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Saturday, 30 June 2007

"Tearing the Heart Out"

We're watching the shuffling of people in and out of Gordon Brown's* Cabinet with interest. Alan Johnson, previously responsible for schools, has been superseded by Ed Balls, in the post of Schools and Children Secretary.

"It is a great honour and a great responsibility to be the first ever Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Children and families are the bedrock of our society and for the first time this new department will bring together all aspects of policy affecting children and young people.

"Every parent wants their child to get the best possible start in life and have the best chance to do well in school. Our responsibility will be to support families and ensure that all children and young people are safe and healthy, that they secure the highest standards of achievements, that they enjoy their childhood..."
That sounds like he'll want to support our campaign, doesn't it? We've written to Mr. Balls**, to see whether he'll take more interest in the threat to an excellent rural school than Mr. Johnson did. While we wait to hear back from Mr. Balls, here's something a colleague in the new Cabinet said a while ago.
"Rural schools are often the lifeblood of local communities.

"I know there are difficult decisions which local authorities have to take. But in the case of village schools, we were right to put the village before the planner.

"Between 1983 and the beginning of 1998 there were 450 closures of rural schools - some of them tearing the heart out of local communities and villages. This is not acceptable and that is why we have made it much harder to close down the schools."
Who said that? Answers in the comments, please.

* We still haven't heard back from Gordon Brown's office. Perhaps he's been busy.
** Ed Balls' contact details are here.

Petition - A Quick Update

So far, 1687 people have signed the paper petition, in opposition to the closure of Combs School, Village Hall and Chapel. 168 people have signed the online petition - they're mostly people outside the area who want to support the campaign but can't sign the paper petition.

We'll submit the signatures we've collected so far, as part of the submission that the school governors will make to DCC before 6 July. But we'll let the petition carry on collecting signatures after that.

Friday, 29 June 2007

The Value of Small Rural Infant Schools

There are plenty of young children in and around Combs who are waiting to take their rightful place in the infant school in the valley where they were born. There are expectant mothers. There are houses for sale which may be filled with families with young children. There are people nearby who seek the nurturing, peaceful, beautiful environment of Combs as the place where their little ones begin their educational life amongst a group of children their own age in a safe, secure environment. It could not be a better start.

Instead of shutting down small rural infant schools like this, Derbyshire County Council – and Councils across Britain – should be actively promoting their continuance. After all, that was what the protection fund for small rural schools was all about in the first place, wasn’t it? And when that school delivers the educational goods while not even spending all of the money it is given, then surely there is something wrong with the system, not the school? Our children should not be paying the price for formula funding that clearly needs to be looked at again.

If there is inequity of provision in the county of Derbyshire the blame lies with the people who devised the formula. Surely it would make more sense to revise this before they go round shutting down small rural schools like Combs whose only sin is to serve their community by providing excellent all-round education and superb value for money. As globalisation comes a cropper and the business world starts to understand that big is not always beautiful, Combs Infant School is a model for the way in which smaller entities can be better managed, better controlled and therefore produce the goods more efficiently and consistently than their larger counterparts.

Combs Infant School is the ONLY infant school in the area – let alone the only small, rural, non-denominational infant school. With children starting school so young in this country compared to our European (and American) brethren, an infant school provides these young children with an environment which does not scare them. There are not hoards of older children to intimidate them. They do not get lost at the back of a large class. They grow, they thrive in this environment. They get the very best start with secure literacy and numeracy skills (a government core objective) and the confidence to move on easily to the next stage of their learning. This is an active choice for many parents.

In a democracy, we should not have that choice so casually taken away. And the Exchequer should be reminded that social and educational failure amongst the young is very expensive…Alistair Darling, are you listening?

'Misjudgment' on Combs School

From this week's Buxton Advertiser, reported by Louise Bellicoso.

HIGH PEAK borough councillors have agreed not to support a county council proposal to close Combs Infant School.

The unanimous decision was made by members of the Social Inclusion and Community committee at their meeting on Monday night after they heard presentations from the county council and representatives of the campaign group fighting to stop the suggested closure.

Dee Hill, Senior Assistant Education Officer for planning in the development team at Derbyshire County council, said: "We appreciate that in proposing a school closure we are proposing something very sensitive and very emotive.

"With the proposal to close Combs Infant School what we are looking at is really the issue of surplus places within the area of Chapel and particularly at Chapel Primary School as well as analysing attendance at local schools from within the normal area."

Parent Governor Nick Boden told the meeting: "Combs is a really remarkable school and the findings of the last Ofsted report bear that out.

"That puts us in the top ten per cent of schools in the country."

Shutting the school to save money would supposedly allow cash to be spent in other areas, but he said: "Small schools and very small schools do get some protective funding and the amount given to Combs is £49,000. We accept that it costs more to run a school in rural circumstances.

"Combs Infant School is actually under threat because of the very funding allocated to look after the interests of a small school."

He added: "We believe that DCC (Derbyshire County Council) has misjudged the strength of community spirit in Combs and the historical significance of the village."

Cllr David Lomax, in proposing that High Peak Borough Council do not support the county council's proposal to close Combs Infant School, said: "It would certainly have an impact on the community in general and clearly it is not as if it would necessarily mean young children who go to school there would move on to Chapel school and help with their problems* (through increased funding).

"I think it is strange that we are here talking about closing one of our successful schools.

"It is at the heart of the village and it would have a bigger impact than just the school itself.

* Note: Cllr Lomax was referring to the 'problem' of surplus places, as defined by DCC.

Combs – A Community with Spirit

DCC has not covered itself in glory while researching Combs Infant School and village. It is suffering from a lot of misconceptions about the nature of Combs Village and Valley and the strong community spirit that thrives here.

In the mid-sixties, Marguerite Bellhouse, long-term resident of Combs, wrote an in-depth book about the village. Only last winter this book was reprinted by popular demand from a whole new generation of Combs residents. This is the nature of Combs. It has an incredibly strong identity and a tremendous sense of place, neither of which should be underestimated or treated so casually by Derbyshire County Council who insist on believing it is a community of relatively wealthy middle class commuters driving 4x4s and enjoying a village school where the children get the equivalent of a private education at the cost of other children in Derbyshire.

The geology and geography of Combs is one of the key things that gives the village this strong sense of place (and if residents have 4x4's it's usually because they need one to work their land or get to their houses in our harsh winters). Combs takes its name from the horseshoe of gritstone hills that embrace it at the south, east and westerly end of the valley. This ‘glacial hollow’ opens out at the northern end until cut off by the hills of Eccles Pike. The first record of a settlement in this valley was in the 13th century but the history stretches back much further – there is an iron age fort (possibly earlier) at Castle Naze and the Romans undoubltedly passed through here as did the Saxons. ‘Cum’ in Saxon means ‘Curved Ground’ and ‘Cumbas’ means valley – likely derivations for the name of the village and placing it firmly in its geographical setting.

The main industry in Combs, until recent times, has been farming, but there has also been a brewery, a mill, weaving, quarrying and smithies. There have been a number of shops in different buildings around the village over the years, sometimes doubling up as a post office. The last one closed over 10 years ago. The last dairy herd was sold three years ago. There is still a milk round. There is still sheep farming and a small beef herd and one of the farmers has diversified into hanging baskets. The Beehive pub thrives, but increasingly with visitors from all around as it offers good dining. If the school, village hall and chapel were to go, the pub would be the only amenity left in the village. There is a small playground in the corner of a field next to the school courtesy of the Village Hall Trust and the funds raised from the Combs Fun Day every August. The publican donated his old outside tables when he bought new ones for the pub so that parents can sit and watch their children play. This playground is full of the sound of happy children’s voices at the end of school, and would undoubtedly be a quieter, sadder place if the school were to shut.

But this is my point. Combs is a relatively rare commodity these days in a world where the countryside has become the town’s toy and many villages have lost control of their own affairs. Despite the squeeze put on small farmers, despite the loss of a shop and post office, the village still has heart. The community pulls together to keep the spirit alive. The school, village hall and chapel exist because of the will and dedication of the residents of Combs. We intend to keep it that way.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

DCC Receives Village Hall Trust's Report

The Trustees of Combs Village Hall Trust have sent their report to DCC. Subtitled "Material adverse effect on the village community caused by the closure of Combs School", their submission tells the story of the support the community has provided over many years. It details the threat posed to the Village Hall by the intended closure of the school.

You can download a full copy of the report (1.2Mb Acrobat file).

Falling School Rolls?

You can prove anything with statistics, or so it's said.

DCC have said that, as school rolls are falling, that puts the continuing need for Combs School in question. Their projection for pupils on the school roll is:

2007: 25
2008: 24
2009: 21
2010: 24
2011: 23

That doesn't look much like a dramatic fall, does it? In any case, it's inaccurate. We've surveyed the area to find out the correct figures.

DCC's comment about the model they use is, "The Pupil Projection Model produces base figures and does not take into account local circumstances that may affect the pupil population at each school."

So there must be some margin of error involved, but it's not stated. Bad statistics?

We'll be giving DCC an account of the local circumstances, so that their projection of the school roll can be corrected.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

How Sophisticated Was DCC's Analysis?

Remember the 'more sophisticated analysis' done by DCC, that Alan Charles referred to in his letter to Tom Levitt?

Well, we think DCC needs to get more sophisticated still.

They claim that spending on Combs School is £136,181 per annum, but the actual spend in the last financial year was £105,528.06. That's a huge difference in the average cost per pupil - a key figure in DCC's proposal.

That's not all. Because Combs School has been under-spending, an accumulated surplus - money that was available to the school but which wasn't spent - of close to £70,000 is sitting in a DCC bank account, gathering interest. DCC wrote to tell us about it.

So, DCC appears to have been fattening up Combs School like a Christmas turkey, ready for the chop.

Chairman of the Governors, Nye Rowlands, commented, "Despite under-spending, OfSTED still called the school 'outstanding value for money', and had no reservations about either the accommodation or the resources. So where does the fault lie? Should the school be closed when the proposal from DCC is based on budget formulae that are out of line with the real situation? And shouldn't there have been an opportunity to discuss this before the axe was raised?"

Monday, 25 June 2007

We Talk to High Peak Borough Council

Councillor Andrew Bingham invited us to address the Social Inclusion and Community Select Committee this evening. He is responsible, on the executive of High Peak Borough Council, for Social and Community Development, and for responding to Derbyshire County Council on their proposal to close Combs Infant School.

Mr. Bingham has already expressed his personal opinion on DCC's plans, but wants to give the Borough Council's formal response having gathered the opinions of other councillors in a public and transparent way.

Newly elected chair of the committee, Councillor Linda Baldry, first asked Dee Hill, from DCC, to explain DCC's proposal. Mrs. Hill, as Senior Assistant Education Officer in the Development section of DCC, is reponsible for the statistical analysis of the provision of school places. She explained that DCC is trying to reduce surplus places in the wider Chapel-en-le-Frith area by closing Combs School, and providing pupils who would have gone there with places at Chapel Primary.

It was then time for parent-governor Nick Boden to give a short, fact-packed presentation*, in which he analysed why DCC's plan should not go ahead.

Councillors asked questions of Dee Hill, but none of Nick, merely commenting that his was a "fantastic presentation".

Councillor Baldry asked for comments, and several councillors indicated their opposition to the proposed school closure. Councillor David Lomax spoke at some length, "We should have choice between schools. We need the variety of schools that we have, including small rural ones. What will be next? If other schools are above the average cost, does that mean that they will also be threatened? Closing Combs School would certainly have a detrimental impact on the community life of the area, and it's clear that the closure is very unlikely to help with the issue of surplus places in Chapel. I can see no reason for Derbyshire Council to proceed with their plan."

Councillor Baldry asked the meeting whether this opinion was held by others present, and there was agreement. Councillor Bingham thanked the councillors for their input to the response he will now deliver to DCC.

* You can download a copy of Nick Boden's presentation as either a 2.9Mb Powerpoint file or a 1.3Mb Adobe Acrobat file.

Mark Your Diary: School Barbecue

This year's Combs Infant School barbecue will be on Thursday 12th July, from 6.00pm to 8.00pm.

Food (including vegetarian options) and refreshments will be available.

There'll be lots of activities and stalls, including raffle, tombola, games, maypole dancing and much more.

UPDATE, 28 June
The school governors have invited the Cabinet of Derbyshire County Council, Tom Levitt, and representatives of the local councils. We hope they'll accept the invitation to the barbecue.

The Brownies Appeal to DCC

From a letter to DCC written by the leader of Combs Brownie Pack:

Combs Brownie Pack was formed in the village in 1958. It is the only organisation for children in Combs and we meet in the Village Hall/School/Chapel.

If the school closes, funding for the Village Hall will cease from DCC and in such a small village it is unlikely that the Village Hall will be able to afford to keep going. There is nowhere else in the village to meet, and in any case, we are COMBS Brownies.

The Village Hall is a wonderful setting for our outdoor activities and we make full use of this. The Brownies host the annual harvest festival in the chapel and join in with other services and village events whenever possible.

DCC always state that they are encouraging facilities for children and young people, so please don't make 2008, when Combs Brownies celebrate their 50th anniversary, the year in which they have to close, because there is nowhere to meet.
The Brownies sent their own comments to DCC, listing the reasons for not closing Combs School. Here are a few of the things they said.
Combs School is like a big family.

It teaches children very well.

It is a really useful place for the village because weddings, meetings, parties and Brownies meet there.

Teachers and other staff would lose their jobs.

Some people might have to move house to find another good school.

It is hard to make friends in a new, big school.

There are less children in all of Combs school than in one class at other schools, so you get a better education, and you can do much more things.

Lambs, rabbits, hares, ducks, birds, hills, flowers, trees, butterflies, and frogs can be seen from the school windows. It's a lovely country school and these things matter.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

DCC Councillor Writes to DCC

This letter has been sent to Derbyshire County Council by Barrie Taylor (Liberal Democrat), the County Councillor for Whaley Bridge and Blackbrook ward, which includes Combs.

21st June 2007

Dear Mrs Hill,

Proposed Closure of Combs Infant School

I am writing in response to your official consultation letter dated 15th May concerning the proposals for the closure of Combs Infants School.

Barrie TaylorThe fact that Combs School was judged to be “Outstanding” in last years OFSTED inspection makes it unusual among schools where closures have been proposed. As a result it cannot be argued that closure would benefit present or future pupils in any way. The case for closure must rest on benefits elsewhere, either to other schools or more generally as a result of financial savings.

As spelt out in the report to Cabinet, the programme of school closures is driven by the problem of surplus places. This is not a problem at Combs, nor likely to be in the foreseeable future, despite some projections indicating a slight decline from the immediate catchment area. It is more likely that Combs will be over subscribed.

The problem of falling rolls does affect Chapel Primary School, and the consultation paper makes the reasonable assumption that closing Combs would increase numbers at Chapel, as Combs children are expected to proceed to Chapel School at Junior age.

It came as a surprise therefore to discover that hardly any Combs children in fact go on to Chapel School, and the only logical conclusion is that in the absence of Combs school very few parents would elect to send their children to Chapel School. This pattern goes back at least eight years and must be considered unlikely to change in future years. Closing Combs School would therefore not help to solve the problems of surplus places at Chapel Primary School.

It has also been an established pattern that only a minority of pupils at Combs School live within its official catchment area, and there has been a general assumption that many pupils came from considerable distances. On more detailed analysis this has proved not to be the case. The official catchment area only includes the Combs valley itself which has only a small population. In practice there are half as many people again who live in the adjacent areas of Tunstead Milton and Manchester Road who are nearer to Combs School than to Chapel Primary, and even more living in outlying areas from which Combs is equally accessible. The consultation paper suggested that there would be an environmental benefit resulting from reduced travel distances if Combs School closed. Again this assumption has been shown to be unfounded. Even if there had been an environmental benefit as forecast, it would have been so marginal that it would surely have had no effect on the outcome.

One of the significant factors required to be taken into account when considering closing a school is the effect on the local community. It is generally the case that the closure of any village school does have a profound effect on the function of the local community which is hard to define and impossible to measure. However in the case of Combs there is a unique symbiotic relationship between the Village Hall Trust, the School and the Church which ultimately owns the building.

In practice the community, in the form of the Village Hall Trust, has effectively subsidised the school by freezing the rental payments for many years. As a result the total premises costs to the school have been exceptionally low, to the benefit of the quality of education. This contribution by the community would clearly be lost if the school were to close.

At the same time the rental paid by the school to the Village Hall Trust pays most of the overhead costs of the buildings, and without this income it is very unlikely that the Village Hall Trust would be able to survive for long. The likely outcome is that before too long the building would have to be sold by the church for conversion to a dwelling. The Village Hall is at present the centre of thriving community activities, and without the hall these too would be lost. It is therefore hard to overstate the effect of closure of the school on the Combs community.

The one remaining possible “benefit” from the closure of Combs School is that some money would probably be saved by the Authority. Quantifying this saving is not as simple as comparing the cost per pupil with the average cost across the county, and it is evident that the actual cash saving would be modest. The Authority clearly has a duty to consider all potential savings most carefully. However it is evident that within the established policy of providing some financial support to smaller schools, the cash saving alone would not have been sufficient to propose the closure of the school.

The OFSTED report on Combs School concluded that it provided outstanding value for money. In the absence of the other benefits that were anticipated in the original consultation document there remains no case for closing a school that has been widely acknowledged as a centre of excellence.

Yours sincerely,

Councillor Barrie Taylor