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Friday, 22 June 2007

Alan Charles replies to Tom Levitt

You will remember that Tom Levitt wrote to Alan Charles. Here is Alan Charles' reply in full.

Our Ref: AFC/TLJ/4675
14 June 2007

Dear Tom

Thank you for your letter of 25 May asking a number of questions in relation to the proposed closure of Combs Infant School. My responses are as follows:

1. What impact would closure have on the county’s finances and surplus place reduction programme?

As with all small school closures, the individual impact of any single closure is marginal. The total budget for Combs Infant School this year is £136,181. If all the children were to transfer to alternative Local Authority maintained schools in Derbyshire the approximate saving per year may be calculated in simple terms by taking the difference between the cost per pupil at Combs (£5,447) and the average cost per infant child (£2,635) multiplied by the number of Children. At Combs this amounts to £73,112. Our accountants have carried out a more sophisticated analysis and have arrived at a ‘savings’ figure of £87,000
[Note 1]. Opponents of the proposal have quoted a figure of £53,000 based on the funding per child at Chapel Primary School (their funding is higher owing to the ERS provision at the school). 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. However, that is always going to be the case when a primary school closure is being proposed, and if we followed that argument we wouldn’t close any schools. The Adjudicator for Stoney Middleton acknowledged that the marginal effect of a single school closure on finances was not a reason for rejecting closure:- “Objectors argue that the savings are very small relative to the Council’s overall budget. This is true, but is not an argument for not making those savings.”

A similar argument applies with regard to the effect on surplus places. The effect of closing one small school will always be negligible, but the overall effect of rationalising provision across a number of schools would be significant.

2. What other measures could be used to reduce surplus places?

As indicated in the consultation paper there are currently 60 surplus places at Chapel en le Frith CE Primary School. There are probably ways in which remodelling could be undertaken to reduce that figure, but this would not address the issue of whether it is equitable to keep such a small village school open at such a high funding level per pupil when such a small number of pupils (currently 10) live in the area. As I said clearly at the public meeting, we would not be proposing the closure of this school if it was genuinely providing an education for children living in the normal area. We would acknowledge that the number on roll at Combs is relatively stable, but only as a result of a majority of parents bringing their children to the village from outside the normal area, mostly (13) from the Chapel en le Frith area.

We would consider Federation as an option if the School could put forward a proposal in conjunction with one of its neighbouring schools, but there are no natural partners that we can envisage for this to be a realistic proposal, as outlined in the consultation paper. Also, I cannot see how this would address the issues which form the basis of the closure proposal.

The projections of future pupil numbers are based on the evidence we have regarding pie-school children living in the area, together with a ‘popularity’ factor which assesses the number of children attending from outside the normal area. At the consultation meeting one of the Governors suggested that there were larger cohorts of children of pre¬school age. We have asked the Governors to provide evidence of that as our data does not suggest that the current picture will change in the foreseeable future. If such evidence can be produced that will of course be a significant issue for the Authority to consider.

3. How have you calculated the net travel costs and carbon footprint implications of closure?

We have said in the consultation paper that “A significant proportion of the pupils at Combs Infant School travel from outside of the school’s normal area to attend this school. Hence the closure of Combs Infant School is unlikely to increase journeys.” This is based on the assumption that children would attend their normal area school if Combs were to close, Of course, we cannot guarantee that that would happen. We have acknowledged that if the current school bus arrangements are not satisfactory on health and safety grounds for infant aged children we would need to consider an alternative arrangement for any children attending Chapel CE Primary School from the village of Combs. This would also ensure that the journey time was reduced significantly.

4. Does DCC have the final say?

Yes — at this stage the Authority is only at an initial consultation stage. No decision has been taken regarding the publication of a statutory proposal to close the school. For any statutory proposals published from now on the Regulations introduced by the 2006 Act will apply. So if it is decided to proceed with the publication of a statutory notice in September, the Local Authority will be the decision maker as specified in the new Regulations. If, following that statutory consultation period, the Authority determined to approve the closure, the Church of England Diocese or the Catholic Diocese could refer the matter to the Schools Adjudicator. The only other appeal mechanism would be a judicial review.

5. Parental choice: are not all but one of the nearest school to Combs faith schools?

Chapel en le Frith, Dove Holes, and Taxal and Fernilee are Church of England Controlled schools. Whaley Bridge is a community school and Chinley is a Foundation school. There is therefore a mix of alternatives in the area although I accept that this is ‘weighted’ towards the CE voluntary schools. Whaley Bridge is not oversubscribed; the Planned Admission Number is 36 and for September 2007 there were 23 applicants for places on the ‘offer day’, 22 from the normal area and 1 sibling. So if parents strongly object to a Church controlled school place, there is a community school alternative. The differences between a CE controlled school and a community school are marginal. I could understand this being more of an issue with a church aided school, where the Church’s involvement is much greater.

6. Is there a presumption in favour of ‘excellent’ schools being protected in the Act?

Not specifically; certainly not in the same way as the specific reference to protecting rural schools. The Regulations state; “The Government’s aim is to transform our school system so that every child receives an excellent education — whatever their background and wherever they live. A vital part of the Government’s vision is to create a more diverse school system offering excellence and choice, sense of mission and a centre of excellence or specialist provision.”
[Note 2]

7. How do you assess the impact of closure on a rural community?

This will be a key issue for the Cabinet to consider when a decision is taken on moving forward with the proposal. As you will be aware, there is a presumption against the closure of rural schools and the impact on the local community is one of the issues which must be considered. We have received a response from the Chair of the Village Hall Trustees expressing the Trustees’ concerns about the future viability of this facility and officers have discussed the financial position further with him as part of the consultation process. The Trustees will be submitting a detailed response in writing.

I appreciate the political considerations outlined in the final part of your letter, and the next report to Cabinet will certainly consider all the issues you have raised and will be in the public domain. It will be a difficult decision and the evidence gathered will be scrutinised closely before that decision is reached. I anticipate that the report summarising the responses and determining whether or not to proceed to the next stage — the publication of a Statutory Notice — will be submitted to Cabinet in August or early September. If a Notice is published there will be a statutory six week period for the submission of responses. A further report would then be submitted to Cabinet, probably in December.

Yours sincerely

Alan Charles

Note 1
DCC have been asked to explain this 'sophisiticated' analysis. Why wasn't it made available at the start of the consultation process?

Note 2
Closing Combs School will be the eradication of a centre of excellence. The guidance was emphasised by the reply to Tom Levitt's written Parliamentary question: "When deciding proposals to close a school the local authority must take account of statutory guidance issued by the Secretary of State. The guidance does not specify the weightings that decision-makers should apply to the various factors they take into account, but it makes clear that they must be satisfied that closing the school would contribute to raising the standard of provision locally and lead to improved attainment for children. The statutory guidance also includes a presumption against closing rural primary schools. Although this does not mean that no rural primary school will ever close, the case for closure needs to be strong."

The Secretary of State for Education has said recently, in relation to this issue: "We do encourage Local Authorities to take action to remove surplus places, as empty places can be poor use of resources, but our guidance makes clear that their removal must support the core agenda of raising standards and respect parents wishes by seeking to match school places with parental choices."

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Whaley Bridge Council Backs School

As reported by the Buxton Advertiser today:

WHALEY Bridge councillors have added their support to the fight to save Combs Infant School.

Members of the town council agreed to support the campaign group fighting to save the school from closure. Pupils would go to a school in Chapel.

Cllr Barrie Taylor, who also represents the ward serving Combs on the County Council, said: “I think what is significant is that the reason for closure seems to be almost entirely based on money.

“The last Ofsted inspection rated it outstanding and said it provided outstanding value for money.

“The closure is unlikely to benefit Chapel school at all.”

Chapel-en-le-Frith parish council have already voiced their support for the campaign with councillors voting unanimously to back the campaign and send a letter of support to Derbyshire County Council.

Parents in Fight to Save School

From today's issue of the Derbyshire Times.

Concerned parents have started a campaign to stop the closure of a school which they say has become the "heart" of their village.

Derbyshire County Council plans to shut Combs School in an attempt to fill surplus places in the county.

Officers claim that it costs £5,447 to educate each pupil compared to the Derbyshire average of £2,635 and said 15 pupils currently travel from outside the catchment area to be educated there.

But parents believe the school has become a vital part of Combs, which is near Buxton, as it also acts as a village hall and meeting place.

Parent Carah Boden said: "We are trying to keep the village alive as a community and this school is the heart."

She added that the primary school, which has 25 pupils, was rated as outstanding following a recent Ofsted inspection and provides the right community education for her children.

Mrs Boden added: "They are forcing us to go to a school which has lower standards of education than the children are enjoying at our school."

Other parental concerns include transport to and from other schools such as Chapel-en-le-Frith Primary.

More than 1,000 signatures have been gathered on a petition and parents have gained support from High Peak MP Tom Levitt.

Cllr Alan Charles, Derbyshire County Council's schools chief, said: "The issue of falling pupil numbers is a tough problem. There are no easy answers and we have looked at all the options."

Parents have until July 6 to object to the proposed closure. A decision is due to be made by the end of September.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Rev. Philo Speaks for Methodists

We asked Rev. David Philo for a comment on behalf of the Methodist Church. This is what he said:

It is with alarm and dismay that the Methodist Church (High Peak Circuit) heard of the proposed closure of a school which we consider very much part of our church.

The Methodist Church, locally and nationally, is absolutely committed to local education for local children, and Combs is an outstanding example of a local village school, loving and nurturing its children within the community and at the same time achieving outstanding educational results.

As a church, national and local, we have sought to work with government and local authorities to use our buildings to full capacity – Combs demonstrates this policy in action, a building which is an integral part of the community – a church, a meeting place, a school, a village hall, a place which caters for all passages of life from Baptism to marriage to marking the end of life.

We join with all Combs in fighting an ill-considered, ill-proposed closure, based upon spurious economies of truth.

Superintendent Rev. David Philo.
Note: Combs Infant School is a non-faith school.

Invitations Not Accepted (Yet)

Well, we tried to give Gordon Brown a photo opportunity in the playground of an excellent school (he does seem to like doing them), but his campaign team haven't replied to our invitation (yet). We thought that he'd want to understand what makes a rural school work well. Last December, he said, "I propose to increase the cash we give to every school and every head teacher, to be used in the way local schools think best. The typical primary school received £39,000 this year in direct payments; for April next year I propose this be £50,000". We'd like him to explain how DCC's proposals square with his ambitions.

Nor has Alan Johnson told us he's interested (yet) in visiting Combs School. He's the chap that wrote, "We do encourage Local Authorities to take action to remove surplus places, as empty places can be poor use of resources, but our guidance makes clear that their removal must support the core agenda of raising standards and respect parents wishes by seeking to match school places with parental choices." So he'd surely want to know how removing an outstanding school that is favoured by parents is supposed to raise standards and improve choice.

We also thought that members of the Cabinet* of Derbyshire County Council might visit the village, as part of their due diligence in looking at whether Combs School should close. You would think that they'd want to personally understand what's going on, and take a short ride out from Matlock, wouldn't you?

But John Williams (Leader of the Council) replied to our invitation saying that they would not be coming. He said that they operate a cabinet system, and will make a decision based solely on the report of the cabinet member responsible for schools, Alan Charles. So they won't have the opportunity to gain personal knowledge on which to base their decision, and ensure that their individual responsibilities* are fully taken care of. Perhaps they suspect that they might have to change their minds - as other people have done when they have visited the village and gathered information first-hand - and then oppose the closing of the school.

Thank goodness that other people in politics (local and national) have taken the time to come and see for themselves what happens in Combs. It has often resulted in gaining their support.

So, Gordon Brown, Alan Johnson and members of the DCC Cabinet: we'd still like to show you round. You'll be made very welcome.

* The cabinet members (with the responsibilities they hold that are particularly relevant) are:

John Williams (Community Consultation), Anne Western (Overview of Schools Planning and Support), Annette Noskwith (Leader of the Opposition, without portfolio), Clive Moesby (Community safety), Brian Lucas (Public transport including schools), Bob Janes (Early Years and Childcare; Children’s Centres), Alan Charles, Geoff Carlile (Community development), Ken Armstrong (Community Cohesion; Parish Council Liaison), and Dave Allen (Supporting People).
More information.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Please Don't Ruin My Village

This letter to DCC from a Combs resident sums up the feelings of many people here.

I write with regard to the proposed closure of Combs Primary School. I live in the village of Combs with my wife. I would like to make the following points in opposition to this proposal.

The school is inarguably a standard-bearer for the whole county in terms of quality. It has been implied by the council that the main reason for this is the teacher/pupil ratio, funded by higher costs per pupil than other schools in the area. I would put it to you that this completely ignores the fact that the head teacher, Ms. Curry, and her colleagues, with the complete support and involvement of the local parents, form a formidable educational unit that much more probably explains the tremendous educational successes.

Why the county council would want to destroy such a standard-bearer is beyond us. It makes absolutely no sense to destroy something so successful. Obviously it costs slightly more to provide services in a rural area, but if the council direction is followed to its logical conclusion we may as well all move to Buxton, or even Derby, because it would be cheaper to provide services for us there.

In any event I am not entirely clear, other than the school that you seek to close, exactly what services the county council does provide for the village and its tax payers.

At present the village is a fresh and exciting place to live, with a diverse set of inhabitants including, obviously, families with young children. Much social activity, particularly in the summer months, revolves around the school and village hall, where the keen efforts of the staff and local parents make such events very entertaining for so many people.

Over a period of years the loss of the school will inevitably result in a long-term change for the worse in the life of the village. Other opponents of this proposal have already noted that closure of the school will almost certainly result in closure of the village hall. An important social centre will be lost. The village will become less attractive to families with children, and the present energetic contributions of parents will disappear. It is evident that closure of the school will inevitably result in further losses to the village, in terms of social interaction for all its inhabitants, and not just those directly associated with the school.

I for one very much enjoy living in a village with young people. Your proposed actions will ultimately result in my living in a village with an aging population, just like so many other rural areas in Derbyshire where services have been withdrawn.

Please do not ruin my village.

Commissioner Gets a Letter

The school children have written the following letter to the Children's Commissioner:

Dear Sir Albert Aynsley-Green

As you are our Commissioner we would like you to know what is going on with our school. Our school is called Combs Infant School and is in Derbyshire. It is also the chapel and village hall in Combs. Derbyshire County Council is trying to close our school.

All our parents and grown ups in the village are doing lots to keep the school open and we want to help, which is why we are writing to you.

The school is a small Infant school with 26 children. It was put in the top 10% of all primary schools in the country after we had an outstanding Ofsted report in September 2006.

We cannot understand why it needs to be closed as we feel it is a very helpful school which helps us to understand and learn lots of exciting new things.

It is a fun and happy school with no bullying. The school has been in the village for a very long time and we would like it to be around when we are grown up. Please can you help SAVE OUR SCHOOL.

Love from all the children at Combs Infant School.

In March 2005 the Government appointed Professor Al Aynsley-Green as England's first Children's Commissioner.

The need for a Children's Commissioner was established through the consultation that led to the Children Act 2004. The role aims to give a national voice to all children and young people, especially the disadvantaged and the vulnerable.

Independent of government, the Commissioner's remit is to promote awareness of views and interests of children. He is expected to raise the profile of the issues that affect and concern children in England, and promote awareness and understanding of their views and interests among all sectors of society, both public and private.

This may involve working closely with organisations whose decisions affect all aspects of children's lives, including the police, schools, hospitals and voluntary groups.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Chapel Carnival - A Big Success

Thank you to everyone who supported us on Saturday at Chapel-en-le-Frith Carnival.

The children travelled through Chapel on a float decorated using the theme “Living Things”, as this is the topic that the children are studying this term.

The costumes were very creative and included farmers, milkmaids, a donkey, a spider and two cats.

Despite variable weather the support that we received was amazing and the children were a credit to the school.

To top it all, the float won second prize!

The stand in the park was also very well supported.

It is fantastic to know that so many in Chapel are against the closure of Combs School: over 300 people signed the petition.