For most parents, national primary school offer day is likely to pass without upset, as estimates leaked from the Department for Education suggested that three out of four councils expect offers to be the same or better than last year.
A DfE document showed that of 121 local authorities, 49 estimated that the proportion of preferences offered to families would be the same as last year while 40 said it was likely to be better. But a quarter of councils said the position was likely to be worse.
The Local Government Association, which represents councils across England, said it was worried councils were still legally responsible for ensuring all children were offered a school place, but that under the education white paper they have no powers to directly create places to meet shortages.
“If proposals within the education white paper go forward, and all schools convert to academies, councils must be given powers to force schools to expand where this is in the best interests of new and existing pupils,” said Roy Perry, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board.
“Most academies will be keen to work with their local authorities but in the minority of situations where this isn’t the case, appropriate powers are vital to ensure all children get a suitable place.”
The plea for new powers comes as Labour and the government battled over the extent of primary school shortages, with Labour arguing the government’s figures showed deficits around the country. Brexit campaigners sought to blame EU migration for causing the problem.
Councils are currently able to expand existing maintained primary schools, but they will lose that ability if all schools become academies by 2022, as the white paper envisages.
Lucy Powell, the shadow education secretary, said the forced academisation policy “will make the school places system implode, as councils lose completely the levers they have to ensure there are enough school places for children”.
A spokesperson for the DfE responded: “Ensuring every child has a school place is one of the key duties council will continue to hold in a system where every school is an academy.
“Councils have always relied on their strong relationships with local schools to deliver the places needed – this will not change as more school convert to become academies.”
Councils say they have created an extra 300,000 primary places since 2010, but this has often been achieved through the 85% of primaries that are maintained, by converting non-classroom areas and increasing class sizes to create spaces.
Meanwhile, a row continued between Labour and the government over shortfalls in places for four and five year olds starting at school.
Labour said its figures showed that one in four primary schools was now full or over capacity, while forecasts showed there would be nearly 300,000 more primary-age pupils by 2020.
“This government’s broken school places system means that children are being crammed into ever larger class sizes and many schools are already at or over capacity,” Powell warned.
But a DfE spokesperson said such claims were “misleading and disingenuous”.
“Despite rising pupil numbers, at primary, the number of pupils in excess of their school’s capacity has fallen by a quarter since 2010, and average class sizes have seen little change,” the DfE said, adding that 96% of families were offered places at one of their preferred schools last year.
The Vote Leave campaign blamed EU migration for the pressure on places, although a DfE source said the main driver of increased pupil numbers was the rising domestic birthrate.
“The shortage of primary school places is yet another example of how uncontrolled migration is putting unsustainable pressures on our public services,” said Priti Patel, the employmeny minister, in a statement for Vote Leave.