Up to six primary schools could have been closed as part of measures to tackle surplus places across Brighton and Hove, councillors were told.
The revelation came during a debate about Brighton and Hove City Council’s budget for the 2024-25 financial year which is due to be set next week.
Councillors were speaking about the proposed closure of two primary schools in August – St Bartholomew’s Church of England (CofE) Primary, in Ann Street, Brighton, and St Peter’s Community Primary and Nursery School, in St Peter’s Road, Portslade.
The other schools at risk of closure were not named during the debate but, when the latest allocations for last September were announced, six more primaries offered fewer Reception Year places than would fill a class of 30.
They were Moulsecoomb Primary, which is an academy and outside the council’s control, Coombe Road Primary, St Joseph’s Catholic Primary, St Mark’s CofE Primary, St Martin’s CofE Primary and St Mary Magdalen Catholic Primary.
Last month, councillors agreed to cut the published admission number (PAN) from September next year at six schools – Brunswick, Goldstone, St Luke’s and Saltdean primary schools and Patcham and Stanford infant schools.
The move is aimed at trying to head off the need for more schools to shut although it may not be possible to rule out further closures.
Councillors were also told that the proposed closure of St Bart’s and St Peter’s would cost the council more than £400,000 although the cost of keeping them open could have been higher.
The discussion took place at a meeting of the council’s Strategy, Finance and City Regeneration Committee at Hove Town Hall on Thursday (8 February).
Anusree Biswas Sasidharan, a co-opted member of the committee, asked whether a citywide approach to hundreds of surplus school places in Brighton and Hove could protect the two primaries from closure.
Dr Biswas Sasidharan said that the two schools likely to close had a high percentage of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, with special educational needs and youngsters from ethnic minorities, who would be affected by the closures.
She said: “This situation has evolved over years. It did not happen this year (or) last year. It’s probably (been) six or seven years in the making. This is a citywide issue – not just these two schools, St Bartholomew’s and St Peter’s.
“When schools in more affluent areas in years past have faced suggestions of cutting their classes, they’ve risen up, where people from affluent neighbourhoods are able to navigate the system and challenge it.”
She wanted the council to halt the closures and focus on reducing admissions at bigger primary schools but this alone would not solve the problem, according to the administration.
Councillors were told that were currently 2,610 Reception Year places in Brighton and Hove but, by 2027, there would be just 1,700 children starting school.
Even in September next year, without the current proposed reductions and closures there would be 651 unfilled reception places across the city.
Councillor Sankey agreed about the need for a citywide approach. She said: “One assessment of our situation when it comes to schools in the city is we should be proposing closing six of them.
“Now, we as an administration are very keen to try to minimise school closures which is why we have gone for this package of measures in our proposals.
“(The proposals) predominantly look at reducing PANs which is the key thing to ensuring that there aren’t some areas that fare worse from the proposals.
“We absolutely recognise there can be real winners and losers given the way the system is set up which means local authorities don’t have a huge amount of control.
“PAN reductions have been resisted in the past in the city and that makes things really difficult.”
Labour councillor Jacob Taylor, who co-chairs the council’s Children, Families and Schools Committee, said: “The last administration did try to reduce PANs at some of the larger schools.
“Some of them got through, some of them were successfully appealed (and) some were abandoned based on opposition from parent groups.”
Councillor Taylor, who is also deputy leader of the council, said that the aim was to reduce the intake at larger schools when and where possible.
But he added: “In reality, those schools that have the larger intakes tend to be in slightly less disadvantaged areas or more affluent areas.”
Labour councillor Alan Robins, who represents South Portslade, said that the proposal to close St Peter’s had taken him on an “emotional roller coaster”.
He was born in a neighbouring street, started at the school when he was five years old and had since served on the school’s board of governors.
When he was the mayor of Brighton and Hove, from 2020 to 2022, pupils from St Peter’s had designed his Christmas cards.
Sounding audibly upset, Councillor Robins said: “I kissed my mum at the gate … and the idea that’s going to close has broken my heart.
“I know the conversations I’ve had with Bella and Jacob to try to find a resolution, believe me. It’s not been taken in any way lightly.”
Councillor Taylor spoke about the double whammy of falling pupil numbers and rising costs on schools’ budgets, with more than half of local primary schools in deficit.
Schools receive a mix of basic funding and £4,655 a pupil, meaning that smaller schools must manage many of the same sorts of fixed costs but with a smaller budget.
He cited Schools Week, which publishes education sector news, saying that the proportion of council primaries in deficit rose from 7.6 per cent in 2021-22 to 12.3 per cent in 2022-23.
The publication said that more than 40 per cent of primary schools had a deficit in two London boroughs – Havering and Westminster – and in Brighton and Hove.
In Brighton and Hove, the proportion is more than half and the city is believed to have the highest proportion of schools in the red in the whole country.
The “licensed deficits” in the current financial year totalled £4.39 million just less than the £4.54 million surplus at the end of 2022-23, the most recent full financial year.
If too many schools go into the red, the council has to make up the shortfall in the schools budget from the general fund which includes council tax receipts.
The consultations about the proposed closure of St Bart’s and St Peter’s is on the council’s website and closes on Tuesday 20 February.