The ridiculous housing market has spirited our children away, not a pied piper
OPINION: Camden's education chief Councillor Angela Mason explains the challenge facing the council on school places
04 February, 2020 — By Councillor Angela Mason
ANGELA MASON explains the challenges facing the council as the birth rate falls
I SOMETIMES wonder if the Pied Piper of Hamelin has been at work in Camden, spiriting our children away.
There has been a 20 per cent decline in births in Camden – but I know that it’s not a mythical piper but the culmination of years of government policy that has taken revenge on our families and children. Camden is in many ways the epicentre of London – a city that has grown exponentially but has done so in the grip of deregulation and unrestrained market forces.
Forces that have driven up land values and housing costs to ridiculous heights, made Camden a top Airbnb destination, seen the introduction of a housing benefit cap and bedroom tax and a hugely expensive and insecure private rented sector. No wonder families just can’t afford to live in Camden.
The impact on our primary schools and early years settings is beginning to be devastating. The issue was first exposed by the Camden New Journal some months ago. Schools that had waiting lists now have empty places, admission numbers have been plummeting.
Fewer children means less money, as schools are paid on a per-pupil basis. I think the admission figures this year will also be grim. New housing development on its own is not likely to result in enough children to fill our schools.
Last year, head teachers in our primary schools came together in crisis mode. They called for us collectively to develop a strategy for a sustainable school structure, which would prevent every school having to compete for fewer and fewer pupils, ensuring that smaller schools do not have to cut vital teaching and support staff.
I have spent the past seven years fighting to protect our vibrant, inclusive, world-class Camden schools with £200million going into buildings.
The last thing I want to do is to consider school closures – but we can’t let schools deal with this alone.
The discussions about Carlton Primary School and the proposals for our council-run nurseries arise from the call from schools for a sustainable system.
One of my greatest personal regrets is that it has seemed as though Carlton, serving a working-class community, might bear the brunt of these challenges.
The dignity of Carlton parents making this point has been impressive. I believe Carlton will have to change, but all Camden schools will have to change.
In taking forward this work, the squeeze on school finance and nursery provision will also have to be taken into account. In the last 10 years, our schools have lost 24 per cent of real terms funding.
The new Boris money for schools will not come Camden’s way.
A final word on early years. We are one of the only boroughs to provide 30 hours free childcare to disadvantaged families.
These are all funded directly by Camden and we have been hit by the near-50 per cent cuts to our funding. I did receive a proposal based on falling numbers to cut four of our maintained nurseries, which I rejected.
In many areas like Konstam we have nursery and primary provision for the same children side by side and at the moment both half empty. I think we could take advantage of adversity and help our primary schools by making nursery and even two-year-old provision available in our schools and investing in neighbourhood Sure Centres.
These centres would concentrate on a whole range of services for new parents, health visiting, employment and welfare advice, speech and language therapy, learning about attachment and bonding, breastfeeding – everything that new parents and babies need – and be co-designed with the parents who use them.
We face really difficult problems, but the strength of our schools and provision for parents, babies and toddlers has been that we have worked together and found collective solutions. Times get tougher and tougher, but I believe that building together is our future.