Primary schools to boom in size as pupil numbers grow and budgets tighten

Hillcrest Primary School in Downham Market has been granted planning permission to expand the school

Hillcrest Primary School in Downham Market has been granted planning permission to expand the school, increasing pupil capacity from 420 to 630. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

Primary schools in Norfolk and Suffolk are expected to grow in size over the coming years, as pupil numbers boom and budgets tighten.

Head teacher Penny Sheppard at Queen's Hill primary at Costessey. Photo: Bill Smith

Head teacher Penny Sheppard at Queen's Hill primary at Costessey. Photo: Bill Smith

With 100,000 more primary age pupils expected to be in the system by 2026, councils nationally are moving towards bigger primaries to prepare for the growth.

And with school funding largely based on pupil numbers, those with bigger rolls are generally viewed as more financially secure.

Nationally, the number of primary schools with 601 to 700 pupils jumped from 191 to 467 in the decade.

Last year, Norfolk County Council's children's services committee agreed that 420-place primaries would be the desirable size when building new schools, or expanding current ones.

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And a handful of schools around the county now can take 630 pupils, with Hillcrest Primary, in Downham Market, last week granted permission to expand from 490 to 630.

Another big primary is Queen's Hill Primary in Costessey, which has capacity for 630 young people.

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It is led by Penny Sheppard, who, having previously been head at much smaller primaries, said the daily challenges 'follow a similar theme, just on a different scale'.

She said: 'The greatest impact on schools of all sizes is the budget and the attitude of the staff. If the budget is tight, it doesn't matter whether you are large or small, the pain is the same... In a three-class school you will be grappling around looking to save the £50s to safeguard teaching assistant hours, in a larger school you will be looking to save the £500s to safeguard teaching assistant jobs.

'Everything in a larger school is just on a larger scale.'

She said, in bigger schools, there are more opportunities for staff development, but that ensuring consistency across year groups and organising events was more of a challenge.

A council spokesperson said: 'Schools of the 420 pupil size are more financially sustainable and it is often easier for them to attract strong teachers and leaders than smaller-sized schools.

'There is also the ability to employ staff with specialisms and thus potentially allow for a richer curriculum and learning experience.'

MORE: Norfolk's rural schools encouraged to form partnerships to secure futures

Region's small schools

In some of the region's small villages, primary schools have just a handful of pupils.

With less pupils - and therefore less initial funding - small schools are often seen as more vulnerable to budget pressures. The council has said it works to support small schools, and the majority are part of multi-academy trusts or federations to make the future sustainable.

Mrs Sheppard said at Queen's Hill she has more than 60 staff members, equivalent to the number of pupils at her previous school.

'I do think that in the coming months there will be times when we need to weigh up how much we, as a county, are prepared to subsidise small schools and there are likely to be some tough decisions to make as budgets get even tighter,' she said.

She said educators come into the job to make a difference and prepare young people for the future.

'The size of the school doesn't make a difference to that – the size of the budget most definitely does no matter how enthusiastic and passionate the staff are,' she added.

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