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Schools Face Pupil Shortage Threat

September 23, 2008

By BEN SCHOFIELD

MERSEYSIDE and Cheshire’s roll call of pupils has dropped dramatically, with almost 9,000 fewer children being admitted to schools across the region.

Headteachers have reported rapidly dwindling classes, leaving them with less cash in their budgets and fewer teachers. Some primary schools are amalgamating classes and teaching children of different ages together because of the shortage of pupils.

The Daily Post asked each Merseyside council and Cheshire County Council for their pupil head counts for the last two academic years. Local authorities tot up the pupils on their registers in January in the annual Schools Census.

The figures reveal the region’s schools taught 8,731 fewer pupils in 2007-08 than 2006-07, as the rolls fell from a total of 362,493 to 353,762.

Knowsley suffered the biggest single drop, with 2,012 fewer children enrolled. Cheshire’s roll call shrank by 1,701 pupils.

With a drop of 1,132, Sefton will get the lowest funding allocation available from the central government Dedicated Schools Grant, and Liverpool saw a drop of 1,820 during the same period.

In fact, Liverpool’s figures show the city has endured a decade of continual decline. In 2005, the roll call totalled 73,828.

But, in the latest figures, that number has plunged by more than 6,600, to 67,182.

The city’s education chiefs claim a recent increase in the birth rate will stop the decline and boost numbers. But they continue to predict a fall of another 2,000 by 2013 in primary schools alone.

The crisis has left cashstrapped schools unable to pay for the number of teachers they need, potentially hampering the education of a generation of learners. In some of Liverpool’s primary schools, head teachers have had to merge year groups because there are not enough teachers to go round.

Tim Warren, Liverpool City Council’s assistant executive director for children’s services, said: “If a school gets less money because it’s got fewer pupils, sooner or later that money can be as much as a teacher – then it has to lose a teacher.

“Take a seven-class primary school. If a school has to lose its seventh teacher, then they have to go to six teachers. Class sizes get bigger and they have to teach those kids across a bigger age range because of only having six teachers. Though it sounds like they get smaller class sizes, in fact the opposite is true.

“We are concerned about schools where the numbers are falling to such a degree where they are having to teach the kids in larger classes in a wider age range.”

Mr Warren said that situation only happened in a “minority” of the city’s 134 primary schools.

The council recently announced the details of the first of four phases of restructuring primary schools.

The pounds 16m scheme will see new buildings for Croxteth, Hope Valley, Breckfield and Faith Primaries. Over the next three tranches of the programme, a total of 47 schools will be “rebuilt or revamped”, the council say.

Mr Warren said that, while some mixing of the age ranges posed “no problem”, he added: “If it’s more than 12 months, it’s going to be problematic. The gap between a four-year-old and a six year-old- it can be massive.

That’s why that’s an issue and the reviews will address that.

“There are some schools in that position already. They tend to be in the early phases of the review.”

Avis Gilmore, the North West regional secretary at the National Union of Teachers, said the problem of falling rolls was more protracted in the north of the country.

Numbers in the south of the country were being swelled by economic migrants from elsewhere in Britain and abroad, as well as asylum seekers, she added.

But Ms Gilmore said: “For schools that don’t have their financial constraints, it’s a real opportunity for those schools to look at smaller class sizes.”

Mr Warren rejected Ms Gilmore’s suggestion. He said: “When we remove places that aren’t filled, that’s a more efficient method of filling places because we aren’t funding empty seats. More money will be going to pupils, rather than places.”

Cllr Peter Dowd, Sefton’s cabinet member for children’s services, denied the borough’s schools would employ fewer teachers because of the pupil slump.

He said: “There aren’t fewer teachers. In Sefton, we have got a lot more teachers and people working in schools as classroom assistants.”

All Merseyside councils recorded declining pupil numbers last year. They are all evaluating their primary and secondary schools to shed surplus seats.

The Government’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative – which gives money to rebuild secondary schools – will only fund projects that factor in shrinking numbers.

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How councils are responding

LIVERPOOL

THE CITY is reducing the number of secondary places by 4,000 to 5,000 by either shrinking existing schools or merging schools. The council started evaluating schools last autumn and announced decisions in March.

The council has started a rolling review of primary schools, the first phase of which was announced on Friday; phase two will be unveiled before Christmas. It will see 47 schools “rebuilt or revamped” by 2013. A further 1,000 surplus places will be lost.

WIRRAL

A REVIEW of primary school places started in 2006. Four primaries have closed so far and two pairs of schools merged, creating Prenton Primary School and Bidston Village CE (Controlled) Primary School. Pensby Infant and Pensby Junior schools will also amalgamate.

A review of secondaries was approved in November, 2007, and is currently underway. At the time the review was agreed, Cllr Phil Davies, cabinet member for Children’s Services and Lifelong Learning, said the review was prompted by falling student numbers, but the borough was “determined to maintain” its “excellent reputation for education”.

SEFTON

THE BOROUGH will be bidding for up to pounds 130m from the BSF fund to bankroll building new schools in four phases over the next decade.

The borough is pushing ahead with recommendations from a review into primaries started four years ago. Three primary schools in Bootle will merge and William Gladstone School, Thomson Road, and Beach Road School have already merged.

CHESHIRE

UNDER the county’s Transforming Learning Communities programme, all Cheshire schools have been reviewed. The county was split into eight zones, the last of which is still being reviewed.

Around 11 primary schools have closed and a further 15 have merged.

One secondary school has closed, two others have merged and the council is looking into merging two others into an academy. They are also considering plans to open a school for three to 18-year-olds, which would amalgamate two secondary and three primary schools.

Cllr David Roland said: “In the past 18 months we have closed more schools than we had in the previous 15 years.

“But the decision to close is never taken lightly or ill- advised.”

Knowsley ALL 10 of Knowsley secondary schools will close and pupils will transfer to seven new Learning Centres, in a pounds 150m overhaul of the borough’s schools.

The first of the new centres will open in January.

ST HELENS

IN THE last two years, the council has closed two primary schools and there are plans to merge two Newton-le-Willows secondaries-St Aelreds Catholic Technology College and Newton-Le-Willows High School. The secretary of state is currently considering a proposal to open an academy in their place.

St Matthews Primary and Thatto Heath Primary will also merge.

HALTON

HALTON will bid for an estimated pounds 100m from the BSF fund. It is likely to replace or refurbish its secondary schools.

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