Southwark primary schools could be forced to merge after ‘falling rolls’ cause financial headache

Katherine Johnston (12 July, 2021)

St John's Walworth will not reopen in September - and more schools could be at risk

43134St John's and MP Neil Coyle, who has said information about schools at risk of closure or merger is a 'jigsaw with missing pieces'

School mergers could be on the cards in Southwark, after the council admitted falling school rolls are a ‘serious issue’, having formally approved the closure of St John’s Primary. 

Although the historic Walworth school has been slated for closure for months, the decision is only set to be officially agreed by the council at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting on July 13.

As we reported earlier this year, in March staff and teachers had been informed the school would not reopen after the summer holiday, giving teachers and other school workers scant notice that their jobs were on the line.

At the time, the much-loved primary had 220 places but only 144 were filled, creating a deficit of £350,000 for the next academic year.

Primary schools across London have seen a drop in pupils since 2018 but in some areas this is likely to be a short-term trend. 

Although catchment areas like St John’s are set to see more affordable and new housing through widespread regeneration schemes – including in Old Kent Road – this will not come quick enough to subsidise the shortfall in funding.

A decline in numbers poses a financial headache as government funding is determined on a pupil-by-pupil basis. Losing pupils increases costs and can lead to an overall decline in standards, exacerbating the trend as parents turn elsewhere.

St John’s had recently taken on a head described as ‘fantastic’ by staff and parents, who said it could have easily become oversubscribed had the new leadership team been given the chance. 

The decision to close was a particularly hard kick in the teeth after working so hard to continue educating children during the trials of the pandemic and home working. 

Southwark council says a fall in birth rate, uncertainty from Brexit and some families returning to the EU, and COVID-19 and the number of people moving out of London are all contributing factors. 

Southwark Council deputy leader, Jasmine Ali, who also holds the education portfolio

Councillor Jasmine Ali, cabinet member for children, young people and schools at Southwark Council said: “This is a London-wide problem, and perhaps exists in other city centres nationally. 

“We are fighting hard to ensure that this only has a positive impact on children’s education, and I will be writing to the education secretary to ask for schools to be fairly funded, rather than per capita pupil. 

“We are committed to getting fairer funding to allow schools to remain open, because with smaller classrooms, we can see an opportunity within our grasp to turn this into a benefit for the education of our children, but we need the system to change.”

Referencing St John’s, she added: “We actively encourage schools to work together through partnerships, mergers and federations and to open buildings up, where possible, for wider community use. 

“But ultimately, with a heavy heart, it looks like we will have to agree that a school will close.

“This is never a happy outcome for families who have invested emotionally in their local school. 

“However, where schools close, we will find a place for every child in another, excellent local school nearby.”

Local MP Neil Coyle has previously criticised what he described as a ‘jigsaw missing a lot of pieces’, saying there has been confusing and mixed messaging about whether Southwark has too few or too many school places. 

It comes after the council’s own £200 million investment in new schools after a previous shortage.

According to this week’s cabinet papers, all 51 pupils at St John’s have now been given places in nearby schools rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. Ninety per cent have stayed in Southwark with the remainder mainly now being educated in Lambeth.

The cost of closing the school is expected to run to not far off half a million, taking into account redundancies, site security and archiving. A ballpark closure figure, quoted by Tooley Street, is currently £470,000.

 

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