Falling primary numbers force council to consider mergers

Lambeth predicts it needs to reduce capacity by 575 to combat a 'significant strain' on its primary schools

Lambeth predicts it needs to reduce capacity by 575 to combat a 'significant strain' on its primary schools

A London council is considering merging up to 16 of its primary schools as plummeting pupil numbers threaten the viability of education in the capital.

Lambeth predicts it needs to reduce capacity in its primary schools by 575 to combat a “significant strain” on its schools “that could impact the quality of education”.

Primary pupil numbers across England are due to fall by 16.6 per cent over the next 10 years – more than 750,000 fewer pupils.

But in London, Brexit, Covid and the soaring cost of housing is driving migration, exacerbating the issue.

Schools receive funding based on the number of pupils they have, not their capacity, so surplus places create a financial strain.

Department for Education data shows that at 29.2 per cent Lambeth will have the highest proportion of spare primary places of any area next year.

Ben Kind
Ben Kind

Eight of the 10 council areas with the largest proportions of spare places are London boroughs.

Presented with options ranging from doing nothing to closing five schools, Lambeth’s cabinet voted late last year to consult on reducing the capacity of eight schools, with up to eight “amalgamations”.

Ben Kind, Lambeth’s cabinet member for children and young people, told Schools Week that all councils were facing a “stark” challenge.

“Our starting point is to work with schools and the community to make sure that this happens, avoiding the need for things like school closures in the future.”

Lambeth predicts mergers will cost less than closing schools completely because they mean fewer redundancies.

Pitfalls of ‘split-site’ primary schools

But the approach is not without its pitfalls. Lambeth admits it could increase the number of “split-site” schools in the borough from eight to 16, adding a “financial complexity to those affected”.

There are also concerns about whether governors will agree to merge with a school that has a deficit.

Of the eight pairings of potentially amalgamating schools, which have not been named, five would involve at least one school with a deficit.

Of the 16 schools, two have deficits in excess of £600,000, and three others have deficits of more than £200,000.

However, the council believes the cost of mergers should “largely” be met from dedicated schools grant funding.

This funding is lagged so is not immediately cut if there are dips in pupil numbers. There is also extra cash available for schools with split sites.

If Lambeth chose to close five schools, redundancies and wind-down could cost it about £3.5 million from its general fund.

Several primary academies in Lambeth have also launched consultations on reducing capacity.

Van Gogh Primary School, part of the Dunraven Education Trust, wants to reduce its published admission number from 90 to 60.

‘Underfunding means there isn’t much left to cut’

David Boyle, Dunraven’s chief executive, said funding shortages left schools without much leeway to tackle falling rolls.

“The consequence of the past 10 years of reduced levels of funding means there isn’t much left to cut before you get to teachers in classrooms.”

Other councils are considering their options, although Lambeth is understood to be the first to start the ball rolling on potential mergers.

Jasmine Ali, the deputy leader of Southwark council, said: “For many complex reasons, there are not enough children to fill London schools.

“This is causing a funding gap. I know this will worry families when they hear that it is happening, but we are working with each school affected, individually, to find a solution.”

Lewisham council said it was “not proposing to close or amalgamate any schools, but we are in discussion with some primary schools about their admission numbers and some changes have already been made”.

Some outer London boroughs do not appear to be experiencing the same pressure, however. Kingston said demand for reception places remained “very high”. But it still removed two forms of entry in 2022.

A Department for Education spokesperson said it was for local authorities to “balance the supply and demand of school places, and school leaders to decide how to spend their budgets”.

“Local authorities have the ability to set aside funding for falling rolls, where local planning data shows that surplus places will be needed within the next three financial years.”

More from this theme


Hinds says ‘all schools’ restrict phones, and 5 more key findings

Schools minister also says the 'option' of statutory mobile phone guidance remains

Freddie Whittaker

CST calls for policy changes over ‘unsustainable’ parent complaints

Academy body says rise in complaints is putting 'significant pressure on school leaders’

Jack Dyson

Poverty: Trusts spend six-figure sums to support ‘crisis’ families

News comes amid calls for chancellor Jeremy Hunt to hand out more education cash in next week's budget

Jack Dyson

Heads and teachers working longer despite workload push

Key government workforce survey reveals longer working weeks, less job satisfaction and more anxiety

Samantha Booth

Number of children ‘missing education’ rises a quarter

117,000 children were not registered at a school and not receiving a suitable education elsewhere at some point last...

Freddie Whittaker

‘Elite’ Star and Eton sixth forms reveal ‘clearing house’ careers role

Partnership between academy trust and top private school also opens new 'think and do' tank

Schools Week Reporter

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *