Academies, Politics

London councils say their hands are tied on falling rolls

Borough chiefs demand academy admission powers to get grip of crisis

Borough chiefs demand academy admission powers to get grip of crisis

10 Jun 2023, 5:00

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A lack of power over academy admissions is leaving councils ill-equipped to meet their statutory duties and manage the fall-out from London’s plunging pupil numbers, the government has been warned.

Falling birth rates and a post-Covid exodus of families from the capital have squeezed budgets in primaries as they struggle to fill reception classrooms.   

With grim forecasts predicting the number of four-year-olds in some areas of London will drop up to 15 per cent by 2027, borough chiefs have slashed admission totals and even decided to close schools.  

But while they can determine reductions in local authority-maintained schools, their powers do not extend to academies.  

‘This will only accelerate problem’

Sam Freedman, a former adviser to the Department for Education, said the split between local authorities and trusts “creates an incentive to academise”. 

Sam Freedman

“If no one has the power to close a school in the area and it’s left with trusts, you’re unlikely to get anyone to willingly close and you’ll get falling rolls across all schools.”

The axed schools bill proposed giving councils more power to intervene in academies, which are their own admission authorities.  

Freedman added: “If you’re a maintained school, you’ll think getting into a trust will make you safe. This will only accelerate the problem.” 

London’s birth rate dropped 17 per cent between 2012 and 2021, equivalent to 23,225 fewer children.  Almost 15 per cent of school places in the city are now unfilled. 

In Hackney – with 634 vacant reception places last year – senior councillors voted a fortnight ago to carry out two mergers and close two other primaries from next September.  

Repeated calls for powers

Anntoinette Bramble, the borough’s deputy mayor, said she had “repeatedly asked the government for greater powers to manage places in free schools and academies in order to pool resources”.  

She claimed that the launch of four free schools since 2013, “without reference to the council’s evidence-based needs”, had contributed to the “reduction in demand for places”. 

Halley House – part of Bellevue Place Education Trust – agreed to halve its published admission number (PAN) “in response to falling reception rolls” in 2019. Fellow academy Mossbourne Parkside also pledged to reduce entry numbers from this September.  

Mark Greatrex , the chief executive of Bellevue Place, said he was “keen to work in partnership with the council”. 

But London Councils, a cross-party organisation representing the capital’s boroughs, said the lack of statutory levers could make it difficult for authorities to influence academies’ decisions on falling rolls.  

“[The government needs to] give local authorities the power to manage an academy’s reduction of PAN or closure, where there is clear evidence of a significant drop in demand and a need to act to ensure a school remains viable,” the body said in a report earlier this year.  

Laws needed to ‘tidy up process’

However, Freedman argued that councils could only “get the powers if all primaries and secondaries are academies because they’ll otherwise try to defend their own”.  

The alternative was for regional directors to take the lead. “We need legislation to tidy up the academy process.” 

Research from London Councils shows pupil numbers are likely to decrease from 2022-23 to 2026-27.

Lambeth, the worst-hit, is set to see a dip of more than 15 per cent. The borough admitted in October it had “limited control over secondary decisions” as 13 of its 20 11-plus schools were academies, which gave it “limited option” on year 7 place provision.

While the demand for these spaces is expected to decline at a slower rate than for primaries, two Lambeth secondary academies are due to close.

The second closure was “outside our control”, said Ben Kind, the council’s member for children. “We believe these important decisions should be taken locally, not nationally.”  

Further tensions emerged when the oversubscribed Kingsdale Foundation in nearby Southwark unveiled plans to boost its PAN by more than 42 per cent from next September.  

‘It’s survival of biggest’

Lambeth opposed the proposal at the beginning of the year, urging the academy to “work as part of the community rather than to act in isolation”. 

Florence Eshalomi

Meanwhile, Richmond upon Thames education chiefs noted in March that “if further academisation were to happen to the point where few, if any, stay council-maintained, then that might make it more difficult for us to fulfil our statutory duty”.  

Florence Eshalomi, the Labour MP for Vauxhall, told colleagues during a Westminster Hall debate on Wednesday that this created “a survival-of-the-biggest culture”.  

Since 2015, average headcounts for primary academies have grown by almost a tenth, overtaking those of their authority-maintained counterparts, Schools Week analysis shows.

“We’ve already seen this locally where larger academies expand at the expense of neighbouring schools,” Eshalomi said. “This threatens the mix of small and big schools that defines London’s school ecosystem.” 

Guardian investigation uncovered that more than 90 primaries across England are either set to close or at risk of shutting as they sit more than two-thirds empty.  

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