Closure fears as Islington primary schools face funding crisis
As pupil numbers plummet, headteachers face challenge to manage budgets
07 June, 2019 — By Calum Fraser
Barrie O’Shea: ‘There are problems with enrolment across the borough. We have seen falling pupil numbers year on year now’
HEADTEACHERS have warned of a fresh funding crisis as pupil numbers plummet in Islington primary schools.
The severity of the situation has led to the possibility of schools setting deficit budgets, and there are fears that some could be closed.
High housing costs in Islington, a falling birth rate and the opening of new free schools have been identified as key factors.
Parents were told this week not to be fooled into thinking smaller classes might mean more “focused” teachers with schools warning that they could have to cut staff costs with less money.
Barrie O’Shea, who investigated enrolment figures as chairman of Islington’s Schools’ Forum, a panel of education experts that advises the council, said: “There are problems with enrolment across the borough. We have seen falling pupil numbers year on year now. If we lose pupils then we lose funding, and that is something no school can afford, especially at this time.”
He added: “If we don’t watch out it could spiral out of control and schools could be in danger of closing.”
This drastic measure has been taken in neighbouring Camden where a school in King’s Cross has announced proposals to shut down by Christmas.
Last year there was a 4.5 per cent drop in enrolment in Islington and the Tribune can reveal that two primary schools are operating at about half of their capacity, while four primary schools and two secondary schools have about a third of their places to fill.
Mr O’Shea criticised the government’s free school policy which saw several new schools crop up across the borough in the past six years, despite opposition from unions and council chiefs.
Damien Parrott, the executive headteacher at Montem Primary School and Drayton Park Primary School, said: “People might think it is good to have smaller classroom sizes, but the government’s funding structure incentivises larger classes with funding provided per pupil.
“Now we’re seeing schools having to set deficit budgets, with some at a crisis point.”
Islington primary schools have the capacity to take 15,330 pupils, of which 13,562 were filled last year.
Secondary schools have the capacity for 8,357 pupils, of which 7,452 were filled last year.
But a Schools’ Forum report warns that secondary schools are likely to feel the pinch as the drop in primary numbers works its way through the system.
Councillor Kaya Comer-Schwartz
One headteacher, who did not want to be identified, said that cuts are having to be made to staff because of the fall – with the remaining teachers taking on more roles.
“You prioritise what you have to for your children,” the headteacher added. “It’s more for less. We just do it. There are increased hours and reduced lunchtimes. We barely get a member of staff who takes a lunch hour. We just do it because of teamwork, no one complains.”
Islington’s education chief Councillor Kaya Comer-Schwartz said that families on “moderate incomes” were being pushed out of the borough because of high housing costs.
She suggested that the fall in pupil numbers over the past three to four years could also be due to smaller families.
“I don’t think we should panic because we are seeing low rolls,” said Cllr Comer-Schwartz. “I have been told that the figures are now reaching a plateau and could start increasing again with the completion of new developments across the borough.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We undertake a rigorous assessment of the local area when approving new free schools to ensure that they provide choice, innovation and higher standards for parents.
“We take account of existing school places and capacity in the system when approving a free school – balancing the benefits of new places with the costs of surplus capacity and the impact on existing schools and local areas.”