DOZENS of new schools could open in a single part of Oxfordshire and threaten the future of community education unless Government rules are changed, it has been warned.
Oxfordshire County Council leader Ian Hudspeth, who is also spokesman for young people and learning on the County Councils Network, has called for local authorities to have more of a say on where new schools are built.
Current rules allow groups such as charities, businesses or churches to bid to open new free schools, which are not controlled by a local authority, wherever they want.
More than 100 schools across Oxfordshire are technically out of the council's control - free schools and academies - compared to about 180 still run by the county council.
The Department for Education (DfE) can then give them the go-ahead without any consultation with councils or parents.
Mr Hudspeth said the principle of a local school within walking distance could be at risk if that was allowed to continue.
He said: "We could have an absurd situation where 35 academies were all built in one location, and that would mean there would be sufficient school places across the county.
"But how would pupils get to that location?
"We need the ability to sit down with the DfE and have the ability to explain to them why a location might not be the best for a new school, and provide the evidence.
"We need to make sure we have the correct places for children, so that when a new housing development happens there is a new school with sufficient places so they are not being driven and bussed around the county.
"My concern is whether we will continue to have that sort of long-term planning ability."
The Government requires all new schools opened in England to be either free schools or academies –free from local authority control.
In some parts of the country this has led to new schools opening in locations where there were plenty of places in existing schools.
Mr Hudspeth said that remained a concern nationally, and potentially for Oxford in the future.
He said: "We need the ability to work with academies to provide places in the right areas, rather than setting up a situation where two competing academies could create an over-capacity, while in other parts of the county there would be a lack of spaces.
"If there is a school that is struggling and needs some investment in it and then a free school opens in the locality to take pupils away would it not be better to sit down and look at the existing school that needs investment and give it that investment?"
Last month Government spending watchdog the National Audit Office warned that £2.5bn was being spent on buying land for free schools while existing school were left crumbling.
Oxford Spires Academy headteacher Sue Croft said while she would rather her school did not have to expand it could prove to be the best option as opposed to a free school opening nearby instead.
She said: "It is not in our plans to expand but we would rather find an opportunity to continue the unique education we offer and expand something that works.
"The alternative would be to spend vast amounts of money on something uncertain.
"There is no reason why we would not be receptive to council requests to expand.
"We work very closely with them about admissions anyway.
"The Government must be feeling under pressure because of what the statistics say about how uneconomic free schools are."
A change in the rules would require the Government to change the law surrounding free schools.
Department for Education spokesman Michael Murphy-Pyle said: "Despite a rising population the percentage of children getting places at their preferred school has remained stable and we are spending £7bn to create new school places between 2015 and 2021.
"This, along with our investment in the free schools programme, will provide 600,000 new places.
"Local authorities are responsible for providing enough school places for children in their area and supporting them is one of the Government’s top priorities.
"There are lots of examples of local authorities working constructively with academies and maintained schools, and we want this to continue when developing more good school places."
Lib Dem county councillor and education expert Professor John Howson said Mr Hudspeth's proposals made sense.
He said: "The local authority has got an overview of the geographic area and knows where schools are needed looking forward to 2020.
"Currently that can be completely sabotaged by a group coming along and saying 'we want a free school'."