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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Anna Davis

London schools with falling pupil numbers converting to academies to avoid closure

Some London schools with falling pupil numbers are moving to become academies so they cannot be closed down, it has emerged.

Local authorities are shutting schools that do not have enough children, in a bid to manage the empty classrooms caused by an exodus of families from London and a falling birth rate. But they have no powers over academies.

Leaked documents, seen by Schools Week, reveal that the Diocese of Westminster urged Catholic schools to become academies to shield them from decisions by local authorities to close them.

Separately, Islington council has also been blocked from shutting a half empty “inadequate” school after it became an academy, and may be forced to close a “good” local authority school instead.

It comes as the number of children in London has plummeted. Almost 8,000 fewer children will need school places over the next four years according to London Councils, and local authorities are trying to manage the drop in demand by closing schools with low pupil numbers, to ensure the remaining schools are financially viable.

Falling pupil numbers are hurting London schools (ES)

A “key reason” behind the Diocese of Westminster’s choice to start moving schools into multi-academy trusts in 2017 was to ensure “closure or amalgamation decisions would be solely” in its hands, according to documents seen by Schools Week.

Diocese minutes from a meeting last month state “there is a growing urgency” for its schools “to initiate the process of transferring into the academy sector”.

A letter to headteachers from the diocese last month revealed it wants its 204 schools — many of which are in London — to have either converted or be “engaged in the process” before the end of 2024–25.

In Islington, Pooles Park primary school was allowed to become an academy by the Department for Education, despite it being rated inadequate and it being less than half full. The council wanted to close the school but it is now run by the Bridge Multi Academy Trust and out of its control.

Islington council said closing the school “would have supported the future of neighbouring schools which are all rated good by Ofsted and face similar problems with surplus places. The decision taken by the DfE means there will still be too many school places locally, which means these schools will continue to not be funded properly. The decision will force us to consider the closure of another good local school.”

London Councils, which represents every local authority in the capital, is calling for more powers 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.

London Councils said: “It is vital that local authorities are able to work with all local schools, including academies, in the interests of local children.”

The Diocese of Westminster said its strategy since 2017 has been to turn schools into academies to better serve their Catholic ethos. He said: “To date two-thirds of our 204 schools have either converted to become part of an academy trust or are in the process of doing so. We continue to work in partnership with local authorities as part of the planning for the local provision of places for pupils.”

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