By a London teacher
Working in Lambeth schools is beginning to feel like walking through a minefield. For years we have known that falling pupil numbers will add pressure to close schools, but with only vague rumours of which schools will close and when. One secondary school – a stone’s throw from my own – has abruptly announced it will close at the end of this school year.
Local educators witness this landmine and wonder whether their own school will suffer the same fate – perhaps next term, next year. Parents wonder what will happen to their children, and students wonder whether they will be able to stay with friends.
Why are schools closing?
Pupil numbers (known as school rolls) across Inner London are falling. Demographic changes in the area, particularly in Lambeth, have fuelled this. Since 2001, Lambeth has seen a 10% drop in households with at least one school-age child. In Southwark, it is 11%.
This itself has been driven by gentrification. Social housing for working class families is being privately sold off or demolished whilst new housing is unaffordable to most families. Meanwhile, house prices and rents rise far faster than wages. Much of this new housing is not even designed for families. I have seen this for myself as new ‘luxury’ high-rise blocks spring up all around the school, mainly made up of one or two bed flats with little to no social housing.
How are closures decided?
Individual schools are ultimately forced to close when they are no longer financially viable. Since the late 1980s, marketisation and privatisation of education has led to a fragmented school system. Before 1990, there was some centralised London-wide control over decision making through the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), whereas now there is neoliberal chaos. Some schools are run by the local authority, some as individual academies, others by multi-academy trusts and some by the local diocese.
To make this worse, marketisation has placed schools into competition with each other. Every school is funded according to the number of pupils on their roll. Schools with falling rolls suffer funding cuts and a worsening reputation, which in turn leads to fewer applications. It is a vicious cycle which drives down pupil numbers further and forces them into financial impossibility.
This is why league tables and Ofsted inspections become so important for schools, as they can determine whether or not they will be able to attract enough pupils to remain open. It can feel like your job depends upon it. Many leaders use this to increase pressure on staff and students to maximise exam results and Ofsted ‘optics’, to the detriment of inclusive education and wellbeing. Schools ‘lower’ on the league table or with ‘bad’ Ofsted ratings are set on the path to closure.
A socialist response
In the face of declining school rolls, school closures and gentrification, there has also been a marked rise in opposition to this amongst local communities, including staff and students. Recent school strikes have shown that educators are prepared to take action.
Here are some suggestions for a focus on that action:
- Full involvement of the local community and staff in any decisions around school funding and any potential closures.
- Falling pupil numbers should be used to reduce class sizes and workload, not close schools.
- No disruption to students. Provide funding for schools to see through pupils as whole year groups rather than splitting them up. Year 10 to see through their GCSEs into year 11 at the same site. Parents and students must be fully involved in these decisions.
- No redundancies! Fight to defend teachers’ jobs, including redeployment if necessary to ensure no detriment to staff.
- Democratic, London-wide planning of school places with long term planning to take account of demographic shifts. End this unplanned chaos and competition.
- Stop the gentrification and address the cost of living crisis! High quality housing for all, make rents affordable, keep families in Inner London. Do not allow profiteering developers to do as they please!
- The sites of any closed schools should be repurposed for community use and mothballed for potential re-opening. No sell-offs for private profit!
- For a fully-funded, fully publicly-owned education system. Kick the market out of schools!