Several primary schools in rural Somerset may have to close in the next few years as the county’s birthrate continues to fall.

Somerset County Council is responsible for allocating school places for children on an annual basis, as well as overseeing the construction of new schools and building projects to extend existing schools.

The council is predicting a significant decline in pupil numbers by 2026, which will result in less funding from central government – and which may lead to teacher redundancies and even the closure of entire schools.

Officers have pledged, however, to continue delivering new schools in urban areas and to meet increased demand from children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

What is the council predicting will happen?

Amelia Walker, the council’s assistant director for education partnerships and skills, told the council’s children and families scrutiny committee on Monday afternoon (June 20) that the “birth rate is falling” and “the boom is coming to an end”.

She explained: “We are entering a period of numbers decline and this is almost certainly going to be very painful for the county, since it involves discussions about less money, about less staff, and even about closing schools.

“The falling birth rate, and the high cost of housing, puts small schools at the sharp end.”

The council predicts that there will be 476 fewer primary-age pupils by 2026 – a drop of 8.6 per cent compared to the number of pupils in 2021.

In financial terms, this equates to the council receiving £16.2m less funding from the Department for Education (DfE) for primary provision.

More than three-quarters of all primary schools (75.8 per cent) are forecasting a drop in numbers by 2026 – even though 54 such schools are currently over-subscribed.

Secondary-age pupils are forecast to continue increasing until 2023 – with the majority of growth coming in the Bridgwater and Taunton catchment areas – before levelling off up to 2025 and then falling consistently until 2032.

The council estimates that the number of secondary-age pupils will fall by 2,173 between 2021 and 2032 – which works out as a reduction in funding of £12.5m.

What does this mean for smaller schools?

During the last ‘bust’ period – which occurred in the late-2000s – nine small primary schools closed, Ms Walker said.

Misterton First School has already been identified for closure as part of the county council’s reforms to schools in the Crewkerne and Ilminster area, which are due to take effect from September.

Councillor Andy Hadley, who represents the Minehead division, warned that allowing smaller rural schools to close would create more traffic into Minehead from the wider west Somerset area.

He said: “With in-year admissions, we’re having issues with families moving close to the town but they can’t get admissions, so they have to travel back to west Somerset at the end of the day.

“If some of our vulnerable primary schools dotted around Exmoor had to close, you would get the same issue.”

How are new schools delivered?

Where new schools are needed as part of a new housing development, the “ideal result” is that the school is paid for entirely by the developer, with the funding being secured through either a Section 106 agreement or the community infrastructure levy (CIL).

In practice, however, the majority of the funding for new schools comes from council borrowing on top of any Section 106 or CIL contribution.

On some rare occasions, the DfE does provide direct funding for a new school – such as the new Martock-Ash Academy which is due to open in 2023, providing 120 places for SEND pupils.

Once the school has been constructed by the council’s contractors, the site is handed over (usually on a 125-year lease) to a multi-academy trust, which will run the school.

While state schools receive funding via the county council, academies receive their annual budgets directly from the DfE.

What about urban areas?

Despite the general decline in pupil numbers, the council has identified “pockets of growth linked to large housing developments” in urban areas where new schools will be needed.

Bishop’s Fox School and The Castle School in Taunton is oversubscribed for the current school year, as is Haygrove School in Bridgwater.

Councillor John Hunt welcomed the delivery of the new primary school within the Orchard Grove site in Taunton but questioned whether a new secondary school would be needed in the years ahead.

He said: “What concerns me with Orchard Grove is the new primary school there will take 420 pupils, which is great. That will solve high-class sizes in the area.

“What happens with the secondary school children joining that development, adding to those from the Staplegrove development, which will be around 3,500 new people. How are we getting around that?”

The Staplegrove urban extension is expected to deliver more than 1,600 new homes in Taunton, with £14.2m being provided by Homes England to deliver both a new primary school for the development and the spine road connecting the new homes to the A358.

Ms Walker replied: “The plan is to enable a 420-place school, but it would be 210 places in the first place – it’s a modular building that we can expand in the future as needed.

“Because of the numbers that would be expected, we wouldn’t build a new secondary school with that. We would be looking at expanding secondary schools in Taunton.

“We can accommodate in Taunton with the rate of expansion that is expected. Funding has been allocated, it’s on the list.”

New primary schools are also expected to be delivered in Bridgwater as part of approved developments on Bower Lane and the A39 Quantock Road – though the time-scale for the delivery of these schools has not yet been confirmed.

SEND provision

While general pupil numbers are expected to decline in the coming years, Somerset has seen “a significant rise” in the number of SEND pupils since 2017 – and this is projected to continue, placing pressure on the ‘high needs block’ funding which the council receives from the DfE.

The council has been trying to meet this demand through its capital programme, delivering more than 300 extra places since 2018 at a cost of just over £49m.

A £4.75m project to expand Sky College in Taunton is currently underway, and is expected to provide 40 new places by September.

Work is also underway to deliver the Martock-Ash Academy near the A303 and a new specialist hub for up to 40 SEND pupils in the west Somerset area.

Councillor Jason Baker asked whether there was scope for new SEND schools being built outside of Somerset’s larger settlements, in a bid to cut down on the cost of school transport.

Council spending on specialist school transport has risen from £4.6m in 2018/19 to £6.8m in 2021/22 and is forecast to increase in light of rising pupil numbers along with sky-rocketing fuel prices.

Mr Baker said: “We tend to build SEND settings in our larger settlements, which makes sense. Are there any plans to build them in smaller towns in the future?”

Phil Curd, the council’s strategic manager for access and additional learning need, said the council was working with existing mainstream schools to ensure SEND pupils could be educated as locally as possible – officially known as ‘enhanced learning provisions’.

He said: “We’re currently working with secondary schools to use currently vacant accommodation to meet the needs for children with education, health and care plans more frequently within mainstream settings and more locally.”

Such a partnership is already in place between the Court Fields School in Wellington and Selworthy School in Taunton, with the council exploring similar partnerships with Holyrood Academy in Chard (which is in the process of being expanded) and King Arthur’s Community School in Wincanton.

Could my local school shut?

Any formal closures of a school – whether primary, secondary or SEND – would be subject to formal public consultation and would have to come before the council for final approval.

Besides the closure of Misterton First School – which was upheld following a judicial review by parents – there are no planned closures of schools in Somerset.

Further updates on pupil numbers are expected to come back before the children and families scrutiny committee at a later date.