London's outstanding school system is under threat as an exodus of families from the capital is forcing increasing numbers of schools to close, stark new data reveals.
Almost 8,000 fewer children will need school places over the next four years due to a falling birth rate and families leaving London due to Brexit, the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, a new report by London Councils warns.
It means schools, which are funded according to the number of pupils they have, will be forced to either close or to balance their budgets by cutting teachers, narrowing the curriculum or offering fewer after-school clubs.
There is an “imminent risk” that this will lead to a “drop in standards which will impact children’s long term educational attainment,” the report warned. This would set back the incredible improvements made in London schools which sees London children now getting the best exam results in the country.
Monday's warning comes after a string of historic and much-loved London schools have already closed down or are slated to close imminently due to falling pupil numbers, including the 300-year-old Archbishop Tenison’s secondary school in Oval, Randal Cremer primary in Hackney and St Martin-in-the-Fields High School for Girls in Lambeth. Others plans to merge in a bid to survive.
Holy Family Roman Catholic Primary School in Kidbrooke was this month the latest to announce plans to close. It is due to shut at the end of this school year.
The report revealed London boroughs are forecasting a drop in demand of 7,904 places in Reception classes and Year 7 over the next four years. This is a 4.4 per cent decrease in Reception places – the first year of primary school - which translates to 3,864 places, which is roughly the equivalent to a drop of 128 classes.
Boroughs also predict a drop in demand of 4.3 per cent for pupils beginning secondary school in Year 7. This translates to 4,040 places – the equivalent of 134 classes.
The overall figures mask larger decreases in some areas, with seven boroughs forecasting a decrease in demand of more than ten per cent.
The report said this drop in demand is unlikely to reverse and “will worsen in many areas.”
It added: “This means there is the potential for greater reductions in pupil numbers in schools and the threat of further school closures in coming years.”
The main cause is London’s falling birth rate, which dropped by 17 per cent between 2012 and 2021 – the equivalent of 23,225 births.
But the report also highlights the UK’s exit from the European Union as another reason that has led to families moving away from London, as well as the impact of the pandemic, the increase in the cost of living and the lack of affordable housing in London.
It said: “These factors are continuing to be significant in determining where families choose to live, particularly in central London.”
London Councils’ analysis shows that the majority of London’s maintained schools are either in deficit or have less than eight per cent surplus budgets, and falling pupil numbers is one of the main reasons behind this.
The organisation is calling for the government to ensure school funding keeps up with inflation, which will help schools cope with changing levels of demand for places. It also wants more powers for local authorities to work with academies – which currently are not under their control despite local authorities being responsible for managing school places.
Monday’s report calls for local authorities to be able to direct academies to reduce their pupil numbers, as they do with maintained schools where there is evidence of a significant drop in demand, and a need to act to make sure a school remains financially viable.
Councillor Ian Edwards, London Councils Executive Member for Children and Young People, said: “London boroughs are seeing a significant reduction in the number of pupils beginning primary and secondary education, which has major implications for the future of schools across the capital.
“This report comes at a time when unfortunately some of our schools and local authorities are negotiating a complex balancing act. The drop in demand for places means schools face extremely difficult decisions over how to balance their budgets.
“London has some of the best schools in the country, with over 90 per cent of all our schools being rated good or outstanding by Ofsted.
"We are working diligently to ensure that this level of high-quality education is accessible for all children entering schools in the coming years and allow our schools to thrive despite this difficult climate.
“London Councils will work closely with key education partners in London including government, to mitigate the impact of this drop in demand for school places on school budgets and children’s achievement."