Camden Council’s proposals to merge Carlton and Rhyl primary schools in response to a surplus of school places are being met with “strong opposition” by Carlton teachers.
The National Education Union (NEU) group at Carlton School, of which all staff are members, used the Town Hall’s consultation on the issue to express concerns with the plans across a range of measures, with documents showing respondents are split.
Around 54 per cent either agreed or strongly agreed with the merger plans, with those answering the consultation questions mainly made up of school staff from both institutions, governors and local residents, rather than parents. Around 32 per cent either strongly disagreed or disagreed, with 13 per cent holding no opinion.
Carlton’s NEU staff said: “We would firstly like to say that we are strongly opposed to the proposal to close Carlton Primary School.
“We believe that what we offer the children that attend our school cannot be replaced by the proposed extension of Rhyl. We understand the rationale being given, but we cannot agree to Carlton being closed, for educational reasons and for the sake of the community we serve.
“We are, in the main, a group of teachers who have been at the school for a considerable amount of time. We know the pupils and the community very well, and this will be lost if the proposed closure goes ahead.
“We understand the arguments about surplus places, but believe cost-cutting is being put before quality of education. You must agree that allowing children to continue their education uninterrupted, with teachers they know and in a school they are familiar with, is better for their education than forcing them to adjust to a whole new set of circumstances.
“It is stated in the document that we have been ‘providing an excellent education’. Surely to close a school providing such an education is both short-sighted and embarrassing for a council as highly regarded as Camden.”
The council has said that the proposals would “draw upon the strengths of both schools,” though NEU staff at Carlton branded this idea “insulting” given the job insecurity they faced as a result.
Carlton staff views were echoed by the Baitul Aman Masjid, which in its own response said that the decision on the school’s future needs to be deferred for at least year, slamming the consultation process as “flawed in terms of its meaningful engagement with the masjid faith community and BAME groups.”
An action group of parents and carers has called for Carlton to be kept open as a one form entry school, with a nursery and early years Sure Start support to be moved into the part of the building no longer being used for primary education, which could also house a Safety for Young People programme.
The consultation also highlighted positive feedback from respondents, with Carlton held up as a “well-run and successful school” which has experienced greater pupil losses, with the merger described as “certainly better” than a full closure of the school as had been initially suggested, giving an opportunity for more staff retention and a “less jarring” transition.
Camden has seen a plunge in its birth rates in recent years, seeing fewer children needing school places, with the Town Hall pointing out that this could result in school closures or unplanned changes given that schools are funded per pupil.
The council’s proposals would see Rhyl expand to include Carlton, reducing entry to the merged school from four classes to two classes from September of next year, a reduction of 60 places per year.
However, consultation documents reveal concerns including that children would be cramped on one site, that moving school could put pressure on already-vulnerable families, at the speed of the changes given the transition of hundreds of pupils in a handful of months, and questions over the impact on children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
NEU staff at Carlton added: “Throughout all this, the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic cannot be overlooked or overstated.
“The fact that we have been praised by Camden for our work during the partial school closure, to then be put out of work in July 2020 does not sit well. Many staff have partners who are already furloughed, making their own impending employment uncertainty even more stressful.
“The consultation process itself will be severely compromised by the new lockdown restrictions. It is noted that meetings with parents now have to take place online, a practice we believe will be highly discriminatory and will not allow all who wish to participate to do so. Surely this would invalidate any outcome of the consultation?
“Lastly, the pandemic is obviously having a negative impact on pupils and families – the same families that we, as a staff, have worked so hard to support since March.
“The idea that we, as a school community, can work together to get through such a difficult time to then have our school closed down is disparaging.
“In the ‘Building Equal Foundations’ action plan, the Council says it aims to: ‘Continue to build on our neighbourhood approach; understanding the strengths and assets as well as the needs in our local communities’.
“We feel that to close a successful school with 77 per cent English as an additional language (EAL) pupils and 62 per cent of pupils who are entitled to free school meals [2018/19 data] seems to directly contradict these aims.”
Cllr Angela Mason, Cabinet Member for Best Start for Children and Families said: “Births in our borough have fallen by almost 20 per cent from 2012, which means that some of our schools have high numbers of unfilled places, creating significant funding challenges for individual schools and for schools as a whole. This has become a consistent trend, and without taking action, our primary schools would be at risk of becoming unviable, leading to unplanned closures or further changes that would mean greater uncertainty for families and poorer outcomes for pupils.
“We know in Camden we are strongest when we work together – our schools are facing this challenge collectively, and we are proposing changes that, whilst difficult, secure a sustainable future for our schools.
“I’d like to thank all those who participated in the consultation. All responses and feedback will help inform how proposals for new and innovative services provided by a newly merged school would take shape, should the Cabinet agree for this to progress further.”