No one did sums on pupil numbers at failed Mersey flagship

21st January 2011 at 00:00
Council must still repay #163;24m funding

A #163;24 million Merseyside school, opened to much fanfare two years ago, that is to close due to falling pupil numbers, was not required to forecast its student population, The TES has learnt.

Christ the King Centre for Learning in Huyton, Knowsley, announced this week that it is shutting its gates because it could only fill half of its places for this September's intake.

But the local authority was not requested by central government to provide a projection of the number of pupils in the area for the coming years in order to establish that the school was viable, and is now forced to pay back the #163;24 million over the next 23 years, even though it is not being used in its original form.

In a statement, Knowsley Council said the school had "promising" numbers of pupils when it first opened, but now has only 511 pupils, with 900 spaces available.

A council spokesperson added: "Despite the best efforts of the school leadership team, in September 2010 the numbers were reviewed and did not show signs of improving."

It is the fourth newly built school in the past 10 years to close shortly after opening due to falling pupil numbers.

Three schools built under early private finance initiatives - Bishops Park College in Essex, Balmoral High School in Belfast and Comart Media and Arts School in Brighton - were all forced to close or merge with other schools because of falling rolls, despite millions of pounds being spent on new buildings.

Partnerships for Schools (PfS), the government agency which oversees the Labour government's #163;55 billion secondary school rebuilding project Building Schools for the Future (BSF), said it only called for town halls to provide pupil number projections from 2007, three years into the programme.

A PfS spokesperson said the requirement was only brought in following the arrival of the current chief executive, Tim Byles.

"In 2007, we introduced a new requirement for local authorities to have carried out rigorous modelling on their projected pupil numbers before starting their BSF projects so that schools were built in areas that needed them," the spokesperson said.

Charlotte Leslie, Conservative MP for Bristol North and member of the Commons education select committee, said the decision to close the school summed up the previous administration's wastefulness.

"The closure of Christ the King epitomises the failures of the last Labour government," Ms Leslie said.

"Obsessed with grabbing the next headline, they opened the school to great fanfare without checking that it was viable.

"The upshot is that they have failed parents and pupils and left the taxpayer with a bill that they will be paying for years," she added.

It is expected the school will be turned into an FE college for 16-19 students or become one of the Coalition's new university technical colleges proposed by Conservative peer and former education secretary Kenneth Baker.

PFI CLOSURES

Open and shut

Three PFI (private finance initiative) schools built for millions of pounds suffered the same fate as Christ the King.

The expensive precursor to Building Schools for the Future came under sustained fire during its attempt in the Noughties to rebuild England's and Northern Ireland's ageing school stock.

Bishops Park College in Essex was completed five years ago at a cost of #163;20 million, but was closed due to falling pupil numbers before being reopened as an academy.

Balmoral High School in Belfast saw its pupil numbers halved and the Northern Ireland Department for Education still has to pay #163;6.6 million to private contractors over the next 18 years.

And Brighton Council was forced to pay #163;4.5 million to release itself from its PFI contract following the closure of Comart Media and Arts School six years after it was built.

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