Falling pupil numbers put logistical and financial pressures on a school

Hackney Council is “poised to consider and undertake in the near future” primary school closures or a permanent reduction in the numbers of children admitted into reception classes once the uncertainty generated by the pandemic dies down, according to Town Hall documents.

Highly placed sources in the council suggested to the Citizen that a primary school closure could be one of the options considered on the basis of a consultation on a reduction in school places and detailed demographic data.

According to the Town Hall’s School Organisation Plan for the next five years, demand for reception places across the capital has decreased year on year since 2015 for “unclear” reasons.

The documents speculate that changes to welfare benefits, rising rents and the effects of Brexit could be responsible for the drop, which has impacted on the “efficient running and financial stability” of some schools in the borough.

Falling pupil numbers in earlier year groups has already prompted a consultation on the reduction of published admission numbers (PANs) for the school year beginning in September of 2022 at Harrington Hill, Gayhurst, Mandeville, Randal Cremer and Thomas Fairchild schools.

However, Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville, when quizzed on the likelihood of the borough seeing primary school closures in the borough, said that “there will be no simplistic, let’s-just-take-off-the-shelf closing of a school”.

Deputy Mayor and education chief Cllr Anntoinette Bramble in a separate interview cautioned that “it is too early to say” whether such policies would be carried out.

Glanville said: “I’m unconvinced of the case around closing primary schools. Populations ebb and flow. When I moved to the borough, and if you look back at the 2001 census and all the political debate about inner London, we were still discussing the decline of inner London and population movement. You can see all round the borough schools that were closed during that period. 

“There are challenging budgets in schools, and there is no advantage in running deficits in schools and jeopardising the long-term financial stability of either the schools or the education system.”

He added: “We have other things that we need more of – we need more special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and specialised provision in the borough, and we may need to reconfigure some of this and ensure that more of that is available locally. 

“Our schools are very ambitious – there is also competition out there, which is a challenge. What more can we do to support those schools that are in slightly more challenging situations? Often it is because nearby schools have been able to invest for the long-term and parents have voted with their feet. We need to make sure that any decisions we take are grounded in the evidence and take people with us.”

The borough leader went on to pledge that a “sophisticated approach” to the problem would be undertaken under his watch, pointing to solutions such as putting in place more specialisms around SEND, splitting schools across different sites, making use of space with early years or alternative provision, or mothballing a site to make sure that it would still be available to be reopened when the population in the area increases.

Glanville added: “While the government makes big claims still of supporting education, we know that it is effectively a freeze which is a cut, that SEND and early years are not properly funded, and that the pay deals that teachers have rightly received are not properly funded. 

“That puts individual schools and governing bodies in a really invidious position and they are rightly having those conversations with Hackney Education about how to work that through.”

Reception places have been capped for 2020/21 at 30, down from 60, for Harrington Hill, Gainsborough Primary and Thomas Fairchild, with Mandeville’s places capped at 45, again down from 60, according to council documents. There are also plans to temporarily reduce places in both reception years by 105 for both 2020/21 and 2021/22.

The council is consulting on reducing admission numbers in the schools listed below for the school year beginning September 2022:

  • Harrington Hill – reducing from 60 to 30
  • Gayhurst – reducing from 75 to 60
  • Mandeville – reducing from 60 to 45
  • Randal Cremer – reducing from 60 to 45
  • Thomas Fairchild – reducing from 60 to 30

Asked in a recent interview if the consultation was the beginning of a process that could result in a primary school closure, Deputy Mayor Bramble said: “I think it’s too early to say that, if I’m honest. There has been a reduction in the take-up of early years places, so we are taking steps to address the surplus places within our primary school sector at the moment. 

“It is not about any individual school, it is about our schools as a whole – what does the uptake look like? What we are doing in the interim is not a long-term solution, we are just looking at how we can reduce this in terms of early years at the moment. Anything that we are looking at and thinking about is about 2022.

“There are different reasons why families have left. Anecdotally, when the housing cap came in I think we saw that had affected some of our communities. Some people are also making the choice to live outside of London, so what you pay for property in London and what you pay outside. It is not just a Hackney problem, it is a London-wide issue.”

Hackney’s fall in reception numbers of 284 pupils from 2014 to 2018 is a pattern being replicated across inner London, with the Town Hall stating that projections do not indicate that demand will increase short-term to the level of places available.

This follows a period of “significant and unprecedented growth” in demand for reception places in the borough between 2007 and 2014, according to the Town Hall’s organisational documents, with “very high rolls” between 2012 and 2016 causing London boroughs to create more school places in response.

Low pupil rolls cause logistical, staffing and financial pressures for schools, with primary schools with fewer than 210 pupils in particular experiencing these more acutely.

When approached for further information, a Town Hall spokesperson at first said that “there is no suggestion that we are considering closing a primary school” before clarifying: “Pupil numbers are currently falling and that’s why we’re consulting on reducing some admission numbers. 

“Whilst there’s no suggestion that we are considering closing a primary school, we do have to keep a range of options under consideration in considering the demographics and sustainability of schools.”

The Town Hall’s school organisation plan 2020-2025 reads: “No decisions have been taken regarding further permanent PAN reductions from September 2021, or school closures. 

“However the council is poised to consider and undertake these measures in the near future once the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 reduces and government guidelines for social distancing are fully outlined.

“The issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to re-shape how schools run for the foreseeable future. Current Department for Education (DfE) guidelines suggest that schools implement social distancing and utilise all available space within school buildings to safely accommodate pupils.

“It is therefore important that the local authority supports schools during this period by minimising significant school organisation changes such as school closures. However, given the current and projected level of surplus reception places, Hackney Education will make decisions about school closures/amalgamations in due course.”

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