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Wednesday 13 August 2008

Number 10 Responds
to Online Petition

With the characteristic rapidity of national government, Number 10 has today responded to the online petition that ran during the campaign, and which had fulfilled its purpose last October.

"Derbyshire local authority is responsible in law for the organisation of school places in its area and Ministers have no role in the process. However the Government is firmly committed to rural schools, because we recognise that they are an important part of the rural landscape and an important factor in keeping rural communities alive. That is why, to protect rural schools, the Government introduced a presumption against their closure ten years ago. That does not mean that no rural school can ever close, but our statutory guidance makes clear that the case for closure needs to be strong and in the best interests of educational provision in the area.

In making decisions about rural school closures local authorities must have regard to the presumption and must take account of other factors such as transport availability and cost, alternatives to closure and the impact on the local community. We expect authorities to also take account of school performance, as it is our policy that they support popular and successful schools.

On 30 October 2007, in considering the proposals to close Combs Infant School, Derbyshire local authority took account of our guidance, specifically the need to justify rural school closures on the grounds of raising standards, and decided not to proceed with the closure.

We hope the local authority’s decision addresses your concerns and reassures you that we have put in place mechanisms to protect the future of small rural primary schools*.

The Prime Minister sends his best wishes for the future of Combs Infant School."

* Editor's emphasis.

Read the response on the Number 10 web site. The link to the relevant report is here.

Friday 9 May 2008

A Year Ago Today

A lot can happen in a year. If Derbyshire County Council had got their way, our youngest daughter would have been in her last term at the village school, the place would have been running down in front of our eyes, then dismantled and lost for ever. A piece of history and a slice of excellence in a mediocre world would have been thrown to the four winds with barely a backward glance from the perpetrators of the crime.

But we fought the good fight and we won. This is something to celebrate in a society increasingly crushed by senseless rules and petty bureaucracy, by small-minded people with limited vision and an eye to the main chance and self-aggrandissment. Instead of painfully counting the days till the end of the summer term and the end of an era, facing farewells that should never be and tears that needn’t have been cried, I was able to leave my five year old daughter in the playground this morning happily attempting to jump her spindly little legs over a rope in a brave attempt to learn the art of skipping. The air was soft and warm, the birds were singing, the children were laughing and the cress was bursting through the soil of the grow-bags which they had busily and messily planted last Friday afternoon.

Instead of a sense of heartache and loss, we are able to continue with a sense of well-being, growth and optimism for the future: these children are being given the very best of starts in a beautiful, healthy, sane environment.

I can assure you that the seedlings that come out of this particular grow-bag are strong and vigourous and will grow into beautiful mature plants. They have been given the best of starts in life and they will flourish. These young people are our future and if every child could be given the educational start in life that these children receive, then our world would be a much better place.

Coincidentally on the lunchtime news a youth worker and reformed gang member who was commenting on the brutal knife murder of 16 year old Kodjo Yenga in Hammersmith last year said the problems we are facing with this aggressive youth culture is all down to education. He said that he (as a gang member) was a product of this failure in education. If he can see it, why on earth can’t the people in charge? Why does this government (and others before it) continue to mess up our education system, swamping it with mindless health and safety rules, absurd levels of administration which take away from teaching time and, perhaps most significantly, insisting, in the vein of globalisation, that big is beautiful and that one size fits all? When will they learn that ultimately it is more economical to produce well-educated, well-rounded young people from smaller places of learning than to produce ill-educated dysfunctional people from large anonymous institutions where each child is barely no more than a statistic? This is not rocket science. This is just common sense.

Instead of taking money away from village schools, they should be investing in them. They are the heart of a community, they instill community spirit and a sense of belonging and society to the children whom they educate. It is not just about results and league tables. It is about appreciating what it is to be part of a family, it is about developing self-respect and self-confidence, and understanding what can be achieved by team effort and a positive, optimistic approach to life and learning.

The achievement of our small community in fighting the big boys and beating them at their own game is surely proof enough that small can be beautiful too. We pulled together, we worked as a team, we never gave up and we came out smiling. It can be done.

Tuesday 29 January 2008

Labour should value
village school benefits

Where was the leader-writer of the Daily Telegraph during our campaign?

This editorial is from today's edition.

How hollow the promise now rings. Fresh into power, Labour's then schools minister, Stephen Byers, pledged in 1998 to give "tough new protection for village schools" to end the "wholesale" closure process that had seen 450 of them shut their doors over the previous decade and a half.

"Closing a village school can be a death-blow to the community," Mr Byers observed. He was absolutely right; regrettably, his promise is now unravelling. Weekend reports of a new purge of village schools on economic grounds suggest that up to 300 are already being targeted for closure and the total could reach 1,000.

This is the unthinking politics of the bean-counter in action. In strictly economic terms, small village schools will never be as cost-effective as larger schools in towns or cities. But their value to a local community cannot be measured solely on a balance sheet.

It is not just that small schools, by and large, are better schools - one day, policy-makers will accept that the failings of many schools are related more than anything else to their sheer size. It is because the local school is the beating heart of a village and if it closes, the community suffers, as Mr Byers wisely noted.

A place that no longer educates its young is sending out a signal that it may not have much of a future. Educating children away from their community will slowly but surely undermine it. As for "joined-up government", how does busing or driving children miles to be educated fit in with the Government's environmental commitments?

Sadly, this casual neglect of rural Britain is symptomatic of a government that sees no votes in the countryside and therefore treats it with something approaching disdain. This attitude was detectable in the plans to close rural post offices, which were scaled down under intense pressure, not least from this newspaper, but will still be pushed through in many areas.

Rural Britain has no clout at the Cabinet table and the result has been the accentuation of the rural/urban split to a dangerous degree - witness the ludicrous amount of parliamentary time devoted to the foxhunting ban.

There is an opportunity here for the Conservative Party, whose exploration of the politics of the "post-bureaucratic" age points towards greater self-reliance and local solutions. This promises to be the key ideological battleground at the next election. Among other things, it should mean that the fate of a village school is decided by the community and not by the pen-stroke of some distant bureaucrat.

Also, in The Observer, 27 January 2008:
Hundreds of village schools face axe and
This will rip the heart out of our community.

Thursday 1 November 2007

DCC Announces Decision

This press release was issued on 31 October by DCC. See below for some observations.


An infant school threatened with closure is to stay open, Derbyshire County Council’s cabinet has decided.

Members of the cabinet followed a recommendation by education officers to keep Combs Infant School in Chapel-en-le-Frith open.
[NOTE 1]

Before a council can take a decision to close a rural school it has be satisfied – under the terms of the 2006 Education Act – that pupils would receive a better standard of education if they were moved to alternative schools.

Councillors were told that although the nearest alternative school, Chapel-en-le-Frith Primary School, provides a good quality education standards at Combs Infant School are currently higher.

The cabinet decided against closing Combs Infant School but to keep the problem of surplus places in the Chapel-en-le-Frith area under review.

Councillor Alan Charles, cabinet member for schools, said: “Currently there are only seven pupils from the catchment area
[NOTE 2] of Combs that attend the school.

“In theory there could be no pupils from the catchment area but we would still have to keep the school open if we cannot show that educational standards would be improved by moving pupils to an alternative school.

“Keeping the school open means we are providing a costly and privileged education for children not directly from the Combs community
[NOTE 3]. This is at the expense of tax payers and every other child attending a Derbyshire school.”

The cost of educating each pupil at Combs Infant School is £5,447
[NOTE 4], compared to £2,635 at other infant schools [NOTE 5] in the county.

The decision followed an informal public consultation during which there were 180 letters and a petition with 1,687 signatures
[NOTE 6] opposing the proposals to close Combs Infant School.

There were also concerns expressed about the impact that closing the school would have on community groups, who use the same building.

(Ref: JF.375.07) Media enquiries to John Fern on 01629 585234 or email
[NOTE 7]
OK, ready for the explanation? Go and grab a cup of tea, because the explanation is almost as long as the original press release.

Note 1:That's a subtle one, isn't it? Quite easy to miss on first reading. Combs is not 'in Chapel-en-le-Frith', although if it was it could make sense for all the kids to go to Chapel-en-le-Frith school, couldn't it? Combs is 'in Chapel-en-le-Frith' like St. Albans is 'in London'.

Note 2:DCC told us that there was no such thing as a 'catchment area' any more. So why is Alan Charles referring to it now, how is it defined, and what effect is it supposed to have legally?

Note 3:Similarly, how is 'not directly from the Combs community' defined?

Note 4:That's a budget number, not the actual cost, which is lower. Budgets were most recently discussed here.

Note 5:The £2635 is an average for primary schools, not infant schools as stated here.

Note 6:They're still getting the petition numbers wrong. There were 2141 signatures - that's about three times the population of our small village of Combs. They're out by about 20%. Not enough to matter? The amount they're wrong by is about two-thirds the population of Combs. What else do you think they'll have got wrong?

Note 7:Just in case you think that these press releases could be misleading by accident, this is what DCC's press officer told us: "All press releases are approved by the senior officers involved in the particular issue concerned and by the relevant cabinet member. If there are legal issues involved they are also checked by one of our lawyers."

School Closure Plan Was Vandalism

This letter appeared in today's Buxton Advertiser. It comes from Barrie Taylor, County Councillor for Whaley Bridge & Blackbrook. He is the Liberal Democrat Group Leader on the Council.

The County's grudging agreement not to close Combs Infant School is a huge relief to the local community, and a great credit to all those who have campaigned so hard and so effectively to keep the school open.

Barrie TaylorHowever, joy at the decision is tempered by annoyance that the closure procedure was ever started, and that it was allowed to go on for so long.

The final report to Cabinet recommended that the school should survive, but hardly referred to all the compelling evidence provided by the school governors and the local campaigners. The decision was based entirely on the fact that closure of the only "Outstanding" school in the area, as declared by Ofsted inspectors, could not improve local standards of education. That was glaringly obvious from the outset.

It soon became apparent that none of the other criteria that are set by the Government for the closure of rural schools were met, as the school is also the village hall, and there would be no benefit to other schools that are experiencing falling school rolls.

At the original public meeting I asked for the closure process to be stopped straight away, as the evidence was already so conclusive.

Councillor Alan Charles, Cabinet member for schools, continued to insist that the process had to grind on to the end, despite clear government guidance that it could be stopped at any time. He subsequently accused me of making a "grandstanding speech to get a cheap round of applause".

In the attempt to justify the original proposal to close the school the Council continue to quote inflated figures of the cost per pupil at Combs, despite the Ofsted report stating that it gives "outstanding value for money".

Pupils at Combs are very lucky to be able to attend such an excellent school in lovely surroundings, and it would be wonderful if all infants in the County could have the same experience.

However to propose closing Combs school because this is not possible is the politics of envy.

At the outset I said that to close this centre of excellence at Combs, without any benefit elsewhere, would be an act of vandalism.

The report to Cabinet of the County's education officers comes to the same conclusion, in more diplomatic language.

Peak School Wins the Battle, but Fears a War

Report from today's Buxton Advertiser.

"IT IS a battle won, but not the war," was the reaction from one delighted parent this week after Combs Infants School was saved from closure.

Members of Derbyshire County Council's Cabinet agreed with an officer's recommendation to keep the school open when they met on Tuesday.

Campaigners, who have spent the last six months fighting the plans, were delighted with the decision, but feel there is still more work to be done.

Parent Carah Boden said: "It is a battle won, but not the war. We need to try and stabilise the situation. Now all this is behind us, we need to ensure its ongoing future."

Chair of governors Nye Rowlands added: "We need to move on from this decision, and work with Derbyshire Council to remedy the damage that has been done by their threat to close the school.

"The cabinet said that if you put a lot of money into a school, it is going to be excellent but if you look around Derbyshire, Cheshire or the rest of the country, putting a lot of money into schools does not bring excellence. Being in the top ten per cent of schools in the country, Combs Infant School didn't achieve that through money. It achieved it through the standards of the teachers.

"We have now got to generate an even closer relationship with the community who are very much part of the school. They have stood by us and supported us and the parents have stood by us.

"This has proved a cause which everybody can unite behind."

High Peak Borough councillor Andrew Bingham has supported the campaign group for several months. He said: "There is still a war to be fought and I feel sure that the council will probably revisit the matter again given half a chance.

"When that will be I don't know.

"I'd like to pay tribute to the campaign group for everything they did. Education committe chairman Alan Charles mentioned it had been a well constructed and polite campaign and that is a tribute to the people who have organised it."

Derbyshire County Councillor Barrie Taylor, who represents the Whaley and Blackbrook ward, which covers Combs, added: "I'd like to thank everybody who ran the most impressive campaign in support of the school, which has brought all the community together."

The campaign group are holding a celebration at the school on November 9 to thank everyone who has been involved in the fight.

Wednesday 31 October 2007

Let's Tidy Up After Ourselves

If you find a 'Save Combs School' sign on the verge, or tacked to a lamp post or gate, please remove and dispose of it.

Don't leave it for someone else to do!