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Friday, 6 July 2007

So, What Happens Now?

It's 6 July, the deadline for getting letters and e-mails of opposition to DCC. We know that a lot of letters have gone in, as people have been kind enough to send us copies. The letters have been impressive, both for the depth of analysis and their passionate defence of Combs School, Village Hall and Chapel.

The two big reports, from the Village Hall Trust and the School Governors, have been submitted. And the petition has been submitted too.

Dee HillMrs. Dee Hill (pictured at the end of a cold evening, during the consultation meeting back in May) is the Senior Assistant Education Officer at DCC who now has the task of compiling a report. It will make use of all the input she has received, and go to DCC's Cabinet for review, probably on 4 September.

Dee has been very thorough in answering the questions we have bombarded her with from many directions, so thank you to her. We also appreciate the assistance given to us by several other members of staff at the Council.

This campaign has been exhausting and has consumed large portions of the lives of people who were already busy before this began. A big thank you to everyone who has been involved.

It's time to draw breath. But the campaign is far from over.

You may want to refer back to 'The Legal Framework' for an explanation of the steps in the process.

"The Heart of Our Village"

Excerpts from a letter to DCC written by a Combs parent.

It was with great sadness that I heard of the Council’s proposal to close Combs Infant School. This wonderful school in the heart of our village has stood the test of time for many years. Not only have my children attended, but also myself and my husband, our brothers and sisters and even our parents at some point over the last 80 years. Not only is this under threat but so is our Village Hall which runs hand in hand with the school providing venues for numerous village functions and community groups.
As far as funding is concerned, Combs School is eligible for Isolated Rural School Status which was put into place to ensure that small community schools such as this could survive. No extra funding for special needs cases is needed at Combs although they cater for and nurture the needs of many who would fall behind in mainstream school. As a small village we get a poor return for our council tax compared to many local towns with council funded facilities, some of this should surely go towards keeping our own village school alive.

Derbyshire County Council has been seen to spend vast amounts of money on other things which some people would deem far less important. Whitehall Outdoor Pursuits Centre has had a small fortune spent on it over the last few years, with a new house built in the grounds for the Principal which lies empty now after just two years of use, and a huge new conservatory just finished. This is not to mention the amount of money spent on the upkeep of such a large building including staffing, heating and maintenance costs when it lies empty for weeks. This facility is for recreational or ‘extra curriculum’ activities for children from this, and also many surrounding areas. Would it not make more sense to spend our council’s money on our own children, for basic good education? It seems a shame that the goal is to drag a few children’s standards of education down, rather than lift many children’s education to a higher level.

The Ofsted report on Combs School stated that it was ‘outstanding’ - not just good, outstanding. This shows in the children who pass through this school in their early years. They come out well behaved, soundly educated, and with excellent moral values which experience has shown cannot be taught as well in a larger environment. I am saddened to see that in the present climate with worse things going off in the world, and getting closer every day, that we cannot seem to see past the facts and figures. You only had to look around at the public meeting in May to see what I am talking about, the idyllic setting of the school yard, the genuine concern of all the supporters, the wonderful building which we as a village are all fortunate to use and the children playing happily, oblivious to the threats that this could all be taken away from them.

Children need only two things in life in order to progress and succeed. One is stability and the other is education, both of which are provided in this environment. This is worth more than a few pence per child - it is worth everything. I therefore urge you to support Combs Infant School with its fight to survive.
Use this link to find excerpts from other letters sent to DCC.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Delivery of the Documents

This is the moment that the Governors' Response document and Petition were handed over to Derbyshire County Council on Wednesday 4th July.

The girls had spent the day at a Healthy Lifestyle Event with Combs school at Derbyshire County Council's Lea Green centre where Alan Charles was spotted in the distance.

Unfortunately, no-one from the Cabinet or the Development Section was available to take the documents from us, so they were given to Bruce Buckley's secretary who forwarded them to Dee Hill.

Protocol meant we were not able to take a picture of the actual hand over.

Governors Submit Report to DCC

A 43 page report by the Governors of Combs Infant School was handed in to DCC at Matlock yesterday. The Executive Summary is reproduced below.

The Governors of Combs Infant School wish to register the strongest objection to the proposal to close our school and urge Derbyshire County Council, on the basis of national guidelines and on factors specific to this flagship provision, to urgently reconsider what we feel would be an educational and community act of vandalism.

The key matters to be drawn to the attention of DCC are as follows:

The closure of the school will result in a significant impact on the Village Hall and community facilities. Given the nature of the relationship between the School and the Village Hall Trust, there is the very real risk that it will not be possible to maintain the amenity of the Village Hall if Combs School is closed.

There is a healthy ongoing demand for places at Combs School. There is only one year in the next three in which the DCC projected admission numbers fall below the published admission number. In addition we have carried out our own research into the number of local children likely to attend Combs Infant School in the next 4 years.

There are a number of transport issues arising out of the proposed closure of Combs School. Parents have surveyed distances from home to school and have pointed out that journeys would be significantly increased if Combs closed and there would be no viable walking alternative to motor transport. There is no evidence to prove that the closure of Combs Infant School will solve the issue of surplus places at the alternative school originally proposed.

The proposal to Close Combs School does not properly address key areas of the statutory guidance from the Secretary of State that DCC is obliged to take into consideration and is inconsistent with DCC’s Organisation Plan. In particular, in relation to: impact on local standards of educational provision; framework to address surplus school places; presumption against closure of rural schools and sites and the need to consider the alternatives to closure of rural schools and sites; rural school transport implications; rural schools impact on community; faith schools; condition and suitability of buildings; school performance & leadership.

Closure of the school would result in the removal of parental choice contrary to the Schools Admissions Code brought about by the imposition of a catchment area which is outdated and does not reflect realistic lines of communication and transport.

Combs Infant School operates significantly within the formula funding provided by DCC, producing outstanding results and 'outstanding value for money' (OfSted report – 2006). The out turn figures for 2006/7 show efficient and prudent management considerably reducing the unit cost per pupil, providing a surplus underspend and questioning the financial methodology imposed by DCC.

Combs School provides excellent education, receiving an outstanding OfSTED evaluation in 2006. There is statutory imperative for “the best schools to be able to expand and spread their ethos & success”.

We have added 7 appendices to the report to provide further evidence of our case to retain Combs Infant School. Each appendix emphasises and enlarges upon the case we have made in the main body of our submission:

  1. We were asked to provide evidence of potential pupils who will attend Combs Infant School in the next five years.

  2. Detailed research has been carried out into why the proposal to close Combs Infant School is inconsistent with Derbyshire’s own School Organisation Plan.

  3. We are proud of the fact that our campaign to save the school has attracted a very high level of support from a wide range of people, organisations and institutions.

  4. We were asked by DCC to examine the Stoney Middleton case against school closure and we have done so with our comment that the case to retain Combs Infant School is even stronger.

  5. From the outset we have been concerned about the poor quality of the original proposal and the inaccuracies it contained.

  6. We quoted extensively from the correspondence between Tom Levitt MP and County Councillor Alan Charles.

  7. We quoted extensively from the OfSTED Report on Combs Infant School.

The submission was supported by the petition, showing the names of the 1687 people who, by the beginning of this week, had signed to record their support for the campaign. (Since the petition was submitted, another 256 names have been added, and there are 173 names on the online petition, so over 2000 people have pledged their support. We'll send the additional names on to DCC.)

Keeping the Campaign Positive

The following letter was sent earlier this week to the acting Head Teacher and the Chair of Governing Body at Chapel-en-le-Frith Primary School, by the Chairman of Governors at Combs, following a meeting he requested last week.

Ms Leonie Hill
Acting Head Teacher
Chapel-en-le-Frith CE Primary School

Dear Ms Hill

Thank you for seeing Steve Lyons and me on Friday 30th with Sue Oliver.

We were disturbed to hear of the concerns that you both have, together with some of the Chapel-en-le-Frith Primary parents, in relation to our campaign to save Combs Infant School. Throughout our campaign, including in leaflets and in any presentation we have made in a public forum, we have always sought to present facts. These have included Ofsted inspection results. We have specifically sought to avoid creating any tension between our two schools and have received a high level of support from the people of Chapel-en-le-Frith generally.

One could hold the view that the tension you described to us on Friday is exactly what DCC was hoping to achieve by effectively setting our two schools against each other through their emotively cost-focused closure proposal for Combs. To avoid giving DCC this satisfaction and, more importantly, for the good of our local education community, we need to work together to dispel such tension.

Whilst we are pleased to have gained the support of The High Peak Borough Council Social Inclusion and Community Committee, we do appreciate that you and your parents may take issue with some of Cllr David Lomax’s comments as reported (in the Buxton Advertiser on 28 June and reprinted on our campaign web site). Let me assure you that in presenting to the Social Inclusion and Community Committee, we made absolutely no reference to “problems” at Chapel-en-le-Frith Primary School.

Combs Infant and Chapel-en-le-Frith Primary Schools enjoy a strong and cooperative working relationship, including your making available to Combs a number of your facilities. We do not want this relationship jeopardised and, on the assumption that DCC sees sense and determines not to close Combs School, we look forward to continuing to work with you and your school into the future.

Yours sincerely, on behalf of the governors of Combs Infant School,

Nye Rowlands
Chair of Governors

cc: Ms Oliver, Chair of Governors

Ms Oliver's letter to the Buxton Advertiser, which appeared in the 5 July edition, can be read here.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007


DCC's 'newspaper', Insight, arrived today.

In an article* entitled "Hands up for a new beginning", the Council's proposals for the closure of several schools were described. It reprints misleading and inaccurate information that should, by now, have been corrected.

Here's what was said, followed by our comments.


To close Combs Infant School and offer pupils a place at a school in their community. In most cases this would be Chapel-en-le-Frith Primary School.

  • Combs Infant School has 25 pupils and 15 of those live outside the school catchment area.
  • It costs £5,447 to educate each pupil compared to a Derbyshire average of £2,635. This means pupils at other schools in Derbyshire get less funding.
  • It will mean shorter school journeys for many pupils.
Combs School currently has 26 pupils and is 8% over-subscribed. DCC failed to use this number in their calculation of cost-per-pupil.

The 'catchment area' referred to is a 'Normal Area'. DCC are unable to tell us when and how this was defined, and it bears little correspondence to current population and traffic conditions. In fact, since it was defined, some schools have even changed location. In our view, it's an Abnormal Area, used to justify DCC's proposal.

It actually cost substantially less to educate a child in Combs last year, due to the school managing its finances well, and not spending its full budget. The school is given rural small school funding by central government, and that skews any comparison with a non-rural larger school.

Journeys to school for the majority of children will be longer and less safe if they are forced to go to Chapel Primary.

Why won't DCC publish accurate information?
* The article is available online.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

How outstanding is "Outstanding"?

Combs Infant School was given the highest rating in every category, when it was inspected in Autumn 2006 by Ofsted.

Just how unusual is that?

There's only one other infant school in Derbyshire with the same rating, and only thirteen others in the rest of the country.

The Ofsted statistics* show that during the inspection period, Combs Infant School was rated in the top 3% of infant schools in the country.

That's how outstanding an "Outstanding" rating is.

* You can download all the Ofsted statistics, and read the inspection report for Combs Infant School.

Also, please note that additional resources have recently been added to the Research Resources post.

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.

"Government Strategy Is Keeping Rural Schools Alive"

That quote referenced in an earlier post came from Jacqui Smith, the now Home Secretary, when she was Schools Minister. On 9 May 2000, she was reported thus:

Government Strategy Is Keeping Rural Schools Alive

Schools Minister Jacqui Smith said today that Government support for rural schools has kept many of them open in rural villages which would otherwise have closed. It is right she said, to put the interests of the village before those of the planner.

Speaking at a Local Government Association Conference she said: "With the strict new guidelines we introduced two years ago, we have reduced the rate of closure of rural schools to an eighth of what it was 10 years ago and got the number of closures down from 30 a year to a current average of four a year.

A contemporaneous photo of Jacqui Smith"These figures clearly demonstrate our commitment to retaining schools at the heart of rural communities. 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."

"Today we welcome the willingness of the Local Government Association (LGA) to encourage greater community use of rural schools as a practical way forward. This will ensure rural schools become a genuine asset to the whole community.

"The Small School Support Fund will from September provide £40 million for small schools in England over two years. Many rural schools have less than 200 pupils and these will benefit from the money. It will allow them to address their own individual circumstances, develop productive partnerships with other schools and raise standards.

"We are listening to all parties in the debate about rural education. In 1996 21 rural school closures were approved and in 1995 the figure was 47. Now approvals for rural closures are only given in exceptional circumstances where numbers have dwindled, there is a nearby clear alternative and where there will not be a significant effect on the local community.

"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.


* The school extra grants from the Budget will particularly help small rural schools with £3,000 for every primary with fewer than 100 pupils and £30,000 for secondaries with fewer than 600 pupils;

* £80 million of new money is being made available under the Standards Fund between 1999-2001 specifically to tackle administrative overload in small schools. As a result, professional teaching staff will have more time to spend on activities which directly improve pupil attainment;


"Working together there is much we can do to support rural communities - and schools which are at the heart of them. We have achieved a lot to date with our new approach and I am confident that the guidance we have produced ensures that this presumption in favour of rural schools continues in the future."
That's a strong commitment to making schools like Combs Infant School flourish - just as the people of Combs want it to. And it's still the government's policy.