Housing benefit cap puts Westminster schools at risk of “devastating” crisis

Primary schools in St John’s Wood, Maida Vale and the rest of Westminster could face a “devastating” funding crisis with thousands of empty places caused by the housing benefit cap.

Westminster Council says the borough’s primary schools could be left with 2,745 surplus places next year as families are forced to leave the borough because they cannot pay the rent.

The council concedes “the loss of pupil numbers could have a detrimental effect on future school budgets” with critics arguing schools could be left with “ghost classrooms”.

St Edward’s Primary School in Lisson Grove is predicted to have up to 151 surplus places – the third worst affected school in Westminster.

Headteacher Maureen Donnelly said: “The potential impact of this policy of moving families out of the local area, alongside the creation of more school places through the emergence of free schools and academies, may prove to be devastating to the schools involved and the local community.”

A total of 106 surplus places are also predicted at Our Lady of Dolours RC Primary School in Maida Vale. Headteacher Mary Wilson said: “It’s obviously going to impact us negatively and if we do lose funding then it could lead to having to make teachers and support staff redundant.

“But I hope it won’t be as great a number as suggested because some of the rents will hopefully come down.

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“Also, because we are a Catholic school I think people tend to come from a bit further afield outside of Westminster.”

The council report predicts more than 5,000 households receiving housing benefits will be “adversely affected” by the caps with the impact “greater than in any other London borough”.

Paddington Green Primary School could be the worst hit with 181 surplus places while Gateway Primary School could face 173, and Hallfield Junior School 142.

Westminster North MP Karen Buck says schools stand to lose a “large amount of money” if they are left without pupils.

Finance boss Councillor Philippa Roe says the figures represent a “worst case scenario” based on all families affected by the caps.

“This report did not take into account other families who could move into properties vacated because of the caps, pupils who would move home but stay at the same school and the fact that our schools are oversubscribed,” she said.

“Moreover, 20 per cent of pupils who attend primary schools in Westminster already live out of the borough. Therefore, we do not believe that we are going to have lots of empty desks.”