Schools’ frustration at handling of consultation on their futures

With exam results just a few days away, stress levels are probably rising in many households- but help is available
With exam results just a few days away, stress levels are probably rising in many households- but help is available

Frustrated governors from five small schools have laid into the way West Sussex County Council has handled a consultation into their futures.

Views are being sought about the futures of Clapham & Patching Primary, Rumboldswhyke Infants in Chichester, Stedham Primary, Warninglid Primary, and Compton & Up Marden Schools, which the council’s School Effectiveness Strategy labelled ‘at risk’ due to problems such as falling numbers and financial viability.

At a meeting of a task and finish group, set up to look into the entire process in detail, chairman Hilary Flynn (Con, Felpham) told governors the meeting was about ‘listening rather than anything else’ – and she and the other councillors were certainly given plenty to hear.

The governors hit out at the accuracy of some of the information used in the consultation, a lack of openness with the schools, and the ‘abject failure’ of the council’s scrutiny process.

Some said concerns about low pupil numbers had become a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, with parents changing their minds about sending their children to the schools in light of the uncertainty being faced.

Celia Billington, vice-chairman of governors at Stedham, said the impact of the whole process had been ‘deep and real and lasting for our school’.

She added: “Just in the past few weeks, I’ve had the parents of at least ten children tell me that they would have chosen Stedham as their first choice in January but, as a direct consequence of this consultation, they are too scared to do so.”

The first meeting of the task and finish group was held behind closed doors, which Ms Billington said was a ‘damning indictment of this authority’s governance processes’.

The consultation will run until November 25 and, for four of the schools, people are being asked for their views on seven options – academisation, amalgamation, closure, federation, the linking of infant and junior schools, relocation or no change.

For Rumboldswhyke the only options being explored are academisation and closure.

Governor David Barty was one of those who called for the consultation to be stopped. He said: “We feel this whole process has been handled very, very badly. It needs to be stopped. We need to sort it out properly and then move forward.”

David Longmore, chairman of governors at Clapham & Patching, said the council had ‘jumped the gun’ when it came to announcing the consultation, adding that his school had been given no chance to look at information before it was made public.

The plan had originally been to start the consultation in September – it was later deferred to October – but the council made its announcement shortly before the end of term in July, leaving parents and teachers distressed.

Paul Wagstaff, director of education and skills, said he was confident the whole process had been ‘managed and overseen appropriately’.

The meeting was told that there had been around 300 responses to the consultation so far.

Public meetings are due to be held at Rumboldswhyke School on November 7 from 6.30-8pm, and Compton & Up Marden School on November 11, from 6.30-8pm.

The message from Ms Billington was clear.

While recognising the need for the schools to work with the council, she said: “Stop this illogical and damaging consultation. Meet with us, visit our schools and talk to our schools. Engage.”

Nigel Jupp, cabinet member for education and skills, is expected to announce the proposals for each school in January or February. There will be another six weeks for people to have their say before he makes a final decision in February or March.

The decisions will take effect on August 31 2020.