Pupil Roll Numbers and School Closures: London — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:28 am on 7 June 2023.

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[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering 2:30, 7 June 2023

The sitting is resumed. We come to an important debate on pupil roll numbers and school closures in London.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered pupil roll numbers and school closures in London.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to lead my third Westminster Hall debate and to discuss this really important issue. I am grateful to everyone for coming. I also thank London Councils, which has supported me to raise this important issue.

This is an emotive topic. I think everybody here remembers when they went to school; those experiences really do stay with us for life. I still have memories of when I went on a visit from primary school to big school—secondary school—in my summer uniform. I thought this place was like Hogwarts, but when I walked into secondary school it felt like Hogwarts too, because it was so much bigger! Schools are places that communities are built around: places where, as children, we learn to make friends and find our passions in life; and, as parents, we watch our children learn about the world and their place in it.

As a proud Londoner who has lived in Lambeth all my life and now has the opportunity to represent my home constituency of Vauxhall, this debate is personal for me. I went to four schools in total: Durand Primary School and St Helen’s Catholic Primary School, then to Bishop Thomas Grant School and St Francis Xavier Catholic Sixth Form College, all of which were a short trip away from where we stand now. We will talk about policy over the course of the debate, but this is a human issue. We all care deeply about the communities we represent, and schools sit at the centre of them. We all want our city to thrive, with an education system that produces the next generation of Londoners—one that gives them the chances we all had. That is a shared purpose that I hope will define this debate.

The current situation facing London schools is a difficult one. There has been a sharp decline in the number of children born here. In fact, the latest data shows that between 2012 and 2021, there was a 17% decrease in London’s birth rate, which represents a reduction of over 20,000 births. We are only just beginning to see the effects, as children born across that period reach school age, but it is already clear that it will have a drastic impact on the number of pupils attending London schools. The scale varies across boroughs, but it is predicted that reception numbers will fall by an average of 7.3% by 2027—a drop of more than 7,000 pupils. And it is not just primary schools; secondary schools are seeing the same thing happen at a slightly delayed rate, with an anticipated decline of 3.5% over five years. That figure will increase further over time as children currently starting primary school reach secondary age.

The declining birth rate leaves many schools facing an uphill struggle to stay afloat. Our national education funding model works on a per pupil basis. Across the country, schools are already working hard on very tight budgets.

Photo of Marsha de Cordova Marsha de Cordova Labour, Battersea

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. Many headteachers in my constituency of Battersea have raised concerns about the viability of their schools remaining open. Obviously, the inflation challenges are having an impact on their budgets, but, more importantly, is the fall in the numbers of children coming into their schools. Form entry is reducing due to things like the pandemic, London becoming an unaffordable place to live, a lack of affordable housing, Brexit and many other factors. If schools are having to close, which has been the case in some London boroughs—thankfully not in my own constituency—they will leave a hole in our communities. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to work with our teachers and all authorities to look for solutions to ensure that we do not see schools in our communities closing, which also takes away choice from families and children?

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I thank my hon. Friend for making such an important point; her constituency neighbours mine, so a number of my constituents attend schools in her constituency and vice versa. This is about parental choice. The fact is that if schools are closing in some London boroughs and the Government do not address the situation now, there could be a ripple effect. I will come to that point later.

This process happening in secondary schools. Our national education funding model works on a per pupil basis and across the country schools are struggling. In Lambeth, where my constituency is, we are sadly at the forefront of these pressures. It is predicted that we will be hit harder than any other London borough, with an anticipated drop of 15% in the number of reception pupils by 2027. Secondary school numbers are also predicted to reduce by more than 12% over the same period.

The reality is that this trend can be linked to the Government’s record. In the years before they came to power in 2010, Lambeth experienced a 19% increase in demand for reception places. As a result, schools were built, refurbished or redeveloped across the borough to account for this fast-growing population of school-age children. I feel proud that I added to their number with my son, who is six years old today, and my daughter, who is eight; they both attend Lambeth schools.

The Tory failure to manage the economy has led to the spiralling cost of living crisis and the situation is not helped by the lack of affordable housing being built. This has priced people out of their communities and caused the decline in school numbers across Lambeth. Sadly, we are witnessing the harsh impact of this situation. Two schools in Lambeth are closing because they do not have enough pupils to be financially sustainable.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She made a powerful point about the sky-high childcare and housing costs in London, which are driving people out of the capital. In Richmond upon Thames, we have not quite seen the level of reduction in pupil numbers that there is in Lambeth, but in my constituency of Twickenham we had to close down eight reception classes in the last academic year and seven reception classes this year. In a few years, that will feed into the secondary school sector, where, of course, academies can raise their pupil numbers at will and local authorities have no control over them. Does she agree that it is high time that local councils were given strategic powers to co-ordinate all school places and admissions in their area, so that every child can go to a good local school?

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I agree. That is something that my party is committed to. I hope that my colleague—the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Stephen Morgan—will be able to outline why it is important that we have that approach.

Archbishop Tenison’s School in my constituency announced in May that it will close at the end of this academic year, and it was closely followed by St Martin-in-the-Fields High School for Girls in Tulse Hill, which is represented by another constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Helen Hayes, although young pupils also attend it from my constituency of Vauxhall and that of my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Bell Ribeiro-Addy. Both these secondary schools have histories dating back to the 17th century and their closures will leave a huge hole in the communities they have served.

I will say a bit more about Archbishop Tenison’s School, because its closure has directly impacted my constituents. The beautiful, grand, 1920s school building is matched by the school’s history. The school overlooks the Oval cricket ground and has proudly offered high-quality education to many generations of south Londoners who have studied there. I have had the pleasure of visiting on many occasions, and every time I have been struck by the strong sense of community. Pupils from all different backgrounds feel at home there.

The school’s closure has caused an outpouring of sadness. I was contacted by so many constituents who were shocked by the announcement, many of whom were former pupils with so many happy memories to share. The closure has caused significant practical disruption for the current students, which brings me back to the people at the centre of what we are discussing: the children and the school staff who have to bear the brunt of what is happening.

Mr Hollobone, I want us all to imagine what this would feel like: imagine what it would be like to be in the middle of your school journey, in a place you know like the back of your hand, having navigated the corridors where you have made friends you have seen every day for years; you feel at home. Then, one morning—out of the blue—you come to school to hear that your school is closing. You are probably preparing for exams and coping with the stress of being a teenager, but at the same time have to start at a completely new school, maybe in a new area, with new teachers, new classmates and new buildings. The uncertainty of the situation is having an impact on our young people mentally, and this will happen to many children in the years ahead if we do not act now.

Fortunately, neighbouring schools have rallied round to help minimise the impact for students from Archbishop Tenison’s. I am particularly grateful to St Gabriel’s College, which has agreed to take on a majority of the students in exam years, as well as a majority of the teaching staff. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of visiting St Gabriel’s with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South, and we saw preparations for the new students. Many areas would not be lucky enough to have such a sustainable alternative nearby, but even where a new school is found, the process will be disruptive for all involved.

My central point is a simple one: without action to address falling pupil numbers, Archbishop Tenison’s and St Martin-in-the-Fields will be joined by other good schools across London being forced to shut their doors. Data from London Councils shows that there are 14 parliamentary constituencies in London where at least one school has already closed or is consulting on closure—that is just in the last two years—but it does not have to be inevitable.

The Government have to act to address the core issues driving young families out of the capital and causing the birth rate to fall. There are a number of factors behind this behaviour. During the pandemic, we saw many families move away from London to be closer to relatives during the lockdown. Some have chosen to resettle where they are, because moving back to London is, frankly, too expensive. The picture has not been helped by the loss of many young European families who were living here in recent years. The uncertainty of the Government’s post-Brexit immigration policy has meant that we have lost the stability we had in previous years, and this has caused many to move away from the UK, leaving a hole in London’s workforce and meaning fewer people are settling here. Those factors have played a part in putting schools under pressure in recent years.

The single most important reason for the fall in the number of children growing up in London is the affordability crisis. It is an issue frequently discussed in the context of the cost of living. Sky-high inflation has pushed up the cost of everything from food to energy bills and household goods; we have all spoken about the issues and the pressing need for the Government to do so much more, but London’s affordability problem has long-term roots, starting with the extortionate cost of housing. The impossibility of finding an affordable place to buy as a young adult is a problem across the country, but it is particularly significant in London.

The average property sale price in London is now over half a million pounds. That is wildly out of reach for so many young couples wanting to start a family, and the private rental market is not a suitable alternative. Private rents have soared in recent years, driven by rising demand and falling supply. I have heard from so many of my Vauxhall constituents who face the choice between paying nearly double the rent to renew their tenancy or having to battle—in some cases, with up to 60 people—just to view a rental property. For a young family with children, that is no option.

Despite the best efforts of our councils to cope with the rapid rise in demand, social housing waiting lists are at an all-time high. Taken together, that means that young couples on lower and middle incomes simply have no choice but to leave London and look for cheaper housing elsewhere. Fewer children are being born here because of that, which fuels the drop in demand for school places. The housing crisis runs through so many issues we face, but if we are serious about protecting the future of our fantastic schools, Ministers must ensure that London remains a place where people of all backgrounds can afford to live.

Without more young families staying in London, we may sadly lose more schools. I have already spoken about the impact of school closures, but the loss of a school is also a wider risk to national education standards. As schools close and pupils are relocated, existing schools become larger. Over time, that creates a culture of survival of the biggest, where smaller schools are consumed by those with more capacity. We have already seen that locally with larger academies seeking to expand at the expense of neighbouring schools. That trend threatens the mix of small and big schools that defines London’s school ecosystem, reduces parental choice, and leaves smaller schools unable to compete, even if they are performing well.

For most pupils, what does that mean? It means longer commutes, and bigger class sizes, which puts pressure on our teachers, who are so stretched that some are at breaking point. Some are leaving the profession they love and care about, while the others are left with less time to spend with our children. Also, resources for specialist teaching are squeezed, and those with special educational needs are adversely impacted. Collectively, all those factors damage school standards.

The reality is that where education declines, the life chances of future generations suffer. That is what is at stake when schools close. The importance of that has been reflected in recent media coverage. Last month, the BBC reported that London is becoming “a city without children”. That should worry us all. London is a vibrant, diverse and young city, built on young people. If there are less of them living here, our economic strength to compete in a global world will be harmed. The UK economy will be hit hard by our capital city falling behind.

But what do we have? So far, Ministers have been silent, acting as if this is not happening on their watch. There are spatial impacts: if people are priced out of their home communities, gentrification will accelerate. I am proud to be a working-class girl from Brixton, and I still live there today. I know how important lifelong Londoners are to this city. I am proud to meet so many of them on my walkabouts across my constituency. They are the lifeblood of London, which would be so much poorer without them.

I have five simple asks of the Minister to help. First, further school closures can be avoided if the Department for Education recognises the pressure in the system. Will the Government please work with school leaders and local authorities to identify schools at risk of closure and to work out a plan?

Secondly, London’s birth rate means that pupil roll numbers will fall over the next few years. We have to plan ahead. Will the Minister address the inequalities in school funding? Will he work with the sector to develop a collaborative approach to the challenges ahead, so that we do not see disruption to education standards?

Thirdly, affordable housing shortages are driving young families out of London. The Mayor of London and many of our councils do all they can to increase the supply of affordable housing, but the reality is that the national planning framework, which the Government control, is stacked in favour of developers building high-end housing that no one can afford. Will the Government bring forward their long-awaited planning reform? Will they put power back in the hands of local communities, so that those communities can have development that meets the needs of the local population?

Fourthly, the local housing allowance is a lifeline for many low and middle-income families in the private rented sector, but the Government have frozen its rate since April 2020. Rents have gone through the roof since then. Will the Minister please ask the Chancellor to reverse that real-terms cut to housing support and give hope to the millions of people who have been forced out of their homes?

Finally, will the Minister meet me and other interested MPs to discuss the issue in more detail? Will he work with us to find a solution?

I will end by taking us back to the heart of the issue: the children who have their life chances impacted by what has happened to our schools in recent years. The Government may want to look away and pretend that this is nothing to do with them—that it is the fault of, and down to, the multi-academy trusts or MATs, the education authorities and the schools—but the reality is that Ministers are the ones with the power to do something. I urge them to act now.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

The debate can last until 4 o’clock. I am obliged to call the Opposition spokesman no later than 3.37 pm and the Minister at 3.47 pm. The guideline limits are 10 minutes each for the Opposition spokesman and for the Minister. The mover of the motion will have three minutes at the end to sum up the debate. Until 3.37 pm, we are in Back-Bench time.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall 2:49, 7 June 2023

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for letting me follow my dear friend, my hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi, and for accepting my apology for having to go to another meeting, although I will come back.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. We know that some mainstream primary schools are not as inclusive as they could be in admitting children with special educational needs and disabilities. I have been approached by many parents in my constituency who would like their children with special needs to go to a mainstream school. The surplus of places in many primary schools across London gives us an opportunity to identify ways of making them more inclusive to children with special educational needs and disabilities. We need to ensure that schools are appropriately funded to meet the needs of children with SEND. However, some children with SEND need provision that is best delivered by a special school. Given the shortage of local special schools in London, I hope the Minister will commit to support and fund local authorities so that they can expand local specialist provision where there is a clear need.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner 2:51, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Hollobone. I too congratulate Florence Eshalomi on securing the debate. We have a shared history as councillors in London and as parents of young children, so this issue is close to our hearts. I will touch on the recent history of school place provision in London, outline some of the emerging challenges that I hear about in my constituency—especially, as Mr Sharma mentioned, the emerging challenge in respect of SEND places—and briefly make some suggestions that the Department may find helpful in resolving those challenges.

When I was first elected as a councillor in Hillingdon just over two decades ago, the council was seeking to open a new school, which is thriving today as Ruislip High School. It was built on green-belt land, and local residents were concerned because they recalled that, just a decade or so earlier, the council had closed Southbourne Secondary School in south Ruislip, not far from the new school, because at that time there was a massive over-supply of school places.

There has been a long history in the capital of variations in the number of children, which goes through cycles. When my local authority engaged with the Building Schools for the Future programme, under my leadership as cabinet member for education, it was a condition of Hillingdon’s entry that at least one secondary school per constituency be closed to reduce excess capacity. By the time we were a year or so into that programme, we looked at it again with a view to increasing places significantly, because the live birth data supplied by the NHS demonstrated that the demand for places, although relatively low in the immediate future, would rise rapidly.

The need to plan strategically has been a current issue in all our constituencies for a good long time. The number of pupils grew swiftly following the late 2000s financial crash, hit a peak following a massive expansion in school capacity across the capital, and has begun to tail off in recent years. That initial expansion of school capacity across the capital was primarily led in its early years by local authorities, which fulfilled their statutory duty to ensure that every child who wants and needs a school place can be offered one in their local area.

As time has moved on, we have seen increasing reliance on central control from the Department for Education, as additional capital funding has been moved from local authorities and expansion funds have instead been primarily routed through the free schools programme. A welcome feature of that programme is the significant increase in the number of children attending schools that are good or outstanding, which we often hear Ministers talk about. The fact that the funding was restricted over that time to schools that were already good or outstanding has been positive, as it ensured that in-demand schools could expand, but the reduction in the number of places creates a challenge because the geographical concentration of the surplus places is different from where demand is.

With some of the schools that have been expanded—in and around my constituency and serving some of my constituents I know of schools such as John Locke Academy, Lake Farm Park Academy and St Martin’s—the local authority built the school, ran a bidding process to find a free school provider to deliver the education in it, and ensured that the additional places, when they were required, were delivered on time and on budget in the locations where there was a great deal of demand. Those schools continue to thrive to this day.

When it comes to the emerging challenges, London Councils has done some excellent work to highlight not just the impact that we all hear about as constituency Members of Parliament but what they mean across the capital. Over the same period of time as pupil numbers have been dropping, we have seen a number of changes to the schools funding formula, which has tightened so that there is comparatively much less scope today for a local authority and the schools forum of local schools that work together to support schools with declining numbers—unless there is clear evidence that the surplus places will be used again within the next three years.

Local authorities that use birth data and child-registration data from the local NHS tend to have extremely good visibility of what the numbers are, but by its very nature that data is limited to the point at which the child is born at a local hospital or registered with a local GP as a new mover into the area. Broadly speaking, therefore, we are talking about a five-year time horizon for when we can be accurate about that.

As the hon. Member for Vauxhall alluded to, there has been much debate about why the child population of the capital has been reducing. The data from the Office for National Statistics clearly shows that there is a reducing birth rate, which is having an impact. Anecdotally, schools have told me that increased family mobility as people seek bigger homes outside the capital at affordable prices, and Brexit in locations with a high level of rental accommodation that was regularly occupied by families from the European Union who are no longer coming here, have had an impact on the numbers of children coming through their doors. But the challenges are manifesting not just in inner London: those of us in the suburbs are seeing a significant impact. For example, according to London Councils figures, in the London Borough of Hillingdon we are seeing a decline of around 15% in overall numbers—one of the highest rates in outer London.

Why does this matter? Why does this situation create such a challenge, given that these things are part of the normal warp and weft of population change? Looking at the figures, it is fairly clear that the funding formula, whereby almost all the money a school receives comes based on pupil numbers on a per capita basis, means that a class needs to be full or nearly full to break even.

Let us take the example of two schools in my constituency: Cannon Lane Primary School in Harrow, and Bishop Winnington-Ingram Church of England Primary School in Hillingdon. According to Department for Education figures, Cannon Lane receives £4,249 per annum per child and Bishop Winnington-Ingram receives £4,816. It costs around £60,000 with on-costs to put a teacher in the classroom, and two teaching assistants on top of that are a further £60,000 with on-costs. A share of the school’s overheads will pretty quickly get us to £150,000 to £180,000, meaning we can quickly understand that if a school does not have a nearly-full class, the amount of money coming in per child will not add up to enough to break even for the school’s budget.

Schools that face significant demand for places, but where that demand is less than is needed to fill a class, are going through a process of reducing their planned admission number or PAN—the stated capacity of the school.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

The hon. Gentleman is making a well-informed speech. On that point about pupil admission numbers, it is my understanding—I am happy to be corrected—that if a school has a published plan of 60 and 45 parents put down that school as a first choice, those 45 places have to be granted and therefore the school has to open two classes, even though it is only one-and-a-half classes full. As a result, the school ends up with the shortfall in cash that the hon. Gentleman has outlined.

Does the hon. Gentleman think that, as well as some of the strategic planning powers I talked about for local authorities, there needs to be an interim measure whereby the Department for Education provides some sort of additional funding or grant for those classes that are not full? Schools in my constituency are asking parents for money for glue sticks and to be in sports teams, and are cutting teaching assistants because they are struggling so much financially.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

The hon. Member makes a good point. We also see the converse of the situation in which a school has fewer applications than it has places, and this creates additional pressure on places: rather than maintaining a PAN of 60 with 45 applications, a school makes a decision to reduce its PAN to 30, which means that 15 children who want to be in that school but do not have a place are put somewhere else in the system. I will discuss later a way in which we might be able to address that.

Within the context of reducing pupil numbers, we are consequently seeing significant localised pressure on school places where local authorities are still having to look to expand schools to meet demand. There has always been a need for some spare capacity—5% was the traditional rule of thumb to allow for normal fluctuations —but because we have seen the loss of many of the strategic levers that local authorities could use for planning that, we now see a hotch-potch of situations in which some schools remain under acute pressure to find capacity for more children while others relatively close by struggle for numbers and reduce their planned admissions number.

From a parent’s perspective, everything seems absolutely fine if their child is the one that gets into their school of choice. If that school has reduced its planned admissions number from 90 to 60, but their child is one of those 60, that is fantastic. But if someone’s child is one of the 20 that cannot get in, they are displaced to a school that is not of their choice. That situation creates unhappy children and a financial challenge for the system, which tries to find another place for the children to go.

None of this is helped by the fact that although councils have no control over the dedicated schools grant—the ringfenced budget that funds schools—it is still legally part of councils’ budgets, so a duty is imposed on them to ensure that over a period of time the dedicated schools grant breaks even. I know Ministers have been working on that with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which has overall responsibility.

We see the converse of this challenge in respect of SEND places. The Timpson reforms represented an enormous transformational change in the approach to SEND education across the whole country. The downside is that the huge expectations that were raised by the reforms—particularly the extension to the mid-20s of the age entitlement for young people to access education and training—did not come with sufficient funding to ensure that they were delivered in reality. That is one reason why we see such enormous pressure on SEND in the capital.

Audit data from the London boroughs on the children who are given education, health and care plans and those who have some form of diagnosis demonstrates that the decisions are entirely the right ones. The children are meeting the relevant tests and criteria for the NHS, educational psychologists and so on, so the levels of need are undoubtedly being correctly assessed. We can see councils across the capital—I certainly include in this Hillingdon and Harrow, which serve my constituents—that are enormously challenged by rising demand against a backdrop of the reforms not being funded in line with the expectations that families now reasonably have.

There are many small, specialist SEND providers in the capital—for example, Sunshine House in my constituency—that are very popular with parents. They can offer a very high-quality service, but they are also often extraordinarily expensive, with a single place funded by a local authority not infrequently costing in excess of £1 million a year per child.

The delivery of the additional capacity that we require has been quite slow in the centralised programmes compared with the council-led ones. In my constituency we have seen additional SEND place capacity created through the local authority, such as the Eden Academy and specialist resource provision at other schools, all delivered on time and on budget. But some of the larger free school programmes, which are to deliver the bulk of the additional places we need, are many years behind where they need to be. Although there might be good reasons for the delays—we all understand the period of covid—the reality is that they impose massive cost pressures on our DSG high-needs blocks.

Although safety-valve agreements are being reached at individual local authority level, we need to recognise that the failure of programmes to deliver places on time, even if they eventually arrive, is the main reason why we see such a high level of pressure on the DSG across London for SEND. We know that the in-borough SEND—the state school places—is significantly cheaper than the private sector provision, but the awaited reform of SEND financing cannot come soon enough to make sure that the cost pressures are eased and that parents and children’s expectations can be met.

Let me conclude with some ways forward. I know there has been some consultation on this matter, but my first ask of the Minister is that we look at the enhancement of local authority flexibility to allocate budgets much more strategically in order to ease the way forward, especially when schools go through a transition period of downsizing. Rather than a sudden step from 90 children down to 60, which has a huge impact on the ability of parents to get their kids into a school, as well as a major financial impact on the institution itself, we should smooth that process out and recognise the fluctuations in rising and falling demand.

My second ask is for greater powers for local authorities to strategically plan, recognising that in the context of falling rolls there are areas of growing demand, not just for SEND but mainstream as well. There is an urgent need to be able to direct the overall school-planned admissions number to ensure that the provision matches the demand in a local area.

My third ask is that we do not forget that London is likely to see its population increase again at some point in future. We know that our capital’s population is smaller at the moment than some of its past peaks, that the density of the population has been reducing and that the crowding has been dropping for decades, but it will almost certainly begin to rise again in due course. To facilitate that, multi-academy trusts should be prohibited from selling or disposing of any land or closing sites without the agreement of the local authority that has the legal duty for school places in the area.

I finish by thanking London Councils, and in particular the leader of one of my local authorities, Councillor Ian Edwards, who is the lead member for children’s services at London Councils, along with the officer team that have been supporting him. I place on the record my thanks to the leaders and members in Harrow and Hillingdon, particularly Councillors Hitesh Karia and Susan O’Brien, for their work. I also thank the hon. Member for Vauxhall again for securing the debate on this important issue.

On a positive note, this is an opportunity for us to thank the teachers and councils of London for the work they have done to ensure that this remains, to this day, one of the best cities in the world in which to get an education.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Order. To make sure we can get everyone in, we will have a formal seven-minute limit on speeches.

Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury) 3:07, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Florence Eshalomi on securing this debate and on her thought-provoking opening speech. Her personal reflections remind us all that children are at the heart of this. They only get one go at a primary and secondary education. It is up to us and the Government to ensure that their experience at school is as positive as it possibly can be. It is so important that we discuss this particular issue: it has already been said that it is very much an issue in Lambeth, and I see the particular pressure there, but we are also experiencing it in the outer boroughs of Richmond and Kingston.

I am pleased to be able to put forward my concerns and those of my constituents regarding the financial sustainability of schools across London in the light of falling pupil numbers. As has been said, schools throughout the capital have seen a significant decrease in enrolment in recent years due to the 17% decrease in the birth rate in London over the past decade, as well as shifts in local child populations following Brexit and the pandemic and their impacts on our local demographics.

For my constituents in Richmond Park, the resulting higher proportion of unfilled school places has resulted in a really worrying decrease in school budgets, which are determined on the basis of headcount rather than assessment of need; I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) for his very detailed speech setting out how these decisions are made and the impacts that they have. The Government must ensure that the quality of education and the wellbeing of our children do not decline along with the headcount. I am already hearing from primary and secondary school headteachers across my constituency that funding pressures are resulting in impossible decisions over which cuts to make.

One impact that I am seeing in the Richmond part of my constituency, which goes across the Richmond and Kingston boroughs, is that many of our primary schools are single form entry and have been for many years. When there are falling roll numbers in a single form entry school, it has a massively disproportionate impact on the budget, because, as the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner said, so much of it is allocated on a per-head basis. All the fixed costs do not decrease with the number of children on roll, so when schools are funded on a per-head basis, the impact on single form entry schools, of which I have a number in my constituency, is disproportionate. I would like the Minister to address that.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

This debate is clearly about London, but I always come along to support Members, and I want to support Florence Eshalomi today. I apologise that I was not here at the beginning of the debate; I wanted to be, but I was speaking at another event and could not be here quicker.

The focus for me back home in my constituency is children with special needs. I have never in all my life seen as many children with special needs. I do not know whether that is because there is more recognition of those needs now, but money needs to be set aside for them. The reason I say that is quite simple: schools pave the way for instilling the qualities and skills that children require to better themselves for potential apprenticeships, further study and employment. Children are a treasure. We have a responsibility, and the Minister and Government have a responsibility, to make sure we do better for children and prepare them for the future. Does Sarah Olney agree?

Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury)

It is always a privilege to take an intervention from the hon. Member. I do agree, particularly with his point about special educational needs.

Some headteachers in my constituency are having to make extremely difficult choices about how to allocate their reduced budgets, which are being cut because of falling rolls. Some are being forced to cut back on the number of teaching and support staff they employ, which has an additional impact on those with special educational needs or on the variety of subjects and extracurricular activities they offer. Others are not able to purchase essential classroom supplies or to fund pay rises for their hard-working teachers. Some cannot afford the necessary resources to support not only students with special educational needs, but the growing number of students who are coming to school with mental health and emotional challenges, which is an emerging cause for concern. A decline in pupil roll numbers that directly feeds a decline in school funding is only exacerbating those impacts.

Many parents and teachers in my constituency have written to me about the effects of the tightening school budgets. One primary school headteacher reached out to inform me of the difficulties of caring for children with special educational needs when they have limited funds. He said:

“Each school incurs a significant cost when enrolling a child with special educational needs, and while my own commitment to inclusive education for all will never be dampened, I am aware of school leaders who have been put in the impossible position of not being able to afford to support these children.”

One concerned parent wrote to me about a request from their children’s school for financial donations, just so that the school could

“maintain the basic services they provide.”

I have also received letters from children, with one schoolgirl writing to say:

“An example of schools needing more money was when my French teacher couldn’t provide any of the necessary worksheets because she had run out of money to use the school printer.”

I welcome the recent relaxation of the rules relating to which schools experiencing a decline in pupil numbers can benefit from a falling rolls fund, but, crucially, this does not make carving out the money for a fund any more affordable. I have spoken to councillors in my constituency, who tell me that having a falling rolls fund would only increase the financial pressure on all schools, including those without falling rolls, because it effectively moves money from schools with full rolls to those without. In the overall picture of the increasing and critical pressure on school funds, there is simply no spare funding for schools to help other schools in their area, however much they would like to and however committed they are to working together, which is a real feature of Richmond’s schools.

I want to touch quickly on the topic of empty classrooms, which we are seeing. The hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner and my hon. Friend Munira Wilson mentioned the decrease in the published admission number. The Government should give some thought to the potential upside of the situation and to what we might use some of those empty classrooms for. We could utilise them for community benefits, particularly wraparound childcare; the Minister will know from countless previous debates what a massive issue that is for families across the country, and particularly in London.

We could also use those empty classrooms for youth work, for which there is a growing demand from young people from all sorts of backgrounds, and for careers advice, which is a particular passion of mine. We should be introducing young people to the full range of opportunities that await them when they leave school. I hear from countless business groups that young people do not know enough about their industry. The Government should think seriously about using some of the classrooms that are becoming available for some of those opportunities.

Reduced enrolment numbers are also putting private childcare providers across London at risk of closure. The issue is compounded by other factors such as increased energy, food and staffing costs, as well as recruitment issues. In my constituency of Richmond Park, I was concerned to hear last month about the closure of Maria Grey Nursery School, a popular nursery in central Richmond. Many parents have expressed to me how deeply saddened they are to be losing this treasured institution, which has been a part of Richmond for several decades. Again, that is because of the lack of demand from local families.

We are seeing record falls in the number of childcare providers, with thousands of providers exiting the market each year. That adds to the pressure on London families, who—never mind the fact that childcare is increasingly unaffordable—find securing a place with a childcare provider increasingly difficult. Again, that is linked to the issue of lack of demand. It is essential to shore up—

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham 3:16, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to take part in a debate under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi not just on securing this debate, but on her outstanding opening speech.

I will start with some local pleading. The Minister may be aware of the Avery Hill site, the former university campus in my constituency that was purchased to build the new Harris Academy school. The Minister’s officials do not need to rush; I am not expecting answers today. [Interruption.] Oh, they came prepared—well done! The Minister will recall—I may have written to him in the past—that my concern is about the provision of places, but the Government decided to go ahead with the scheme. It is now on hold, because we lost the contractor for whatever reason—we need not go into that today. I understand that the Department is reviewing schemes such as the Harris Academy. School rolls suggest that we have surplus places for the foreseeable future in Greenwich. My council reports a 10% surplus in year 7 places, and London Councils predicts that between now and 2027, demand for those places will go down by another 2.5%. If the Government are minded not to go ahead with that scheme, may I please have a discussion with the Minister about the future of the site? It is a very important one for my constituency.

On the issue of school rolls generally, I make the same points as everybody else. Because we fund schools by headcount, the impact of falling school rolls can be considerable; as hon. Members have said, it still costs the same to run the school. As one of my headteachers, who does not have a falling roll but has financial difficulties over the next three years, wrote to me:

“This is mainly due to increased salary and pension contributions of all staff, a significant increase in the number of pupils with complex needs who require additional adult support. We have over 20 children out of 400 who have Education Health Care Plans”.

That number is increasing and the needs of those children are becoming more acute. Schools are therefore facing financial difficulties because of factors other than falling rolls.

When a school roll falls, it is not necessarily the case that the costs for the school fall, and we need to have some flexibility around that. I will not elaborate on that, because many people have made excellent points on the issue; what I want to mention is that a big proportion of schools’ costs is staffing costs, which makes it difficult to be flexible when school rolls fall. The Government should not ignore that.

The other, wider issue for us in London is the cost of housing. Affordable housing that families can live in is being hollowed out in central London. That is an issue not just for school rolls, but for the economy. There are people being priced out of London who are essential for certain types of job. We have to address the issue of creating truly affordable rented social housing back where it used to exist, in places such as Southwark where I used to live. I used to play football with friends who went to Archbishop Tenison’s, because Lambeth is not far from Walworth. I remember those schools well, but the places we used to live in no longer exist.

That is the problem that we are facing in central London. We have privatised the provision of social housing. We have relied on private developers to deliver on social housing through planning gain. When we stopped local authorities building houses, we slowed the provision of social houses. Against the loss of those houses being sold, we have hollowed out large parts of London, which has very high land values for social housing. It is a problem not just for schools but for our economy, and it is something that we must address.

The Mayor is doing everything he can. Local authorities are trying to do as much as they can with the resources they have, but this requires a Government willing to step in and make the serious change we need if we are to address population decline in central London. The birth rate is down in London, but it is not down in the rest of the country; I urge the Government to look at the reasons behind that.

I will finish by urging the Government to consider the facts that everyone has set out in this excellent debate. I also ask the Minister to contact me about the Avery Hill site, if he is not going to go ahead with the school.

Photo of Bell Ribeiro-Addy Bell Ribeiro-Addy Labour, Streatham 3:21, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour Florence Eshalomi on securing this debate and on her excellent opening speech.

What we are seeing unfolding right across London is a vicious cycle of soaring living costs and, as a consequence, falling budgets for local authorities and schools. My hon. Friend pointed to London’s 17% decline in the birth rate, which accounts for 23,000 fewer babies in our capital. That crisis is most acutely felt in inner city boroughs such as ours, Lambeth. Yes, it is true that lifestyles are changing and some people are choosing to have fewer kids, but those who want more cannot afford to have them. Even if they could afford them, they cannot afford the size of house to put the kids in.

Since 2001, our borough has seen a 10% drop in households with at least one school-age child. I am sure other Members visit their schools, as I do. I really enjoy speaking to the wonderful children in my constituency; they always have the best questions. As other Members were speaking, I was thinking that if schools continue to close, I will have to spend a lot more time with all of them instead of with the wonderful children in my constituency. That is really sad, because they really are the best of us, and they show us why we continue to do the work we do here.

Since schools mainly receive cash per pupil, empty desks mean debts. Debts leave schools and local authorities with little choice in practice, given wider budget constraints. Teachers and staff end up losing their jobs; their families are then affected in a vicious cycle. After a decade of austerity, there is nothing left to cut. That is why we face the closure of two of our 19 state-funded schools in Lambeth: St Martin-in-the-Fields High School for Girls in Dulwich and West Norwood, and Archbishop Tenison’s in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Vauxhall.

This is personal for me, as it is for my hon. Friend, because it is happening in Lambeth, but also because my brother went to Archbishop Tenison’s and my sister went to St Martin-in-the-Fields. I spent a lot of time there because my mum was always insistent that we went to each other’s school events—as the youngest, I certainly enjoyed visiting theirs more than they enjoyed coming to mine, but we spent a lot of time in those schools. Being older than me, they were lucky to get a place in Lambeth at the time, because we had a serious shortage of secondary school places. A lot of the kids in our borough had to go to school out of borough.

When academies came in, although there was a lot of scepticism, people were happy that we were getting more schools in our constituency. We did not think it would create a situation in which some academy chains seemed to be given licence to build—we do not understand why—and allowed to increase their numbers. We did not think that that would affect schools that have been in our area for such a long time. Usually, when we hear about schools closing in Lambeth, it is because they are bad schools. These two schools are not bad. They have been the finest in our area for a very long time.

At the root of the issue is the problem of soaring housing costs, but the Government refuse to give us in London the powers we need to tackle them. We often hear Government Members talking about the “metropolitan liberal elite” and making off-coloured gibes about north London Labour MPs, but inner-city London boroughs continue to experience some of the highest levels of child poverty anywhere in the UK. The latest data from End Child Poverty shows that 29.9% of children living in my constituency of Streatham were growing up in poverty last year—that is 7,465 children. The data also shows that 35.5% of children in Lambeth, the borough my constituency is in, were growing up in poverty last year—that is 21,812 children. This is in one of the richest cities in the entire world. It does not exactly scream “metropolitan liberal elite”.

Housing costs are arguably the largest driving factor behind all of this. They are people’s biggest expense. At the heart of the debate is the question of who our city is for: is it a place for families to make their home, or is it a playground for the rich? I will point to a few solutions, focusing particularly on housing.

We need to enhance renters’ rights. Average monthly rents in London have risen above £2,500 for the first time. The Government should be using the Renters (Reform) Bill to close the eviction loopholes and give the Mayor of London power to control private rents. We need a higher proportion of genuinely affordable housing for new build developments, not this dodgy definition of 80% of the market rate, which is not affordable for people in my constituency or for most people across London. We need to get empty homes into circulation, as well as a mass council house building programme. I am glad that the next Labour Government have committed to 100,000 social homes, considering the Conservatives clearly had no plans to build homes, let alone affordable ones.

I heard about a time, way back when, when public sector workers used to get favourable rates on mortgages or even get accommodation to help them. When I think of all the public sector workers who are being priced out with their families, that is something that we should look towards. They should absolutely be paid more and, given what they are doing, we need to keep them in London, but they are all being pushed right out. We need school funding levels to increase and to keep pace with inflation. We need to give local authorities responsibility for in-year admissions, as has been set out in the schools White Paper, and the power to direct all schools to accept local children. They should be given the power to manage academies’ reduction of PAN or closure. That is really important.

Loads of people point to how growing up in the country was lovely. I am sure it was—they have a lot of hay fever and such—but I loved my childhood growing up on Brixton Hill in London. Being able to live in this fantastic city as a child made me who I am, and I am really sad that if we do not fix some of these policies, children will not have the wonderful experiences that I had.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (International Trade) 3:28, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Hollobone, and to follow such excellent speeches, particularly from my constituency neighbour, Sarah Olney. I thank my hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi for bringing us this debate. I thank David Simmonds, who I worked with during my relatively short career as lead member for education; he has had a long and distinguished career, both in Hillingdon and at the Local Government Association, and his expertise has really added to the debate. I also thank London Councils and Hounslow’s school organisation and access to education department for their briefings.

This is an incredibly important issue for schools, especially as they have faced so many challenges both pre and post covid. Having recently met a group of secondary school headteachers in Hounslow, I know only too well the issues they face. The top issues that they brought to me were school staff leaving in record numbers, the difficulty of recruiting new staff, especially maths teachers, and the difficulty of retaining experienced staff to go up the management ladder in education. They also addressed the lack of specialist support for children with SEND and the huge funding black hole. Those issues, especially the funding challenges, are the direct impact of 13 years of Conservative rule. Just recently, the chair of a board of governors and a large number of parents from just one primary school wrote to me about the impact of funding cuts on them. They make a difficult job even harder for our schools and their staff.

On school closures and pupil numbers, Hounslow borough is seeing a decrease of over 5% in year 7s, and a 10% decline in reception recruitment is expected over the next three years. There has been a particularly strong decline in primary places. Hounslow is having to cut the size of many local schools. It is taking out 25 classes and 850 places over the last, current and next school year.

Before I cover the impact that those issues will have, it is worth considering what is causing the decline. As others have said, the main cause is the housing crisis across London. More and more families are having to move out of London. I was recently contacted by an NHS worker who was unable to find someone from whom she could rent a home locally. She has two young children. She learned that the landlords of the few flats she could afford were not prepared to rent to a family with young children; that is just one example of a London-wide crisis. Working people with young children who can just about get on the housing ladder can do so only outside London, so if they can move out of London, they do. Not only schools but the NHS and businesses have told me that they are struggling to find staff who can afford to live in our city. It is in that context that we are seeing such a decline in school places, and in the number of children on school rolls, across London.

This debate is as much about the housing crisis as it is about schools, but there is another issue raised with me by heads and others: their concern for the increased number of children—we do not know how many—who may still be in London but are not registered in any schools. While many of them may well be being home-educated quite well by their parents, there could be many others who are not. The Government and local authorities have no way of knowing who or where those children are, or how many of them there are. I would like to know what plans the Government have to address that concern.

I will move on to the impact that this contraction in numbers has on our schools. It makes it harder for local authorities to plan school places, particularly as voluntary-aided academies and free schools sit outside the schools organisation system. I look forward to hearing how the Government aim to address that anomaly. As others have said so eloquently, the uncertainty around school numbers puts schools under even greater financial pressure, over and above what they face anyway.

I will also raise another challenge faced by schools in Hounslow and across London, which is the sheer number of in-year applications. That started especially with the generosity with which local families opened up their homes to families fleeing Ukraine, but in our case, the numbers are also affected by Home Office decisions to stand up local hotels as accommodation for asylum seekers; I think we had 11 such hotels in Hounslow at the last count. Then there is the other challenge—the other side of the coin: when those hotels are stood down and emptied by the Home Office, usually with a week or two’s notice, those children disappear from our area.

Hounslow received 4,500 in-year school applications last year. It is incredibly difficult for schools to plan when those applications have to be managed under the published admission number system and census system. We are talking about children from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Syria, and asylum seekers from all over the world. Many of those children have additional needs. While schools are providing support, it comes at a cost that they are not compensated for. Not only is there the lack of English language skills—schools need to get those children up to speed quickly on their spoken, written and listened-to English—but there is need for SEND support. Many of the children are suffering from trauma. Sometimes students—even secondary students—arrive in school mid-year, mid-school career, having never been in formal education. My second question is: will the Minister address the in-year challenge for all local authority officers, and the fact that non-maintained schools are outside the systems? I hope that the Government are listening, and will support schools, students and parents in addressing those challenges.

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 3:35, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi on securing this important debate, and thank her for inviting me to a brilliant school in her constituency earlier this week to see at first hand the impact of falling pupil numbers, and the knock-on impacts on other schools and the community at large. As Members have outlined, those impacts are not to be ignored. Schools with long, rich histories are closing. School leaders and staff have to deal with the uncertainty of not knowing whether their job will exist come September. Parents and children have to cope with the uncertainty of their school potentially shutting.

We have had a range of helpful and insightful speeches and interventions today. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall spoke with passion and expertise about issues faced by not only her constituents but schools across London. She rightly spoke about the impact on parents’ choice, the need for schools to co-operate and work in partnership with other schools and the local authority, the impact of people being priced out of London, and why finding solutions to those challenges is vital for children and their life chances.

My hon. Friend Clive Efford made insightful comments about the challenges faced by schools in his constituency, especially around SEND places. My hon. Friend Mr Sharma made similar points, which were hugely helpful. My hon. Friend Bell Ribeiro-Addy made helpful points about the need for truly affordable social homes in London, and the poverty that many communities in the capital face. My hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury spoke powerfully about the implications of falling rolls on the workforce, and on recruitment and retention; I thank her for her contribution.

As has been highlighted, falling pupil numbers and school closures affect not just London. They are impacting different parts of the country at an increasing rate. Recent analysis by The Guardian showed that more than 90 English primary schools are to close or are at risk of closure because they are more than two-thirds empty. A quarter of those at-risk schools are in rural villages, and one in six is in a more isolated part of the country. As Members have said, the problem is most pronounced in urban centres; nearly half of at-risk schools are in cities and towns.

While school closures are threatened across the country, it is in London that the problem is most urgent. The total number of primary school pupils in London schools has dropped by over 23,000 since before the pandemic. There are many reasons for that. First, the falling birth rate, in part caused by the rising cost of housing and the cost of bringing up children, is a major factor. Also, some families have left London in recent years, particularly following the pandemic. Research suggests that a further 2.5% of primary school pupils left for private or home education last year. Many attribute that to the growing number of children struggling with their mental health or not getting the support that they deserve. The same could be said for the increasing number of children with SEND whose parents have taken them out of the school system all together.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall said, most school funding is per pupil, so when numbers start to fall, a school’s overall funding falls. The Government rightly changed the rules recently so that all schools are eligible for funding to help manage declining pupil numbers. Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Geoff Barton said:

“Some small primary schools are barely financially sustainable as it is and any loss in pupil numbers is virtually impossible to absorb.”

Having spoken to school leaders, I know that the Government’s approach to school admissions is clearly a major factor. Instead of operating a logical system for school place planning, the Government have opted for a wild west approach. Instead of encouraging schools to co-operate, the Government incentivised them to compete. We have heard from Members about how perverse incentives have caused some schools to expand in areas where that is not needed, causing other schools nearby to close. We are talking not only about struggling schools with poor track records, but good schools with long and rich histories closing their doors—schools that are tied to their communities and have a big impact on them. No one seems to be able to do anything about it.

Clearly, some factors are beyond the Government’s control, but a lot of issues could have been avoided. If we are to put children at the heart of the system, we must take a more careful look at what is going on. My hon. Friend Helen Hayes told me about the situation of the St Martin-in-the-Field High School for Girls in her constituency. Shortly before last week’s half-term break, staff and pupils were told that their school would close to most year groups from September, and completely from July 2024. That decision came as a terrible shock to the whole school and the wider community, of which the school has been a part for so many years. She pointed to the lack of any role for the local authority in school place planning over the past decade as being part of the problems that have led to St Martin being forced to close. The Government have continued to allow the expansion of some local schools to go unchecked, and local councils have no ability to intervene and stabilise school provision in order to protect schools that are at risk.

With falling birth rates, threats of school closures will increase. The Department for Education expects the number of pupils at state-funded schools to decline by 944,000 over the next decade, but as we have heard, the Government appear to have no long-term vision for dealing with that. Labour has been clear that we want all schools to co-operate with their local authority on admissions and place planning. We want governors’ and parents’ voices to be heard more consistently when it comes to discussion of the direction of local schools. We will not impose top-down structures, but we will demand collaboration and co-operation in the best interests of our children and the local communities that schools serve.

As Members have highlighted, even the threat of school closures can have a big impact on everyone in a school community. For school leaders, that threat can be incredibly stressful. Not only are they worried about their own job, but they feel responsible for their staff’s employment, and face pressure from parents who are rightly concerned about their children being forced to move school. Teachers in schools at risk are more likely to look for jobs elsewhere, which, during a teacher recruitment and retention crisis, can leave the at-risk schools in an even worse position. School closures also force children to leave the teachers and school support staff with whom they have forged relationships, the routine that they have grown comfortable with, and their friends.

The impact of declining pupil numbers on primary schools is already being seen. In the coming years, those reduced numbers will feed into secondary schools in London and across the country. Labour has been clear that we need a system in which schools are encouraged to co-operate for the shared benefit of teachers, parents and children, rather than compete at the expense of those involved. We need a Government who can deliver a long-term strategy to deal with the impact of the issue, not one who hope to kick the can down the road so that they do not have to address it.

Will the Minister outline the steps he is taking to promote the financial sustainability of schools with falling pupil rolls? What steps is he taking to ensure that schools co-operate on the issue, to their shared benefit? Finally, what is his Department doing to plan for the expected decline in pupil numbers and the impact that will have on schools across the country? I look forward to hearing his remarks and his answers to my questions. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall, and I restate my praise to her for securing this debate.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 3:44, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to participate in yet another debate that you are chairing, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Florence Eshalomi on securing a debate on this important subject, and for opening it so clearly.

I am aware of the recent report by London Councils on managing surplus places, which highlights the key challenges facing London boroughs. Since the baby boom at the turn of the millennium, we have seen substantial growth in pupil numbers. The Government responded to that by supporting the creation of almost 1.2 million new school places since 2010. In addition to our investment in the free schools programme, the Government have committed over £14 billion of capital grant funding to support local authorities in building new mainstream school places between 2011 and 2026. It is the largest investment in school capacity in at least two generations, and includes £3.5 billion for London alone.

I can recall many debates on the “Today” programme with my hon. Friend David Simmonds, back when he represented the Local Government Association, about whether there were enough school places in London; it was almost an annual event for us—and here we are today. As we have seen, population trends do change. In London, the number of young people is falling faster than elsewhere. This is for several reasons, including decreasing birth rates, changes in international migration patterns since the UK’s exit from the EU, and more families relocating outside of London since the pandemic, as my hon. Friend explained so well.

The Government recognise the crucial role that local authorities play in planning local services for their community and championing the interests of children. Local authorities are legally responsible for ensuring that there are enough school places in their area. It is for local authorities, working with academy trusts and other local partners, to balance the supply and demand of school places in line with changing demographics. They have done so for many years. The uncertainty regarding future demographic changes means it is even more prudent for local authorities to remain flexible.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (International Trade)

I am grateful for the Minister’s remarks about the role of local authorities. Will he admit that the free schools programme over the last 10 or so years made it very difficult for local authorities to plan school numbers? Back then, during a time of growth, we desperately needed a mixed, non-faith school between Chiswick and Hounslow for the whole of the Isleworth and Brentford area, yet the resources were taken by a free faith school, and a large proportion of its catchment came from a long distance away. Had the local authority been able to broker that decision, we might have had a more locally approached solution. Now we have declining numbers, and I am raising the contrary issue.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

I understand the point the hon. Member is making, but free schools have been crucial in raising standards in our school system. The issue was not just numbers, but what we could do to deliver standards. I can think of a school in the constituency of Mr Sharma that opened in 2018 and was in January judged as outstanding. These are important factors to take into account. This is about quality as well as numbers.

Some spare capacity should be retained in the system to manage shifting demand, provide for parental choice and support the effective management of the admissions system. Local factors should be carefully assessed, along with considerations of quality, diversity and accessibility of local provision, and the forecast demand for places, in determining the most appropriate approach in each area. Local authorities are well placed to do that. They have seen periods of decline, bulges and shifts in local patterns before, and have shown they are adept at managing them.

The Department expects local authorities to work collaboratively with their partners to ensure that they are managing the local school estate efficiently and reducing or re-purposing high levels of spare capacity, to avoid undermining the educational offer or financial viability of schools in their area. I know that local authorities, together with trusts, are already considering a range of options for the reutilisation of space. That includes, for example, co-locating nursery provision, as well as options for reconfiguration, including via remodelling, amalgamations and closures where this is the best course of action. Lambeth has rightly been proactive in addressing this issue and is consulting on reducing the capacity of eight primary schools.

The Department continues to engage with local authorities on a regular basis to discuss their plans and potential solutions. One solution is the support and benefits obtained from being part of a strong and established multi-academy trust. The Department believes that all schools should be in strong families of schools, benefiting from the resilience that that brings and the support of the best in the group. That is why, over time, the Department would like all schools to be in a strong multi-academy trusts. By centralising operational and administrative functions, schools within a MAT can save time and money, which can be reinvested directly into areas that have the greatest impact.

The hon. Member for Vauxhall referred to housing issues, as did a number of other Members, including Ruth Cadbury, who has just intervened. The provision of affordable housing is part of the Government’s plan to build more homes and provide aspiring homeowners with a step on to the housing ladder. Our £11.5 billion affordable homes programme will deliver thousands of affordable homes for both rent and to buy across the country. For London, £4 billion has been allocated, to deliver much-needed affordable and social housing in the capital. Since 2010, we have delivered over 632,000 new affordable homes, including over 440,000 affordable homes for rent, of which over 162,000 are for social rent. In fact, more than a fifth of overall delivery between April 2010 and March 2022 was in London, with over 89,000 homes for rent.

Photo of Bell Ribeiro-Addy Bell Ribeiro-Addy Labour, Streatham

Can the Minister please outline how he defines “affordable” and why, if the homes are “affordable”, so many of my constituents find themselves unable to afford them?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

That question is for another debate, I suspect, especially as I have only six minutes left; I would love to debate that issue with the hon. Member on another occasion. However, we are absolutely aware of the concern and the problem, which is why we are investing, as I said, £4 billion in affordable housing in London alone.

Although the challenge facing mainstream schools is evident, it is important to recognise that there is still a need to increase the supply of places, particularly for children with special educational needs and disabilities—a point made by the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) during this debate.

The number of children with SEND continues to increase in London, providing local authorities with an opportunity to think creatively about how to organise and structure high-needs provision alongside or within mainstream schools. Some £400 million of the £2 billion in additional funding for schools announced in the autumn statement will go to local authorities’ high-needs budgets and we are investing £2.6 billion in capital funding between 2022 and 2025 to help to deliver new school places for children with special educational needs.

Across London boroughs, councils will work with schools and the wider community to find alternative solutions to closure wherever possible. However, the school estate needs to be managed efficiently, which sometimes means reducing or repurposing high levels of spare capacity, including through closure, where places are not needed in the long term.

I know that the hon. Member for Vauxhall is particularly concerned about two schools in Lambeth that are in different stages on the path to closure: Archbishop Tenison’s School and St Martin-in-the-Fields High School for Girls. Both have a rich history going back hundreds of years. Their trustees explored all the options available and came to the difficult decision to seek a closure, through mutual consent with the Department. I understand how troubling that will be for pupils and their families. School closures are always a last resort. When a school closure is proposed, the regional director will work in consultation with the local authority and trust to gather information and assess the options, with the Secretary of State taking the final decision on the closure of academies. Minimising disruption for children at these schools will always be the Department’s top priority.

Munira Wilson raised the important point about empty places when pupil numbers fall and the impact that has on school budgets. To support local authorities to meet their sufficiency duty, the Department for Education provides them with revenue funding for growth and falling rolls, through the dedicated school grant. From 2024-25, the Government will additionally give local authorities more flexibilities to support schools seeing a significant decline in pupil numbers, where these places will still be needed within the next three to five years. Local authorities will be able to use their growth and falling rolls funding allocations to meet the revenue costs of repurposing school places.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner requested a ban on academy trusts disposing of school land. Land and buildings are in fact held in trust, and the most common result of a closure is for the land and building to revert back either to the local authority or to the diocese if it was a Church school.

Clive Efford raised Avery Hill, which I would be very happy to discuss with him. The free schools programme has been pivotal in meeting the demand for places since 2010, and has provided thousands of good new places across the country. In 2022, pupils in primary and secondary free schools made more progress on average than pupils in other schools. I have already referred to the outstanding free school in Ealing, the Ada Lovelace Church of England High School, which recently received a very good Ofsted report.

The performance of schools within the Harris Federation is even more impressive. Harris is one of the strongest and most successful multi-academy trusts. It educates more than 40,000 children in 52 schools across London, and 98% of its schools have been judged either good or outstanding by Ofsted. The Department continuously reviews the viability of all schools in the free schools pipeline, and we are looking closely at all the arguments for and against the free school at Avery Hill. We will open the school only when we are confident that it will be good, viable, sustainable and successful.

I am proud of the work that the Government have done since 2010 to ensure that we have school places where and when they are needed. As population trends change in London and across the country, we will keep supporting local authorities and trusts to ensure that any changes to local schools come with minimal disruption to our children and young people.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 3:56, 7 June 2023

I thank all Members who have spoken in the debate. The sense is that this issue will not go away—[Interruption.]

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Order. I am afraid that a Division has been called in the House. Does the hon. Lady wish to return in half an hour, or is she happy to end the debate now?

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I am happy to end the debate now. I thank the Minister. I note that he has not answered any of my questions, so will he meet me?

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Order. I believe that there are two votes, so the sitting will be resumed at 4.27 pm. I am ending the debate without the question being put.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.