We need better comms for our London schools

In this week's column, London Communications Agency director Luke Blair looks at findings from research conducted by his agency.

Luke Blair: Londoners face shortfall of school places
Luke Blair: Londoners face shortfall of school places

Rising concern over a shortage of school places has emerged as a top priority for councillors in London, despite the apparent lack of communication about this as a real issue within the sector.

According to London Councils, which is doing it best to redress this, there will be a shortfall of 90,000 places in the capital by 2015.  Not surprisingly perhaps, local councillors who manage their schools are being constantly asked about this by their electorate – hence the concern is among their top priorities.

And yet public debate or communication around the issue, save from the odd story at school application time about the extreme lengths parents will go to so they get into the right catchment area, is rarely on the news or policy agenda these days.

At November's London Policy Conference, not a single session was held on the subject of education, let alone school places specifically.  And it is not just in London. A number of cities across the country, including Bristol, Leeds and Manchester, are in a similarly difficult place. 

The Government’s response has been to delay the announcement on this year's basic needs allocation from December to late January.  This makes it even harder for local authorities to build new classrooms so that more places can be created for the next round of entries in September 2013.

Surely the time has come for a concerted campaign on this issue, building on the efforts of bodies like London Councils, the body which represents all 1,861 elected members of the capital’s 33 local authorities. 

The alarm over school places was revealed in a poll undertaken by YouGov in conjunction with my own agency, LCA (apologies for the plug), and also with London Councils.

With a response from 215 councillors weighted to represent a cross section of all boroughs and all political parties, just over half (51%) said creating more school places was their top current priority, with the second priority delivering more homes (43%) and the third, improving the borough’s environment such as through street cleaning and refuse collection (41%).

Also of note was that a third of councillors now say they regularly tweet or blog at least once a fortnight.  Social media has become a key communications tool for the local government sector and, as a platform used heavily by younger and more ethnic communities, is seized on by the more enlightened councils as an obvious way to achieve more engagement with these particular audiences.

With a current focus on attracting more talent onto local councils, particularly from younger and more mixed communities (most councillors are still predominantly white and middle-aged) greater use of social media should be a ‘no brainer’ for any council or councillor looking to make their communication plans more effective and reach more target audiences, more cheaply.

Other priorities at the top of London councillors’ current lists in the poll undertaken in late October and early November were: attracting jobs (39%), social services and health (36%), crime (28%), and helping local businesses (25%).

Also of note in this first of what will be a series of polls was that a resounding 49% of all councillors disagreed with a third runway at Heathrow, compared with 36% who agreed.  By contrast, 37% were in favour of the so-called Boris Island estuary airport option, and 34% in favour of a second runway at Gatwick.  Stansted expansion got 32% support.

In terms of the economy, the impact of the recession can be attributed to a wide consensus of councillors across all parties saying they would be interested in providing public services in partnership with other organisations (84%). Only 8% were against the idea of working with others.

Of the 84% who supported working with other organisations, 95% thought that they could work in partnership with other local authorities in the capital, whilst 71% would consider working with NHS providers and 49% would look into working with the private sector. Only 25% would consider working with central Government.

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