Responding to the fall in pupil numbers in Hackney
Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member for Education, Young People and Children’s Social Care, writes:
Last night, we as a council had to make one of the most difficult and saddest decisions in recent years, and one that will undoubtedly cause sorrow among our communities.
In September 2024, four primary schools in Hackney will be closing their doors to pupils. This is after years of falling pupil numbers and the unprecedented financial pressures this brings, and despite our best efforts to support all of our schools by taking all possible measures to mitigate their impact.
As has been widely reported, in recent years many inner and greater London boroughs, including Hackney, have been experiencing a significant decrease in pupil numbers. The plummeting rolls have had a huge impact on our state-maintained schools, which receive money from central government based on the number of pupils they have. Fewer children means less funding.
This situation isn’t new. The number of primary aged children joining primary schools in Hackney peaked in 2014/2015, following seven years of unprecedented growth, and has been in steady decline since, with no significant rise forecast in the medium to long-term. Our October 2023 census shows even fewer children joining reception in Hackney than forecast by the Greater London Authority, with three additional reception classes remaining unfilled (92 children). Our schools currently have over 600 empty places in reception classes alone, a 21% surplus. A healthy surplus is between 5 and 10%.
To put things further in perspective, in 2022/23 alone, Hackney primary schools saw £30m less funding compared to what they would be entitled to if their classrooms were full. This financial pressure, year on year, has a cumulative impact on our schools, and threatens the stability and quality of our education system.
The urgency of finding a solution is proven by the latest data that shows the financial reserves available across Hackney’s maintained primary schools having dramatically decreased by 70% in the last two years, and forecast to drop to £2.6m at the close of 2023/24 financial year. This is while over two thirds of Hackney’s maintained schools, or the federations they form part of, are predicting they will over-spend during the 2023/24 financial year. This happens at a time when council’s overall finances are already stretched, with significant savings needed across the board. Delaying to take action is simply not an option anymore.
None of what is happening is due to any fault of our schools, their leadership teams or staff. The schools that will be closing have gone above and beyond to ensure that the falling rolls have the least possible negative impact on the quality of their education. The large number of messages of support for them we received has shown how well-loved, caring and nurturing they have been for the pupils, families and communities they serve. This only makes the decision we had to make harder.
I know our communities will want to know what will happen to the sites of the schools that will close. I want to reassure them once again that we will do our best to steer these sites into locally relevant and valuable uses, while being mindful of the extreme financial pressure the Council is under and the need to minimise the impact on our finances. We also know from our visits to these schools, and our knowledge of Dalston, De Beauvoir, Haggerston and Hackney Downs, the depth of feeling in these places about their respective schools, how they sit in that wider community context and the need to work with communities to defend what makes these communities and places special.
It has been a difficult process for all those involved in this project since we first publicly announced these proposals in March 2023, and this decision brings with it a deep feeling of loss. My thoughts go in particular towards the schools that will have to close, their leaders, staff members, pupils and families, who will need time and support from us to grieve and to prepare for the transition that will be taking place. Our officers have already begun working with the schools to prepare bespoke support packages for all those directly affected by the closures, which includes dedicated and direct financial support.
Hackney has incredible schools, and we want to allow them all to shine and show the great work they do. We understand that once parents find a treasured school with amazing leaders and staff and good support it’s very difficult to accept that it may be taken away from them. But great schools are the rule, not the exception in our borough. 98% of Hackney primary schools are good or outstanding, and I am sure that the school communities that will be receiving new pupils next year, led by their exceptional headteachers and governing bodies, will help new pupils feel welcomed and thrive. Our officers will be working directly with the families affected, and help them make the best decision for the future of their children.
I want to thank everybody that spoke to us during the last months, responded to our consultation, or emailed us directly to share with us their experiences. We have dedicated our work to serving all of our residents, and we will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that each and every child in Hackney has access to the best possible education.
For all our successes in Hackney over the past two decades, there sadly remains significantly high levels of poverty and need. It is our job, as a local authority, to create life-changing opportunities for those who most need them - this starts with first-class support and education. We must continue to ensure that every single child has the opportunities to fulfil their potential, achieve their ambitions, and be happy.
Unfortunately, sometimes the right decision for the borough is a heartbreaking one.