Barnet boasts among best school performance in country – but faces falling pupil numbers

“Brexit and Covid” blamed for dropping demand at Catholic schools in particular, reports Grace Howarth, Local Democracy Reporter

Barnet Council and (inset) schools

Barnet is ranked in the top 10% nationally for school performance – but also faces falling pupil application numbers and rising demand for special needs.

Barnet Council education chiefs boasted that attainment and progress of children in the borough’s schools was among the best in the country at a cabinet meeting yesterday (Tuesday 14th), where they gave updates on local school performance along with areas that needed improvement.

Anne Clarke, cabinet member for community wealth building, asked why ‘school rolls’ were falling, particularly in the borough’s Catholic primary schools, which had a vacancy rate of 16.2% in September 2023. In other schools the average was around 7%.

Neil Marlow, chief executive and director of education and learning, said falling rates in Catholic school applications were due to “Brexit and Covid”. He explained the council was having discussions with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster about the falling number of pupils in Catholic schools and whether there were too many schools for the number of pupils.

He said: “Brexit led to a lot of our Eastern European families going back home, and that’s a significant population of Catholic children in our schools.

“Covid led to more of those families deciding to move back home again. We have got a real issue in our Catholic schools, we’re not unusual in that, that’s the situation across London.”

Alison Moore, cabinet member for health and wellbeing, welcomed the news that the borough was in the top 10% for education in schools but wanted reassurance the good results weren’t “masking” bad ones. 

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Neil explained the council had been investing in a ‘central team’ over the years that supported, monitored and challenged schools, which other local authorities had ceased to do.

Chris Munday, executive director of children’s services, added: “If you look at all of the data we’ve got really good progress [for vulnerable groups] and that’s almost, for me, more important than the attainment figures. 

“When you look at children in need, those on a protection plan or an education, health and care plan [EHCP], our data is strong in all of those areas.

“We’re not complacent but the targets we set in our strategy always looks at which groups are falling behind. We don’t ever rest on saying, because our overall data is strong, there aren’t groups we shouldn’t be doing much better with.”

Council leader Barry Rawlings noted the “very steep” rise in EHCPs in the borough and asked whether it was due to the council identifying children with special needs earlier than was being done previously.

Neil confirmed that the borough had a “good reputation” for special needs education, attracting families to apply to its schools, and confirmed that earlier assessments and diagnosis was the reason behind the rise. 

Karen Flanagan, director for special education needs and inclusion, said this increase was the “picture nationally” and said since EHCP policy reform in 2014, which “broadened eligibility” and “extended the age range”, an increase was always set to happen. She added the largest increase had been seen in under fives, which was statistically above the national average.

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