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Sunday, 1 July 2007

Rhetoric and Reality

Excerpts from a letter to DCC by a parent governor, entitled "Rhetoric and Reality: the proposal to close Combs Infant School".

This letter is not intended to be a polemic against the DCC or any of its councillors, but simply the personal opinions of one parent who has recently had two children attend Combs Infant School. Steve Lyons, Parent GovernorIt is a superb school and I strongly feel that the proposal to close it is ill-timed and ill-judged, and based on a false premise which will in time reflect badly on the DCC and its officers.

To me the whole proposal to close Combs seems at odds with prevailing DCC and central government policy. At the DCC level, for example, Alan Charles made the following bold statement in an October 2005 publication targeted directly at parents:
“The Country Council is proud of its record on educational matters. Despite financial pressures, it remains committed to providing the best possible standards in schools...
With Combs receiving an Ofsted report “outstanding” in all categories in September 2006, one would think that DCC would be bending over backwards to keep the school open as a model for other schools to follow in the county. Instead it seeks to close it, and at the consultative meeting with school governors on 22nd May 2007, Alan Charles confirmed that the DCC had not considered any alternatives to closure.

On what basis does the DCC seek to close the school? One major argument is made on the grounds of “equity” – the per-pupil funding at Combs is reported to be twice that of the county average, and this is seen as “diverting funds from the good of the many to the benefit of the few.” The corollary of this statement is that closure of Combs would result in substantial savings and tangible educational benefits for other children in the county. However, in a letter to Tom Levitt MP of 14 June 2007, Alan Charles admits “Whatever figure is used we would accept that the savings are marginal, especially when calculated in terms of the difference this will make to the funding per child across the County.”

Moreover, what funds are provided to Combs Infants using established budgetary mechanisms do not necessarily equate with what Combs actually spends on an annual basis. Direct comparison of funding levels between schools may not be appropriate if actual spending levels by schools are not also taken into consideration; it was particularly remiss of the DCC not to make this distinction in their analysis, knowing that the level of overall costs is a key argument they are using to justify closure.

Nobody denies that small rural schools cost more to run than larger urban schools which enjoy greater economies of scale. However, this does not imply that Combs children are taking an unfair share of the DCC funds; rather it reflects that special funding is provided by central government specifically to meet the higher costs of running rural schools. In a 1999 publication by a Working Group study on small rural schools that included Councillor Dave Wilcox of the DCC, the Local Government Association seems to have recognised the need for this provision:
Small schools are a small, but necessary part of the education service nationally, and where they exist, they will need adequate funding. The additional cost of small schools has to be accepted by all involved, central and local government, Ofsted and the Audit Commission, and other schools within the authority.
In their conclusion the Working Group remarked:
The small rural school will remain an important part of educational provision within rural communities. This has been recognized at the national level. High educational standards and value for money are important - however, a local school fulfils other important requirements, including the social development of children and contributing to community sustainability.
The added value of Combs – the fact that it is not just a very good school but is also a village hall, community centre and chapel was obviously understood and appreciated by the Ofsted inspector who described Combs as offering "outstanding value for money."


Another related key issue for DCC is the concept of “normal area” as it relates to Combs Infants, and it has repeatedly pointed to the fact that many children attending the school actually live outside the immediate Combs area. What is the significance of this fact? Its significance lies in the implicit argument that Combs is responsible for enticing away a number of parents who would otherwise be quite happy to fill those “surplus places” in other schools such as Chapel Primary. In his letter to Tom Levitt already referred to, Alan Charles goes as far as saying, “As I said clearly at the public meeting [at Combs on 22nd May] we would not be proposing the closure of this school if it was genuinely providing an education for children living in the normal area.”

In fact “normal areas” were developed as a wholly arbitrary division many years ago, and have never been revised to meet community needs and parental choice, or to reflect changing demographic trends. Up to the mid-1990s the loss of the remaining shops, local industry and post office at Combs had left the village an economic backwater of Chapel en le Frith, with an ageing population and few children of school-going age. Since then however the refurbishment and extension of the Chapel building and Village Hall by the community, and the growing reputation of the Infant School as a centre of excellence started to attract younger families to move there, breathing new life and hope into what had become a picturesque but economically declining village. Other parents from Chapel and other nearby towns were also attracted by the greater pastoral care offered by smaller class sizes and the high standard of education.

That Combs school has been able to satisfy the educational needs of the local community in the normal area, and extend or expand this provision to other surrounding areas is surely something to be commended rather than condemned. Tony Blair said as much in 2004 in the following statement which is particularly appropriate to the situation now faced by Combs:
“You cannot say that good schools are unable to expand simply because you have got surplus places elsewhere when the surplus places elsewhere may be in a school that is not up to standard. We have a very simple choice on this, if you like. We either say that in no circumstances is that good school going to be able to expand, even though it could expand and wants to, because there are surplus places at a school that someone does not want to send their children to. I am sorry, in the end that is not acceptable. We have to make sure that we are not simply allowing the good school to expand but we are also taking measures to deal with the school that is not up to scratch.”
The lessons to be learnt seem clear: first, to ensure Combs Infants remains open as a flagship school for the County; secondly, mechanisms should be put into place to enable Combs to extend or expand its provision, its talents and its ethos to other schools in the area. Thirdly, meetings between the DCC, Combs staff and governors should be held to discuss budgetary issues and to ensure that funds provided reflect actual needs - and that these revised figures are used in all discussions and publications where a cost comparison is made with other schools.

I have suggested in this letter that the basic premise on which the original proposal for closure was based is seriously flawed; cost comparisons with other schools were not accurate, savings from any closure would be insignificant and surplus places at Chapel Primary would not be filled. Closure on the basis of “equity” would reduce overall educational standards and deny many children - not only in Combs, but in Chapel and elsewhere - some excellent educational opportunities in the most formative years of their lives; it would reduce parental choice. Finally, the closure of Combs can never be justified on ideological grounds alone because the education policies of all major political parties seek to improve standards and widen parental choice, not diminish it.

Download a copy of the full letter.

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