Havering Council approves �16.6m of school expansions - four years after slashing surplus places

Havering Council last night approved �16.6m of urgent primary school expansions in a bid to head off a projected shortage of places.

But the move has brought bosses under fire from opposition councillors and local residents – because four years ago the council slashed its surplus primary school capacity by closing one school altogether and merging four others into two.

One of the schools that was shut, Manor School, had only been refurbished a year previously.

At the time, the borough had an 11 per cent surplus of primary school places, and admissions were at their lowest following a dip in the birth rate earlier in the decade.

But Wednesday’s cabinet report showed the birth rate in Havering had already started to rise when the schools were shut in 2008 – raising questions about the council’s decision in 2007 to reduce capacity.

Cllr Keith Darvill (Labour, Heaton) said: “Additional money is being required a few years later to put into these schools. That might be a terrible waste of public money because they closed down schools too quickly.”

The mergers and closures in 2008 removed 585 places from the Havering primary school system. Without the newly approved expansions, there would be a deficit of 524 places by September 2013, rising to about 4,000 by September 2020.

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At an “Ask the Cabinet” meeting in May this year, council leader Cllr Michael White told a member of the public, Lorraine Moss, that surplus capacity had been cut in 2007 because of central government guidelines.

“A report came out from the government – I think Cllr Darvill will probably remember this better than I do because it was the Labour government at the time,” he said. “They would not allow any council to have more than seven per cent over capacity within the system.”

But Cllr Darvill disputed this version of events, saying the seven per cent figure was only a guideline, not a stipulation.

Since the Recorder reported on Tuesday that 41 school libraries, IT rooms and special needs facilities would shut to accommodate the rise in pupil numbers, Facebook users have left comments expressing their dissatisfaction with the council’s management of primary places.

Sarah Reid wrote: “Well done Mr White, we told you years ago the birth rate was due to rise. However you still saw fit to allow the closing of Dunningford School. One of the best placed sites in Havering for educating children, and with the most scope for expansion should the need have arisen. The school you replaced it with certainly has no room to expand as the site is so tiny. However, I’m sure you made a tidy profit from the sale of the land, all’s well that ends well.”

Mary Breading added: “When Dunningford was closed this was for falling birth rate. [...] I hope the fact it has taken this long to sell the land has cost someone their job, but I doubt it.”

And Donna Bowers wrote: “Local government closed schools due to lack of pupils, now pupils are going to lose out again. When will those in charge stop looking at numbers on paper and realise that those numbers are actually children some with more needs then others. If IT suites are removed along with libraries then where and how are children going to learn how to research things?”

Havering’s education boss Cllr Paul Rochford said: “When we closed Dunningford and Manor Schools we were following national guidelines. These guidelines stated it was a waste of resources to have schools with a number of empty places.

“To mothball an entire building would lead to antisocial behaviour, squatting and the risk of arson. By amalgamating some of our schools, we were able to open two new, modern, fit for purpose, schools in the borough, Elm Park and Hylands.”

A council spokesman added that, while Dunningford Primary School was empty it was in fact set on fire on “several occasions”.