Council faces legal challenge over falling rolls closure plan

Head questions 'protection' of academies and free schools in council's school closures plan

Head questions 'protection' of academies and free schools in council's school closures plan

A council planning the closure of four primary schools because of plunging pupil numbers is facing legal action from parents because academies and faith schools are excluded.

Colvestone Primary School is one of four maintained schools that will close at the end of this academic year if Hackney council goes ahead with its plans. 

However, campaigners have issued a pre-action letter that threatens judicial review if proposals are not scrapped.

They say the focus on closing local authority-maintained schools will leave them without the option of a non-academy, non-faith school.

Councils have no powers to compel academies to reduce their rolls or close. But authorities in London grappling with plummeting pupil numbers have been forced to consider drastic plans for their own primary schools.

Jo Riley, the headteacher of Randal Cremer, which is also set to close, said it had had “concerns” since a free school, Hackney New Primary, opened nearby in 2015.

“My school has been at the heart of the community since 1875. What people can’t believe is that a new school that was built in 2015 can’t be touched. It’s protected because it’s not under the council control.  

“That is something that needs to be thought about because that is what the community is feeling.” She said something that had been part of the community for so long was “just going to be taken away”, while something that was “brand new” was not. 

London’s experience will spread nationally

Schools Week revealed earlier this year that Lambeth, another inner-London authority, was planning to merge up to 16 of its maintained primary schools.

Neighbouring Southwark has similar plans to merge or close community schools. 

London’s experience will be emulated nationally in the coming years as pupil numbers across England fall by 12 per cent over the next decade. 

Hackney plans to close Randal Cremer and De Beauvoir Primary, and merge Colvestone and Baden Powell Primary into two other schools. 

Opponents of the plan for Colvestone say it will reduce parental choice, leaving the area “dominated by religious schools, free schools and academies, which are not being considered for closure, regardless of numbers”.

Campaigner Chris Davis said it “does appear that in spite of the local authority, and by all accounts the electorate of Hackney wanting local authority schools…the opposite is being done.  

“They are the ones that have been put forward for closure. They need to be defended by someone … they just seem like they’re a soft target.” 

Families ‘have started to jump’

Cremer’s closure was first mooted in March, with Riley saying that families had “started to jump now rather than wait and not maybe get school of their choice”,

Its roll has fallen from 265 in March to 137, which the head called the “year of disappearing children”.

“That is the hardest thing. Watching these children disappear and go to another school. Every week I get another request for an in-year transfer. It just feels sadder and sadder.” 

She had done “restructure after restructure. Having to get rid of people all the time means we haven’t got the capacity to do some of the things we’ve always done.” 

Anntoinette Bramble
Anntoinette Bramble

Hackney is one of many councils that has called for extra powers over academies.

Anntoinette Bramble, its deputy leader, said that falling birth rates, a cap on housing benefits, the housing crisis forcing families to leave the capital, Brexit and the pandemic had “led to changes in population that are beyond our control”. 

The council had done “everything possible to reduce the impact of the falling rolls”.  

But to find “long-lasting solutions, we have also asked the government for more support in funding schools with falling rolls, and greater powers to manage places in free schools and academies”. 

Hackney said its decision to publish statutory notices of the closures and mergers would prompt a “28-day representation period during which any person may object to or make comments on the proposals”. 

But Davis said parents felt the consultation felt “feels kind of rigged from the outset”. 

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