Slower population growth blamed for number of pupils falling to 43
Parents have told of their sadness at the closure of their local primary school in Hammersmith, which education heads have blamed on benefit cuts and Brexit.
The closure of Lena Gardens academy in August is all but certain, as staff await confirmation from the Department for Education.
The school was taken over by the Elliot Foundation Academies Trust in 2014. Since then, the number of pupils at Lena Gardens has fallen from over 200 to just 43. Ofsted rated it “Good” after its last inspection in 2017.
It has left parents in disbelief at how it went from being a popular, successful school to facing closure within a few years.
Ishmael Francis-Murray, 37, a plasterer, said he took his son out of the school in October last year.
“It’s happened so fast,” he said. “The school was perfect, there was nothing wrong with it. It’s such a shame to see what’s happened.”
Michelle Widderington, 29, the mother of Mr Francis-Murray’s son, said,“They couldn’t find a support teacher, so we had to take our son out, and all his friends were leaving at the same time.”
The youth worker, added: “There were so few pupils left that they merged all of years four, five and six into two classes.”
It follows an announcement in September on the school’s website, that the Trust had applied to the Government to cease funding, citing falling pupil numbers as the main reason.
The Trust’s chief executive, Hugh Greenway, said he was “saddened” by the closure, but that the school had become “unviable”, despite the Trust’s effort to improve it.
In short, there are too many school places in Hammersmith and Fulham, and fewer children to fill them because population growth has been slower than expected.
“There is a 17% vacancy rate across the primary schools in the area which is set to continue for at least the next five years, Mr Greenway said.
“This is caused by the bedroom tax, universal credit, the cost of housing, Brexit and [falling] birth rates themselves. I do not think that anyone could have predicted this five years ago.
“The Elliot Foundation is saddened to have to close a primary school, especially one that has improved so significantly during its time in the Trust. We have been trying hard to avoid it but with 43 children on roll, Lena Gardens is simply not viable.”
The school’s closure comes amid a trend of falling demand for primary school places in central London boroughs. A report by London Councils — a group formed of town hall chiefs from every London borough — found demand for places across the capital fell by 3.3% between 2016/17 and 17/18. The report found that fewer young European families were migrating to the capital, with long-settled families opting to leave the country as well.
Mr Greenway added: “Keeping the school open would adversely affect the quality of education offered to children both in the school and nearby schools who are also below capacity. This has nothing to do with the quality of education provided in Lena Gardens.”
But Ms Widderington also believes the Elliot Foundation Academies Trust knew far in advance that the school would need to close. “They would never give us any information on what the future held, but they gave us the impression they knew something but wouldn’t tell.”
And she said the school advised some parents to apply for places at Greenside Primary School in White City, also run by the Trust, while others were not.
Mr Greenway denied this, saying: “The Trust and the school have worked closely with [Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s] admissions team to ensure that all families affected are offered a place in a school that suits their needs and preferences. All parents and carers affected have been offered the same support and guidance.”
The 1890s school building will be retained by its owners, Hammersmith and Fulham Council, when it closes.
More than 80% of the Trust’s schools have been rated “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted.
Owen Sheppard - Local Democracy Reporter
June 7, 2019