Camden Council’s Labour administration has blocked a Conservative motion for an independent School Sustainability Review, following the merger of Carlton and Rhyl schools in the face of falling pupil rolls in the borough.
The motion, introduced by Conservative group leader Cllr Oliver Cooper, pointed to comments by education chief Cllr Angela Mason that the closure of Carlton represented “the canary in the mine” as the borough’s birth rate drops.
Liberal Democrat councillors supported the motion, saying it was “on to something important”.
However, Mason accused the opposing councillors of “twisting her words” to suggest that other school closures were in the pipeline, arguing that other reductions in admissions made the borough’s schools sustainable for years.
Labour councillors gutted the motion to instead simply note the Carlton and Rhyl merger and the Town Hall’s existing education strategy.
Cllr Cooper said: “The problem is that falling birth rates are not within the scope of education policy and therefore not within the scope of the education strategy the Labour amendment implies is sufficient to end this crisis.
“We need an overarching strategy that covers school place planning themselves, but also other areas that are desperately needed to save our schools.”
Liberal Democrat Cllr Tom Simon argued that Labour were seeing the motion as an attack on its work on the Carlton/Rhyl merger rather than seeking to address the underlying issue of falling pupil numbers.
He said: “There is a danger that we get into a downward spiral that as we have a low birth rate we have schools that need to close, a poorer range of schools that are further apart, and it gets less attractive.”
Labour councillors were left unimpressed, with Cllr Marcus Boyland asserting that the Conservative benches should be “ashamed” of the motion, adding that “the barefaced cheek of the opposition to make political capital out of the pain that our Camden community is going through is outrageous”.
His colleague Cllr Lazzaro Pietragnoli said that to “appoint a bunch of consultants” would detract from local knowledge.
With Lib Dem and Tory councillors all voting against the Labour-amended motion, Cooper maintained the necessity for an independent team to look at the north London-wide problem of falling birth rolls as manifested in Camden.
He cited the recently approved development on the site of the former Charlie Ratchford centre around the corner from Rhyl School being made up almost exclusively of studio and one-bed flats rather than family homes.
Speaking against the motion, Cllr Angela Mason said: “It is not true that other boroughs have not had to close schools or drastically reduce admissions. Westminster has reduced its admissions, Islington has closed a school and reduced its admissions, Barnet is reducing its admissions, and Brent, so it is quite clear it is a problem across inner London.”
She added: “To say we have got to have external experts to deal with this issue is missing the point. Everyone who talks about this has come to the conclusion that the major problem is the high cost of housing in the borough. There are 6,000 people on the waiting list.
“If you want to do something about helping families and education, you go and tell your government to give us the money to build social housing.”