Proposals put forward to tackle surplus school places
Published: 26 May 2023
The Isle of Wight Council must look to address a surplus of more than 200 primary school places across the Island, working closely with headteachers and governing bodies who last year called on the authority to take 'decisive action'.
Now proposals are being put forward to consult on closing three primary schools, and closing a fourth through amalgamation, amid a significant fall in reception pupils and challenges around teacher recruitment and retention.
School leaders warned that keeping too many schools open risked
condemning pupils to a mediocre education and called for the council to
draw up a strategic school place plan, looking at the Island as a whole, to
"We find ourselves operating in a school system that is grossly inefficient with multiple additional challenges caused by chronic overcapacity that inhibit our efforts to improve the educational experiences of our young people," they said.
The reality is that there are too many primary schools on the Island for the number of primary-age children:
- 39: the number of primary schools on the Island.
- 1,379: overall number of reception places on the Island, the equivalent of 46 classes.
- 213: number of vacant reception places in 2022-23, the equivalent of seven classes.
- 15 per cent: this year's intake vacancy rate which is more than five per cent over the suggested vacancy rate.
- £4,023.24: the amount each primary school receives for each pupil on roll and therefore the amount they do not receive for every vacancy
- £856,951: additional funding schools would receive if there were no vacant reception places this year.
There are 39 primary schools on the Island and the council is considering a recommendation to consult on closing three of them. These are in areas of over-supply and falling rolls.
The proposed changes are in no way a reflection on the work of the schools' current staff and leadership, or on the quality of teaching.
Unlike many other local authorities, Island families will still be able to access a number of schools within a five-mile radius if these proposals are agreed.
The main principle of current and future provision is that we will seek to provide local schools for local children, which are both educationally and financially sustainable in the longer term and enable school leaders to deliver a well-rounded and balanced curriculum to every child.
Schools that may close (no closures are proposed to complete before September 2024 at the earliest):
- Cowes Primary School.
- St Mary's RC Primary School, Ryde.
- Wroxall Primary School.
The council is also proposing the closure of Chillerton and Rookley Primary School through its amalgamation with Godshill Primary from 1 January 2024.
The number of pupils attending the school has fallen steadily over the past few years and the number on roll in April 2023 was nine against a capacity of 91 places.
All children have been educated on the Godshill site since January 2023 due to the inability to recruit adequate staffing for the Chillerton and Rookley site to be safe and remain open.
Why is this happening?
These proposals are a direct result of the significant reduction in the number of reception-aged children entering the school system.
One factor that accounts for this decrease is a fall in birth rates on the Island, which also reflects the national trend.
The council predicts the number of primary school children will fall from 9,200 in 2017 to around 8,000 by 2025.
The consequences of having too many surplus places can be severe.
Schools receive funding from the Department for Education (DFE) based on the number of pupils they have.
Now some schools are facing a significant income loss. This means they have less money to:
- provide the good quality of education that we expect for our children;
- pay salaries;
- provide extracurricular activities;
- access the most modern equipment and resources.
Falling rolls make planning and staffing decisions difficult, with schools potentially having to make year on year redundancies or having to restructure, with all the disruption that brings affecting staff morale and retention.
Another issue facing school leaderships is the difficulty in recruiting high-quality, qualified teachers.
Staffing schools is a national challenge, employing staff to work in a very small school is even more difficult.
On the Island, the teacher market is less open than on the mainland and there is the added challenge of attracting professionals to relocate here.
School heads have told the council this means some schools struggle to recruit qualified teachers because the available teachers are spread across an inefficient system.
The funding issue also means some schools can no longer afford to continue to pay for maintenance, and escalating heating and lighting costs.
A school with an intake of 60 that only admits 32 pupils must still employ two teachers and heat, light and equip two classrooms, even though the budget for that year group may have nearly halved.
The council's legal duty
The council has a legal duty to ensure schools provide high-quality places for the children; and if we do not act now, the future quality of education some children receive may start to suffer.
What has the council been doing to try to help these schools?
School leaders and the council have been doing everything they can to manage the situation, including by combining different year groups in some schools, and formally reducing and capping reception places. But this hasn’t solved the problem.
There is no expectation that pupil numbers will increase in the foreseeable future, and the issue of over-capacity will continue to worsen if no action is taken and eventually affect secondary schools on the Island.
Should future demand for reception places suddenly increase, there is existing physical capacity within schools to absorb additional children, and additional places could always be added if needed.
Councillor Debbie Andre, Cabinet member for education, said: "We need to ensure all our schools are fully supported to provide excellent education for our children, with the very best resources and facilities.
"We know schools have very close ties to their local communities, that’s why closing schools is one of the most difficult decisions we can make, and not one we would ever choose to do unless we had no other choice.
"We have listened to headteachers and school governors and are willing to make these difficult decisions, if the consultations support this action, along with the views of parents and pupils.
"I would stress that no decision has been made to close any school at this time, only a recommendation to consult on potential closures.
"But the quality of education for our children, and strength of the whole school system on the Island, must take priority for the sake of the futures of our young people."
A report — School Place Planning — will go before the council's Cabinet on Thursday, 8 June. The meeting will be held at County Hall in Newport at 5pm. All are welcome to attend.
Should the Cabinet approve the proposals to consult, schools and council staff will be holding a series of meetings to talk to parents/carers directly about the plans.
In the case of three of the schools (Cowes, Wroxall and St Mary's), no closure would take place before September 2024.
This would only follow in-depth discussions as well as formal, statutory consultations with parents/carers, staff and leaders, governors of the affected schools and the wider community to start in the autumn.
The consultation would last a minimum of six weeks, so that all may have the opportunity to comment.