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Falling rolls could give academy drive unexpected boost

Plunging pupil numbers could give the government’s ailing academy drive an unexpected boost, experts say, after two primaries unveiled plans to join a MAT as rolls continue to fall.  

Primaries have been struggling to fill reception classrooms in the wake of a birth-rate dip of 13 per cent since 2015.

Brighton and Hove council chiefs greenlit proposals in January to slash more than 90 spaces across three maintained schools in the next academic year. 

But Benfield Primary and Hangleton Primary, both in the authority area, have now launched a bid to join EKO Trust, saying falling rolls on the coast means “the capacity to maintain and develop staff is reducing as the schools shrink”.

Warnings of ‘fragmented academy system’

Academisation would allow the schools to run more efficiently by “accessing services and resources managed and commissioned across an organisation with funding of more than £22 million”. It would also increase professional development and career opportunities.

Tom Richmond

But the authority’s Labour administration opposes the proposal, arguing that academisation “will not solve” plunging pupil numbers and only “fragment” the system.

Meanwhile, Hackney council in east London is facing legal action from parents who say it’s not fair borough chiefs are planning to close maintained schools only. Authorities have no admission powers over academies.

Tom Richmond, of the EDSK think tank, said it was becoming “increasingly unsustainable” for councils to “retain the statutory duty to provide enough school places without being able to influence the opening and closing” of academies in their area.

Schools ‘need to retain, develop and recruit staff’

In consultation documents, Benfield and Hangleton said the local authority, “through no fault of its own…has less funding and resources, which it has to target at the weakest schools”.

But the papers added: “We need to retain, develop and recruit the very best staff team to achieve the best outcomes for the children.”

Brighton and Hove officials warned in January that schools without enough pupils or those with “fluctuating numbers” might not be able to operate in a financially efficient way and risked entering a budget deficit. Forecasts suggest there will be more than 690 surplus places in the area by 2026.  

Lucy Helliwell, who chairs the children, families and schools committee, said this week a more “fragmented system with more schools outside” the local authority made it harder to co-ordinate city-wide place planning.

Council and DfE ‘imbalances will worsen’

Richmond added that the imbalance between central and local government would become “more fraught” as maintained schools converted to academies.

Elsewhere, Islington in north London wanted to close Pooles Park Primary to cut surplus places in the borough.

The school – in which 56 per cent of reception spaces are said to be unused – has also been issued with an academy order after Ofsted rated it ‘inadequate’ in November.   

Shortly after a consultation on the closure plans ended in June, Claire Burton, the regional director for London, gave the go-ahead for the school to be absorbed by the Bridge Trust. 

Splits create ‘incentive’ to become academy

Sam Freedman

Advisory board minutes said the civil servant “stated she was mindful of the [council’s] concerns about surplus places”.

But she noted that “government policy is to seek a sponsor for any ‘inadequate’ school and to proceed with conversion where there is an appropriate match”. 

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

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

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