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Wednesday, 1 August 2007

How Could They?

A double-page spread in the Summer 2007 issue of Primary Review begins, "How could they even think of closing this top school?" The article goes on:

TWO MONTHS after a county council used the wrong figures to propose closing a village infants school, the stunned residents and parents are still asking in bewilderment: How could they think of doing this to one of the top schools in the country?

But it was Combs school that was dropped with the bombshell in May that Derbyshire County Council was considering closing it to save costs.

One parent governor says: “When you read the Ofsted report again, it just knocks you off your chair. You wonder if the county council really understands what it is proposing to do.”

The school for five-to-seven-year-olds has been so successful under headteacher Avis Curry that it is the main reason many newcomers choose to live in the area or only a short drive away. Three-fifths of the pupils travel from other school ‘catchment’ areas. One mother from Chinley says: “This school is perfect for my little girl. I can’t believe the difference it has made to her.”

Mrs Curry, who mentors other schools in the county, was recently chosen as one of eight heads throughout the UK to visit Rwanda in central Africa to mentor schools there for 12 weeks.

A father who brings his daughter from Chapel to Combs says: “It doesn’t make any sense at all to close this particular school. Surely this is the one school in the county that should be kept going as a flagship for others to follow.”

The council’s case, outlined in its ‘discussion document’ in May, said quite simply that in the last financial year the council budgeted £136,000 for the school, a cost of £5,400 per infant against the county average of £2,600. It accepts that rural schools cost more, and the Government provides a special payment for Combs of £49,000. The county says: “A key consideration is that of equity between schools. To fund one school at such significant and high levels must be seen as diverting funds from the good of the many to the benefit of the few.”

The school was given fewer than two months to create its case for staying open – then the county appeared to shoot itself in the foot. Barely a week from the 6th July deadline for a response, the county’s own figures for the last financial year were announced, showing that the school actually cost only £105,000. It had underspent by £31,000, making the average cost per child only £4,000. In addition, Combs had underspent by significant amounts for the last three years – and as each underspend can be carried over to the following year with interest, the total surplus in Combs’ favour is now £69,000. A county letter arriving at the school asked them to explain the 47% underspend.

So would the county relent in face of the new figures?

Says chairman of the governors Nye Rowlands: “We have a brilliant headteacher who is extremely cautious before spending any money at all, and we have entrepreneurial parents who raise fantastic amounts of money. We haven’t spent £69,000 allotted to us and the real unit cost per child is probably the cheapest rural school in the county and probably much cheaper than many schools nationwide. The county needs to have a completely new look at our situation.”

An important factor for the village is that the two-classroom school is held in a building at the centre of village life. Leased from the Methodist Church by the Village Hall Trust, it is also used for Brownies, community meetings, after-school clubs, the village fun day, church services, weddings, baptisms, the sewing circle, children’s parties and as a polling station. If the rent from the county council dries up, there are serious worries for the continued viability of the building.

Parent governor Steve Lyons says: “No one from the county has come to us and said with understanding ‘Look, this is a great school but how can we cut the costs?’ If they had, we would have been more than prepared to seek ways of doing so. They have simply looked at a map of schools and surplus places with no regard for quality.”

Last spring, when Primary Review carried a feature on the wealth of activity available to children in village schools such as Combs, Mrs Curry, who has taught in Africa, Saudi Arabia and the USA, said: “Ofsted requires that a child is educated to be able to prosper economically in the future. Some parents feel that’s the job of secondary schools but I say it starts here. Economic success starts in infant school. In our structure and closer environment, we give them more so they leave with more.”

One thing is sure: Even if the school is granted a reprieve on the basis of its own extraordinary spending restraint, parents and villagers will still be asking for years to come: How could they ever have thought of closing it?