Primaries shut as rolls dip

15th April 2005 at 01:00
Every year since 2000, 100 primary schools in England have closed because of falling rolls.

The declining birth rate is changing the nature of primary provision as schools close, merge or form federations to reduce surplus places.

Government figures show 17,762 primaries in 2004, compared with 17,861 a year earlier. In 2002, there were 17,985, and 18,069 in 2001.

Up and down the country, hundreds of communities are battling to save their primaries from closure. Schools face uncertainty as they endure lengthy consultations and try to persuade politicians that they should survive.

Last year, 500,000 primary places in England were empty, and pupil numbers are expected to drop by a further 4 per cent by 2007. A third of the 150 local authorities responded to a primary schools survey by The TES, with 54 per cent of respondents saying they would be closing or merging schools.

Alison King, chair of children and young people's board at the Local Government Association, said: "Local authorities cannot mothball buildings hoping the birth-rate will increase. They have to rely on the demographic information available ."

In central Liverpool, the demolition of housing is changing demographics as people move out of the city into temporary accommodation. The local authority expects that within 10 years pupil numbers will rise again when 10,000 new homes are completed.

Sefton predicts it will have to close seven schools and Stoke-on-Trent, six, while Darlington said it had shut down 20 primaries in the past five years.

In Wakefield, there were plans for four mergers of eight schools and in Stoke-on-Trent, as part of a process that began in 1997, 30 schools will be merged.

Federations of schools are an increasingly popular solution, particularly in rural and suburban areas. LEAs including Bath and North Somerset, East Riding, East Sussex, Surrey, and Havering and Sutton in London, were considering such a move.

In Birmingham and Redcar and Cleveland, empty primaries will become adult education facilities or "surgeries" for health workers. In Birmingham, 9,000 of the city's 98,000 primary places will be empty within five years.

However, in some areas, the population is expanding.

Only one authority, Blackpool, admitted there might be job losses. The others expected displaced heads and teachers to find new jobs, or to retire. However, David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "We have been handling a lot of casework from heads who have applied for jobs in merging schools and not got them."

Wales has lost 43 primaries since 200001 and a further 200 could close in the next five years. Falling rolls are affecting rural and urban authorities, and the Welsh Local Government Association is reviewing its policies on surplus places and small schools.

* dorothy.lepkowska@tes.co.uk

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