Clerkenwell Parochial School - where Charles Dickens used to read his work ‘for a penny’ - could close after 300 years

Clerkenwell Parochial Primary School. Picture: Google Street View

Clerkenwell Parochial Primary School. Picture: Google Street View - Credit: Google Street View

A 300-year old school, where Oliver Twist author Charles Dickens used to read his work “for a penny” fee, might close at the end of the academic year, following an exodus of pupils.

The cost of running Clerkenwell Parochial School in Amwell Street, now outstrips the school’s income, since government funding is awarded based on the number of children enrolled, and the LDBS Academies Trust which runs the school made the decision based on finances.

Just three youngsters joined reception this year, and the class ended up merging with the year group above. It is thought the school’s building is the oldest purpose-built, state-school building still operating as a place of education in London. In the 1860s it was famously used as a venue for the Christmas Carol author’s “penny-readings” which saw Dickens touring the country to promote his works.

In a letter sent to parents by email last night, Elizabeth Wolverson OBE, the chief executive officer of the trust, told them the “very difficult and painful decision” had been made to start a process which might lead to the school’s closure. If this happens current pupils will have to transfer to other schools nearby which have spare places.

Ms Wolverson blamed a “change in demographics” for the falling numbers of pupils, and claims other schools in central London are also suffering.

She said: “Unfortunately, numbers have continued to fall as families have relocated during the pandemic, and as demographics change in Islington; there are simply fewer children year on year in this part of London.

“We could continue to try and cut expenditure even further and amalgamate yet more classes, but we are not convinced that implementing the sort of cuts that will be necessary will be in the best interests of your children,” she added.

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However some parents have told the Gazette they believe the school “never recovered” since it failed an Ofsted inspection in 2016, and that parents “slowly started removing their kids from the school” since that time.

The “real hit” apparently came in 2017 when eight of the school’s 10 teachers left.

“Since this all happened parents have been pulling their children out, and every year the in take has got less and less,” one of them said.

Following the bad report the school was taken over by a new head Amanda Szewczyk-Radley, and it was taken over by the trust and became an academy in 2017. In September 2017 Ofsted inspectors found that “many of the weaknesses that caused the school to be judged as having serious weaknesses at the last inspection still remain”.

But Ofsted never came back - and this afternoon Christopher Trundle, chair of the local academy committee, said this had had an impact on pupil numbers.

In a statement he said: “The headteacher took over after a serious Ofsted inspection outcome, and has, over the last three and a half years, addressed all the concerns, developed a motivated and dedicated staff team, and created a caring and inspiring environment. “Sadly there has been no full Ofsted inspection since 2016 to demonstrate just how much the school has improved. “This has had an impact on admissions, and with more recent demographic shifts there are now simply too many school places in this part of London for the number of children who live here.

“The Trust’s decision to consider the school’s closure is a financial one.” Parents are aparently both “angry and sad”, and one of them told the Gazette: “We are sad that our children have to find new schools, sad that the teachers and staff are losing their jobs, and sad that this school that has been there for over 300 years is no longer going to be there.”

They agreed that “positive changes” had taken place at the school and praised the school’s “amazing” teachers.

“I believe they have done a great job, my child has come on leaps and bounds since they have been there,” they said.

“Most of the teaching assistants and the office manager have been there for many years - some 20 years plus - and for their school to close like this makes me feel really sad for them.

“I chose to stick by the school with the belief that it would turn around, and I hoped Ofsted would come and see the improvements that had been made, and how well the children were doing.

“That the school would then turn a corner and the numbers would go back up.

“But as far as we know Ofsted never came back.”

Ofsted was asked why inspectors didn’t ever return to the school but has still not provided a comment.