Head's ‘heartbreak' as 300-year-old school faces closure

Dwindling pupil numbers in Clerkenwell classrooms where Dickens once read

Friday, 4th December 2020 — By Helen Chapman

Clerkenwell School

Clerkenwell Parochial primary school has just 117 pupils on its roll – around half of its capacity of 240

THE future of an Islington school has been thrown into uncertainty after an announcement this week that it may close next year amid falling pupil numbers.

Clerkenwell Parochial C of E Primary School, in Amwell Street, has faced turbulent times in recent years after failing an Ofsted inspection in 2016. The 300-year-old school is where Charles Dickens read his work for a penny fee.

Established in 1699, the school grounds are also home to the country’s oldest fig tree.

It received just three applications for a place in reception this year, and with 117 pupils on the roll the school is currently operating at around half of its capacity of 240.

The Church of England school was converted into an academy and is now run by the ­London Diocesan Board for Schools (LDBS).

Headteacher Amanda Szewczyk-Radley said: “We love our families and we love our school. We are all so incredibly sad at the thought it may close at the end of the year.

“Just before I came here, three years ago, the school had gone through a really difficult time and many children left as a result. Since then we have implemented a lot of positive change.

“The staff team have been utterly amazing, and we have worked tirelessly together with our lovely parents and children, to create a beautiful learning environment where our children are happy and are just doing so well.

“Sadly, there do not seem to be enough children in our area to keep our wonderful school viable.

“I am heartbroken for our community, especially as we have all tried so hard.”

Unions say the damning Ofsted report could have turned off prospective parents and caused children to leave the school.

Tony Buttifint, from Islington National Education Union (NEU), said: “As a trade union we will offer whatever support we can to defend people’s jobs, and we will fully support a campaign if parents want to fight to keep the school.”

He added: “There are issues around demographics in central London. A lot of the government policies are driving people out of these areas because they are too expensive, and falling rolls has a drastic effect on school funding. The case with this particular school is why we oppose Ofsted and academisation.

“If it was a local authority school they would have far more influence now in changing the issues driving to its closure.

“Once Ofsted starts labelling schools as inadequate, parents take that and vote with their feet.”

The school has suffered funding issues as pupil numbers plummeted, as grants are based on the numbers of children being taught. Headteachers in the borough warned last year that falling pupil numbers could lead to closures.

Elizabeth Wolverson, chief executive of the LDBS Academies Trust, said: “It is with great sadness, and enormous regret, that we have informed the school community that the school may have to close next July.

“The simple fact is that there are fewer and fewer children living in inner London, and since schools are funded on the basis of the number of children that attend, our income is now so depleted that we cannot continue to function.”

She added: “The headteacher, staff and governors have worked tirelessly with us to keep the school going, but we have now reached the point of having no choice.

“We know we are not alone in this, as there are many other schools in London in a similar position, but the possibility of closing a school that has served its community for more than 300 years is heart-breaking.”

Parents who spoke to the Tribune outside the school gates this week said they felt shocked and saddened by the closure plans. Although not yet set in stone, governors of the school are expected to meet in the new year to decide the next steps.

Clerkenwell councillor Ben Mackmurdie, whose daughter used to attend the school, said: “We are devastated and hope that it can stay a school. I am very concerned for the parents.”

Town Hall schools chief, Councillor Kaya Comer-Schwartz, said: “If the school does close, there are sufficient places in other Islington schools to offer to all children, and we will work with the trust to ensure as smooth a transition as possible for its pupils, keeping disruption to a minimum.”

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