfield can take. Maybe some kids who couldn’t make it onto a school bus can help them with that one?