Incoherences in English Planning for Schools Policy

Photograph of two people in a classroom by

What follows is a working list of questions & notes on planning-related school issues.

They spring from my confusion about why the planning system is used to govern education in such a way that it defeats the very planning aims it sets out to achieve. I refer mainly to the 2019 National Planning Policy Framework, applying to England only – NPPF 2019, pdf here but touch on the Living with Beauty report at the end.

I am not a planner and what seems to me incoherent about planning and schools may be perfectly explainable. If it is, please do consider getting in touch, either publicly, via comments below, or privately by messaging via the Contact page. Similarly, if there are other things that don’t make sense, I would like to hear from you.

1) Why is planning policy used to do education policy?

The NPPF’s only sustained focus on schools is paragraph 94 (pp.27-8). The emphasis is not on increasing (or improving) school places per se but on increasing choice in school places (an education policy aim): “Local planning authorities should take a proactive, positive and collaborative approach to meeting this requirement [that “a sufficient choice of school places is available”], and to development that will widen choice in education”. But the purpose of the planning system (p.5) is “to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development”. Why is planning being diverted to education policy? (Note, I’m not surprised it happens – I wrote an article about how spatial design and policy does education policy – but it is surprising how this happens so explicitly and directly.)

2) The education policy aims chosen contradict the aims of planning – why?

Planning should contribute to sustainable development, understood broadly in the NPPF as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (p.5). But the focus on widening choice in education contradicts that aim and contributes negatively towards achieving sustainable development – in a number of ways:

a) extending choice is inefficient, contributing to unsustainability

Choice – the ability to select from a range of genuinely accessible options – requires slack in the system (National Audit Office, 2017:18[i]). In this context, it means there must be an (inefficient) overprovision of school places if choice is to be possible. Note that overproviding now is both inefficient at this moment in time and in the future where it reduces the ability to choose. Overprovision compromises future generations’ abilities to meet their needs because it is expenditure that could have created nicer or more energy efficient or bigger or more sports-equipped schools. In fact, anything else that would improve children’s quality of life, rather than extend choice (the asserted benefits of which are anyway ambiguous and context-dependent so relatively risky[ii]). The National Audit Office report acknowledges some of these points (2017:9) noting the “inherent tension” between extending choice and improving local provision in a cost-effective way [note: if you take out the cost effectiveness consideration, the tension remains, see d, below] so it is stranger still that the 2019 NPPF aims to exacerbate these tensions.

b) extending choice increases children’s travel, increases pollution, decreases active travel

Increased distances increase the likelihood children will be driven to school, increasing vehicle emissions and decreasing children’s active transport (cycling or walking) (Easton and Ferrari, 2015; Marshall et al., 2010[iii]). A key point from Easton and Ferrari’s study (based on Sheffield) is that “Currently many educational policies [and, as above, planning policies used for educational policy ends] are working in opposition to sustainable transport goals of local travel and low carbon cities by driving system-wide patterns of ‘excess commuting’ (Horner, 2002) to more distant schools.” (2015:16), a problem of significant scale “when less than half of all English pupils attend their nearest school” (ibid:17).

c) planning should reduce exposure to pollution; these aims increase it

To help reduce the 28,000-36,000 deaths a year in England from human-made air pollution, Public Health England recommends using “spatial planning to reduce sources and exposure to pollution” (p.11) coherent with the stated purpose of planning above. Both of these (i.e. pollution production and pollution exposure) are contradicted by efforts to increase school choice. This problem intensifies when we consider that the school-planning aims of increasing choice reduce the ability to meet health needs of children now and the needs of those same children into the future since “normal lung function growth in children is suppressed by long-term exposure to air pollution” (ibid: 14). Sustainability is attacked once again.

d) planning for school choice and competition is antithetical to community-building

Shouldn’t the planning system guide and facilitate the development not just of land but of communities? To be sure, all schools create communities but ones that operate on the basis of competition and promotion of pupil movement, do so at the expense of local communities. Other things equal, local schools are better able to build in-school community, contribute to the wider community they’re in and develop relations between these. These things are always important. It’s possible they are more important now (mid-2020).

3) Further conflicts between school-planning and educational reality

There are many other confusing aspects of school-planning in England, features that seem to ignore or even worsen what is already happening to English schools.

For example:

  • The emphasis on extending choice seems odd when basic provision is so problematic with class sizes continuing to increase and when we lack enough places in high demand areas. These shortages can be extremely costly – personally, socially, financially – and often have quite serious knock-on effects. Take the case of the lack of appropriate special needs places. The current shortfall means that the government pays for 20,000 students to attend independent special schools at 2.5 times the cost of state equivalents (Public Accounts Committee, 2020:15, counting at January 2019) so limiting others who need specialist provision and creating further excess commuting that entails financial, environmental and health penalties.
  • The latest Marmot Review argues that to improve the health outcomes of young people, we need to put “equity at the heart of national decisions about education policy and funding” (Marmot et al., 2020:57). Why the silence on equity in the planning framework?
  • Why does the government’s renewed interest in a beautiful built environment (criticism noted) not extend to school-building? The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’s report, Living with Beauty, (2020) is largely silent on the question of schools – beauty is reserved for “places”, housing and cities in the abstract. This is at least coherent with policy which has allowed recent English school-building to produce some of the ugliest results in a generation or more (spatially mean, higher student densities, aesthetically jarring, standardised, dislocated from contexts, and cheap looking – they go some way to fulfilling the report’s own definition of “ugly” i.e. “buildings that are unadaptable, unhealthy and unsightly, and which violate the context in which they are placed”, p.iv). Ironically, in one of the document’s very few mentions of schools we read them as celebrated, contributing to civic beauty and positioned so as to be walkable (p.27) engendering health benefits that choice, again, tends to defeat. And if beauty “is not merely a visual characteristic, but is revealed in the deep harmony between a place and those who settle there” (p.1) then choice, again, helps to prevent harmony from ever forming (because bonds between schools and local communities are broken) and makes it an issue of equity (because it commodifies “harmony”, allowing those with money to buy harmony through houses close to good schools, aided by platforms such as Rightmove with their School Checker, tagline, “Find the right home near the right school”, and those without money who “pay” by travelling and increased exposure to pollution.)
  • Clearly, it is not just planning but how we manage transport, for example, that matters. This report, The Role of Transport in Supporting a Healthy Future for Young People, by academics at UWE Bristol and Sustrans is very helpful.

In fairness, I am confused generally about planning’s silence on schools. Is it an English silence? We’ve seen a very interesting German initiative, Education, Space and Urban Planning: Education as a Component of the City. Is it a recent silence? For the U.S. planning critic and theorist, Lewis Mumford, the school and the home were the two “dominants” that would “constitute the essential nucleus of the new community” (1938:472) with mobile parts that help to make education a dynamic, organic process, ideas that were taken up by the planner and architect Giancarlo De Carlo after the war in Italy.

In England, for a while, educational interest in planning was promoted by academics where it informed the nascent field of Urban Education (e.g. via Gerald Grace’s writing and the MA in Urban Education he started at Kings[iv] or John Raynor and Elizabeth Harris’s courses at the Open University and the accompanying edited collections). But planning-schools-education was also brought closer to the centre of planning too e.g. by the writer and educator Colin Ward at the Town and Country Planning Association – TCPA, see this excellent recent essay by Sol Perez-Martinez. However, since the 1980s, sustained interest in planning and schools (much less education in the broad sense Ward promoted) has been hard to find.

Now, the situation seems more impoverished than ever. The current planning system is geared not towards making schools or school space better (nor more sustainable, bigger, of better quality, more accessible, better protected, better sited, better related to other infrastructure or services, less polluting, more shielded from pollution) – but to extending school choice. In doing so, it seems to neglect its role (while conditioning others to neglect theirs) in shoring up and extending spatial rights on the one hand and the brute availability of space on the other.

The cover image of two people in a classroom is a photo by ngelah on Unsplash

[i] “spare capacity is needed to allow parents to exercise choice” (National Audit Office, 2017:18)

[ii] The economist Amartya Sen does a great job in clarifying why the presentation of choice as unambiguously good is misleading: “Facing more alternatives need not invariably be seen as an expansion of a person’s freedom to do the things she would like to do … There is an inescapable need for evaluation in judging … The question really turns on the need to judge what options are important and what are not. The expansion of choices to be made is both an opportunity (the choices can be made by oneself) and a burden (the choices have to be made by oneself).” (original emphases, Inequality Reexamined, 1995:63) The extension of choice need not extend my wellbeing or freedom, therefore. But, more than this. If my concern is simply that my children attend a well-resourced local school, the extension of choice is antagonistic towards this aim in three directions: I now have the burden of making a choice; I have lost the valued option of “leading a peaceful and unbothered life” (ibid); and, as above, providing the real capacity to choose entails a diversion of resources from something else or some other (perhaps more valued) quality immediately and in the future.

[iii]Marshall et al. (2010:1541): “Our results indicate that school-assignment policy can have a large effect on environmental impacts of school commute travel. Relative to the neighborhood-only (i.e., non-school-choice) scenario, emissions of CO2 and of the four urban air pollutants studied here are 4−7 times greater for regional school-choice and 3−8 times greater for current school-choice. Transportation costs and rates of active commute travel (walking/biking) are 8 times greater and 3 times lower, respectively, for the current scenario as for the neighborhood only scenario.” Clearly, cities, school sizes, and school-planning and transport in the U.S. are very different from those in England making such outcomes (size-wise) unlikely over here. But the nature of the outcomes (school choice increases pollution, reduces active travel etc) seems similar and so more work would be useful. However, as Easton and Ferrari (2015:17) point out, a key source of the data needed “was removed from the School Census after 2011, limiting the potential for future work in this area”.

[iv] The MA involved (as course leaders and students) a number of leading educationalists: Geoff Whitty, Stephen Ball and Meg Maguire, see Ball, 2016:19 and for the intellectual inspiration for the MA, Grace, Gerald. ‘Urban Education Theory Revisited: From the Urban Question to End of Millenium’. In International Handbook of Urban Education, edited by William T. Pink and George W. Noblit, 959–78. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2007.



  1. I’m sorry Adam but I still haven’t read your blog. (Look forward to so doing!) I’m at square one. “Why is the planning system used to govern education?” needs explication before attempting to comprehend far less answer. Whatever do you and they mean by planning? I plan a picnic, I plan a meeting. Is there a national lifting system? a national colouring system? Finally I get to the first suggestion: Page 4, Introduction, para 1.: “It provides a framework within which locally-prepared plans for housing and other development can be produced.” OK, so you are talking about buildings. That narrows down the universe of government interest. So the ‘planning framework’ provides a framework for local plans for buildings. OK, but in common sense, plans for buildings are drawings usually made by an architect to be used as a model by client and public authority as necessary, and from which constructors erect the said building. But this doesn’t sound like what you and they are going to talk about. Does plan actually mean policy, and the policy not of a client wanting a building but of an authority, one with power over aesthetic control, one with power over the provision of public services? I continue ploughing into this Framework and eventually find it so indigestible as to send me back to reading Kafka. Water is essential to sustain my life, drowning in it is not. Apologies. I’ll dry off and return to try to understand your blog.


  2. Wow! I’ve reached your first question, and am aghast. Now we see more linguistic blurs doctoring spin in ways Orwell or Kafka recognised and were repelled by. Is there also “a national choice framework?” Does it aim to ensure our access to 40 varieties of chicken, to preserve our right to choose among 40 therapies for rheumatoid arthritis or to set our own rail timetables? “It is important that a sufficient choice of school places is available to meet the needs…” A school place could reasonably be called a need; but a choice? for whom anyway, education authority? child? parent? “Local planning authorities should take a proactive, positive and collaborative approach to meeting this requirement, and to development that will widen choice in education.” Hang on. Back to ‘planning’ defined earlier as provision of housing and other buildings. Is this not now an education authority and not to do with buildings at all? (Education can take place allover the place – as the crumbling, pokey and draughty ancient colleges of Oxford or Eton make clear). But “widen choice in education” is an utterly different and laudable goal, no? But that is an educational and not land-use-planning goal. Choice in education can be well widened within one school. It is therefore utter non sequitur that a local authority “should: a) give great weight to the need to create, expand or alter schools through the preparation of plans and decisions on applications” (whatever the weaselly words ‘on applications’ may mean); and this overtly politically, partisan and disturbing suggestion is reinforced in the following lines which need serious reading between, as they themselves are as a blank cheque “b) work with schools promoters, delivery partners and statutory bodies to identify and resolve key planning issues before applications are submitted”. Part b really deserves careful parsing. I leave it to you. If I’ve stamina left, I’ll move to your question 2. Thanks, Adam.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have reached your question 2., but am struggling. It is clear to me now that you and they define ‘choice in education’ as exemplified as the way a prime minister might have been put down for Eton as soon as his parents knew he was a boy. In other words choice (presumed parental choice) between schools, and not anything like ‘choice in education’ provided by a school for its pupils and relating to their aptitudes and developing skills. The issue really is who choses and for whom and who has the best choice for the larger society-there-is-such-a-thing at its core? In a now very distant century, when I actually did design a school and was employed by an education authority to so do, all research seemed to show us that pupils who walked to school performed better than those carted by parent or public transport. My memory may romantically over-egg that, but I remain glad to have been lucky enough, before today’s rules, to ensure my children lived in walking distance of their schools and thus their friends. As you suggest, this is obviously equally good for the planet. Now that is where ‘planning’ as land-use policy really is important. SUVs and 4x4s jostling every morning and afternoon in the narrow road outside an inner city primary school offends me daily (pre-covid), just as long-distance commuting to affordable housing shreds good parenting, but a national planning framework could, should, address such. This is for the good of society and the planet. And has no political overtone at all – other than presuming the privileging of social and global health. Apologies if this seems to become rant, that was not my plan. I was fed on the opening sections of the National Planning Policy Framework to which you introduced me, and perhaps it encourages hyperactive response.


    1. Thanks John, it’s good to hear from you. Yes, a hyperactive response seems justified – there’s so much here that’s reductive as well as incoherent!


      1. Thanks Adam. Sadly it seems as if my first of the three responses – before I could even reach your Question 1 – has vanished into the ether and, of course, I’ve no copy. It was all about what actually is meant in the Framework document by ‘Planning’ , and I had to go deep into its muddy depths to get hints.

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