Calls to drop closure plans for school near Worthing made by scrutiny committee
West Sussex County Council has been asked by one of its scrutiny committees to drop plans to close two small schools.
With Rumboldswhyke Infants, in Chichester, and Clapham & Patching Primary, near Worthing, both deemed by the council to be educationally and financially non-viable, the plan is to close them by September.
But, during the council’s first public ‘virtual’ meeting on Tuesday (April 14), some members of the Children & Young People’s Services Scrutiny Committee disagreed.
The Covid-19 crisis certainly played its part in their thinking, with vice-chairman Kirsty Lord (Lib Dem) and Brenda Burgess (Con) both raising concerns about the stress being placed on parents and children.
During the discussion about Clapham & Patching, Ms Lord said: “We’re looking at triggering a process no parent wants to go through at any time, that they would worry about even in a benign situation.
“We’re trying to do this at a time of national crisis and we don’t know what those families are currently going through.”
She added: “I just don’t see how morally we can put children and their parents through this.
“I don’t understand how we can consider putting our staff, our West Sussex teachers – who are doing incredible things at the moment – through this.”
Mrs Burgess added: “I just think it’s the wrong time to be doing this. We have to look at it from the children’s point of view as much as anything else.
“If we’re really keen to put children first it’s something we really do have to think about.”
Concerns were also raised that the county council had not reached the government’s required threshold for closing a school – essentially that the case for closure should be strong and in the ‘best interests of educational provision in the area’.
Not everyone agreed.
Stephen Hillier (Con) felt the case was strong and did not think the pandemic was enough reason to delay any decisions.
Voting on a recommendation from Ms Lord, it was agreed to ask the Cabinet to drop the closure plans and call on the Regional Schools Commissioner to look into an academisation option with the South Downs Education Trust.
There was a similar outcome for Ruboldswhyke School, with strong concerns raised about the council’s conduct.
Addressing the meeting, Jamie Fitzjohn (Con, Chichester South) accused the council of pre-determination, saying it had ‘influenced and manipulated’ outside bodies, such as Ofsted, to get want it wanted.
This was vehemently denied by Paul Wagstaff, director of education and skills.
He did acknowledge that the wording of an email sent to Ofsted on April 29 2019 ‘to try to defer’ an inspection was ‘inappropriate probably’.
Ofsted inspected the school on May 1 2019 and rated it ‘inadequate’, limiting the options left to it, even though a later monitoring visit recognised improvements.
Mr Fitzjohn said he was ‘disappointed’ that the situation at Rumboldswhyke had been painted as ‘very dark, dismal and negative’, saying this was ‘far from the truth’.
Accusing the council of treating residents ‘with pure contempt and total disregard’, he added: “In my opinion, it’s been a degradation of our duty.”
Following a proposal from Andrew Lea (Ind Con), the committee called on the Cabinet to drop plans to close the school, which would allow it to explore the option of becoming an academy.
Neither this nor the Clapham & Patching vote were unanimous.
As well as the two proposed closures, the committee looked at plans for three other schools.
They agreed to recommend that officers continue working with governors at Stedham Primary and Harting CE Primary on their plans to form a federation; work with governors at Compton and Up Marden CE Primary on their federation plans; and to relocate Warninglid Primary to a new site in Pease Pottage by September 2021.
The Cabinet will meet on April 22 at 10.30am.
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