Photograph: Pixabay.

A surplus of hundreds of primary school places in Hackney has prompted work to begin on a long-term plan to address the issue, amid concern across north London of a demographic shift threatening the future of schools.

According to the latest council statistics, Hackney now has a surplus of around 500 new primary school places, confirming previous projections of an “increasing potentially substantial” fall in rolls by the council which carries with it a “significant financial risk” for the education ecosystem in the borough.

The Citizen reported in January that the Town Hall had said it was “poised to consider and undertake in the near future” primary school closures or permanent reductions in the numbers of children admitted into reception classes once uncertainty caused by the pandemic had begun to ebb.

Children and education services group director Anne Canning said: “Originally there has been a significant shift across London and our latest data confirms of a surplus of primary school places that will move its way to secondary school places over time. 

“It came quickly and unexpectedly in a way, though of course Brexit was probably an originator of it.

“There are internal plans around primary schools regulating themselves if they can for reducing their published admission numbers (PANs) on a permanent or temporary basis but one of the big pieces of work the service will take through this year with our capital colleagues will be looking at a long-term strategy around primary school places and what capital estate is needed. 

“I know we will be joined by many local authorities up and down the country, and the concern is, where are those children.”

Canning added that the situation had also been exacerbated by “central policy developments” including the opening up of free schools, which have a provision of places which “does not necessarily relate itself directly to what local authorities [are] providing”.

Falling primary school rolls are far from a Hackney-specific issue, as London house prices continue to rise and birth rates fall, posing a threat to schools whose government funding is directly linked to the numbers of pupils they admit.

Heated debate has been seen in recent months in Camden over the merger of Carlton and Rhyl schools for the same reason, with Clerkenwell Parochial also set to close this year as pupil numbers fell.

Action has already been taken to cap reception places for 2020/21 at 30, down from 60, at Hackney’s 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.

Quizzed on the issue back in January, Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville has pledged that Hackney would see “no simplistic, let’s-just-take-off-the-shelf closing of a school”.

He promised to adopt a “sophisticated approach” which could include splitting schools across different sites or mothballing a school to ensure its availability if and when the population in an area increased.

The Town Hall’s school organisation plan 2020-2025 reads: “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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