Schools get funding for each pupil they take so those with falling rolls face financial devastation. State schools are now under pressure to market themselves to prospective parents in the same way that independent schools do to stop themselves from going under.
But many headteachers are unaware of the approaching crisis, which will intensify in the coming years, experts warned.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Information about unexpected changes, like those seen during the course of the pandemic, needs to be supplied as quickly as possible. It is always going to be challenging to adjust to sudden decreases in pupil numbers, but the more time there is to plan for these adjustments the better.”
A spokeswoman for London Councils said it is “concerned” about the effect that falling rolls have on schools, adding: “Reduced pupil numbers will lead to less funding for schools, resulting in many having to make difficult decisions about budgets... in some cases closures may be the only option.”
Latest figures from London Councils show that 90,000 children applied to start primary school in London this September — a seven per cent drop on the previous year.
It put the drop down to “turbulence caused by the Covid-19 pandemic”, families moving out of urban areas, the decreasing birth rate and Brexit.
By 2022, London is expected to have 84,384 surplus school places, with 84 per cent of the excess places in primary schools. London Councils’ Do the Maths report into school places said the number of children under four years old in London is expected to drop by a further 6,000 by 2024.
In Hackney, where there are 500 surplus places, three primary schools have already reduced their Reception intake from 60 to 30 — the equivalent of losing a class each.
And in Camden, Carlton and Rhyl primary schools will be merged from September because of falling pupil numbers. Clerkenwell Parochial school is set to close at the end of this term. Only three pupils joined Reception this year and the class merged with the year above.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It would be a huge mistake to allow schools to close, only for there to be a renewed places crisis further down the line. Local councils and central government need to keep an eye on the long-term here and ensure schools are supported.”
Richard Tilley, founder of Comms for Schools, which helps schools attract pupils, said the multi-academy trust system makes the scrabble for students worse because local authorities are not able to manage the process themselves.
He added: “Local authorities don’t seem to be giving local schools the heads up on the situation ... there is no doubt that schools will close, and that is devastating for communities.”