The number of schools used as polling stations has dropped by around 10 per cent, despite very few councils taking up the government’s offer of additional funding to assist with finding alternative venues. In an investigation conducted by Schools Week, responses were received from 180 district, unitary, metropolitan and London councils. Those responses showed that 2,117 schools were to be used for the general election which took place on 12 December 2019. In 2017 the same councils used 2,346 schools as polling stations. Extrapolating those figures across all 317 local government areas nationally, it would mean 3,728 schools (18.5 per cent of schools nationally) were used for the 2019 general election.
Returning officers can require any state-funded school to become a polling station. However the decision rests with the headteacher and chair of governors as to whether the school closes on election day as result. However schools often do close when they are used for polling, especially as it is often primary schools which are most often used as polling venues. 163 of the councils that responded to Schools Week broke down their response by type of school, and reported using 1,713 primary schools, which amounts to 88 per cent.
The government wrote to returning officers in early November offering additional funding to reimburse the costs of finding alternative venues, thereby aiming to minimise disruption to schools’ festive events. However, only three out of 180 councils said they had taken advantage of this funding. A common complaint among councils was that the funding offer had come too late to be useful. For example, Windsor and Maidenhead council told Schools Week a review to change polling places ‘typically takes several months’ and it was not possible to ‘simply switch to another venue as a one-off alternative’.
Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said ‘numerous election teams did try to avoid using’ schools, but added: ‘If the government decides that it would prefer schools not to be used as polling stations in the future, we would expect to see this reflected in both official guidance and budgets made available to administer elections.’
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