Southwark primary school in over £200k debt set to close as pupil numbers plummet

By Grainne Cuffe, local democracy reporter

A school in debt to the tune of over £200,000 is set to close as pupil numbers plummet.

The 156-year-old primary school in Southwark will close in September, council documents show.

Southwark Council’s cabinet approved a report on Tuesday recommending that St John’s Walworth Church of England Primary School closes after falling pupil rolls placed “irreversible pressure on the school budget”.

The move follows a decision by the school governors to close the school.

The total cost of the closure is expected to be about £470,000, including the school’s current budget deficit of £227,000 and other costs such as redundancies, site security, and uniforms for children transferring to other schools.

Pupil numbers have dropped dramatically across the capital in recent years.

The trend is down to a mixture of falling birth rates, a Brexit effect which saw some families leave the UK, and the pandemic – which also saw families move out of London in droves.

School funding is driven by pupil numbers – the more pupils a school has on roll, the more funding it receives.

The capital is suffering a year-on-year fall of 6.7 per cent in primary school applications – London Councils estimate it could cost schools £34 million.

Parents with children at St John’s, some of whom signed a petition calling on the Prime Minister to save the school, said they were “truly gutted”.

In a foreword to the report going before cabinet, deputy leader and cabinet member for children and young people and education, Councillor Jasmine Ali, said she was recommending the closure “with great sadness”.

“This follows the decision by the governing body of St John’s to consult on the school closure on the basis of the significant falling pupil rolls placing irreversible pressure on the school budget.

“This combined with a requires improvement Ofsted judgement makes the improvements required more challenging,” she said.

Falling numbers

In the academic year starting September 2020, 18 children took up reception class places compared to 11 the previous year. Only ten families applied to reception for 2021.

The school has a capacity of 210 across all year groups.

According to the report: “As at September 2020, 144 places were filled with 66 places vacant resulting in a 33 per cent vacancy level across Years Reception to 6 –which is above the average vacancy level of 19 per cent in Southwark.

“This low level of admissions has had a considerable financial impact on the school over the years, which has led to a substantial and growing in year financial deficit.”

The council has moved all 51 pupils at the school into “neighbouring good or outstanding schools”.

On whether other schools in the borough could close for the same reasons, Cllr Ali told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that she doesn’t know.

“I hope not. There are things that schools started doing when this first became an issue like renting out classrooms and looking at having more pupils with special educational needs,” she said, adding that she hopes schools and the council can “weather the storm”.

Cllr Ali said the link between pupil numbers and funding should be broken.

She said: “The Government keeps talking about the importance of catch-up, we want to have a situation where we’re working with the schools.

“We know our teaching staff are committed to getting our pupils back on track, but in a meaningful way.

“What better way to do that then to do take advantage of the fact that we’ve got a situation with smaller class sizes.”

Cllr Ali said: “We want to weather the storm, keep the buildings intact so that when birth rates go up again and when people stop moving out of London, we’re ready.

“The thing about this dreadful pandemic is that it’s brought an even closure partnership between the local authority and the schools. We’re working really closely together to make sure there’s minimum disruption.

“We are going to carry on raising standards. No one has worked harder in this pandemic than the children and young people themselves and we want to do right by them.”

It was initially unclear what would become of the school building – the Archdiocese owns the school but the council hopes that the building would be kept for educational and training purposes.

It emerged at the cabinet meeting that it is a priority for the Archdiocese to keep the building in education or community use.

Roz Cordner, co-diocesan director of education said: “As part of the briefing we’ve had a letter from Bishop Jonathan, who is chair of the board of education and he has stipulated that it is our priority to find suitable educational use for the building.

“If that’s not possible in the first instance, to make sure that we utilise it as a community space because we recognise that’s what the need is.”

She added that they have had interest from an alternative provision unit, from an existing nursery, and from community projects .

 


 

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