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Saturday, 11 August 2007

Are They Bothered?

If you've been reading this blog, you'll know that we've invited the DCC Cabinet to come and visit Combs, more than once. We want them to understand, first-hand, the true import of the decision they want to make. After all, if they're going to close down something that's been running with community support since 1865, they're not going to do it without an intimate knowledge of the consequences, are they?

No-one from DCC has accepted our invitations. (We're obviously not counting Alan Charles' uncomfortable appearance at his 'consultation' meeting back in May)

Maybe we're a long way away. Maybe it would be terribly inconvenient.

Well, actually, no Cabinet member lives much more than an hour away. Presumably, to represent the whole county, they're in our area fairly frequently anyway. Aren't they?

A couple of hours to understand what they're dealing with, first-hand. No more than we'd expect from our Councillors, eh?

Friday, 10 August 2007

"The Politics of Envy"

A villager wrote to DDC to explain his concerns about the way that the proposed closure of Combs School has been handled by the Council.

A Flawed Planning Process

The consultation process, that this letter is a tiny part of, is portrayed by the Council as a fair one: it’s anything but.

The Council began the process by disseminating incomplete and inaccurate information. The School doesn’t cost what the Council said it does; the demand for the School is higher than the Council said it was; the travel patterns in the valley aren’t what the Council said they were; the transfers to other schools after the Infant stage don’t happen as the Council said they did.

The Council has said that they looked at the problem of surplus places for three years before starting this consultation, and yet they didn’t provide ‘the other side’ with fully accurate information at the beginning of the very short consultation period.

Having seen the formal responses being submitted by the School Governors and the Village Hall Trust – and some of the many letters that have been sent to you – I know that you are in receipt of very cogent arguments for why the School should remain open.

I am worried, because I feel that the Council’s proposal is motivated by the politics of envy – “why should people have an excellent rural education for their children when others don’t?” – and the cogency of the arguments put forward in opposition to the Council’s plans will be used against us, serving to reinforce the Council’s prejudiced view of Combs being a privileged area. I sincerely hope that this won’t occur.

In any case, the strength of the arguments won’t be reduced, and the Council’s plan won’t actually produce the results that the Council says that it wants.

Educational Expert Pitches In

When DCC began this process, they may not have known that the village contains, and has access to, several experts on education. The council's lack of thorough research and proper preparation was perhaps due in part to their underestimation of the people they're dealing with. One such villager, whose university work and research is with an extensive range of teachers, in pursuit of the highest standards in education, wrote to DCC as follows.

In my work, I have never encountered a school which has been awarded 'outstanding' in every category of its Ofsted inspection; I understand that only one other school in Derbyshire received such a grade and there are only 13 others in the whole country. In my view, and in the views of my colleagues, it would, therefore, be a disgrace to close such a beacon of excellence.

The proposed closure of an outstanding school in order to fill places at a satisfactory school does not reflect a commitment to high standards in education which one would hope to find in a county council. Indeed, the policy of Derbyshire County Council contrasts sharply with the commitment of many other councils around the country – including East Anglia and councils in Wales and Yorkshire – who have pledged their support for small schools when confronted by the same issue of surplus primary places.

There is, I think, a myth that the effectiveness of a school is determined by its budget as well as by its size; it has been suggested that Combs Infant School is bound to succeed because of its 'privileged' position. Without doubt, a small rural school will cost more than a larger school but the demographics of a school do not necessarily dictate its success, as evidenced in the publication of 'value-added' school performance league tables. Indeed, if this were the case then Derbyshire would boast an inordinately large number of outstanding schools – given the predominance of small rural schools – but this is not the case.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

School Campaigners' Plea

The Buxton Advertiser continues to cover the campaign. This brief article by Louise Bellicoso appeared in today's issue.

VILLAGERS fighting to save an outstanding school from closure have sent a desperate plea to county councillors.

Parents and governors of Combs Infant School have sent a letter to each member of Derbyshire County Council's cabinet as the authority consider their proposal to close the school.

The document outlines the case put forward by the villagers for keeping the school open, as Derbyshire County Council try to cut the number of surplus places in the county's schools.

But parents have hit back at the reasons the council put forward for closure and said in the document: "Combs Infant School currently stands as a symbol of the triumph of Derbyshire County Council's defence of rural communities and a shining example of partnership — promoting cohesion and excellence.

"Please ensure its survival by speaking up for local success and voting against a proposal that saves next to nothing, sacks hardworking staff, and lifts mediocrity above the level of real achievement in Derbyshire."

A campaign organised by parents and governors has included meeting with High Peak MP Tom Levitt, taking part in Chapel Carnival and creating an online petition.

A decision is due to be made later in the year.
For details of the document sent to DCC, entitled "Our Plea", see this post.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Our Rural Lives

Continuing with excerpts from letters sent to DCC, here are a couple that talk about life in Combs.

Our village of Combs is bouyant and thriving. We have many families here; many trace back over decades and the newer residents are here because it is family orientated. We are a mix of economies and not all are wealthy financially, but we are wealthy in spirit because of the village life that exists here. The one thing we all hold dear, regardless of income, is the fact that we have a brilliant school and we all support it. As a village of families, children, parents and grandparents, many other aspects of village life flourish here too.

Please don't destroy that.
For those outside the area who don't know what our rural community looks like, here is a photo of Combs valley, looking south from Eccles Pike. The village of Combs is just beyond the lake, hidden by trees. Click on the photo for a larger view.

Back to the letters.
I feel that it is morally wrong to contemplate this closure. Combs is a lively little village, with an excellent school and a very good community spirit, with thriving clubs and groups using the Hall.

To force the closure of the School and Hall would remove the heart from the community. There are too many dying villages in our country, and this closure will add to that number. It is wrong, morally wrong, to merely look at the bottom line of accounts and say, "We cannot afford it". Excellence today is in short supply, and a closure would add to the deficit.

Therefore I urgently ask you to take into account the feelings of a united community, and allow our village to continue to thrive and prosper as it is doing.
If you haven't already made your feelings known to DCC, find out who to write to.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Support from Neighbouring Schools

The Chair of Governors at Kettleshulme St James CE Primary School wrote to DDC:

"We have enjoyed a close co-operation with Combs for a long time and over the years a number of children have joined us at Kettleshulme on reaching junior school age. Combs is an excellent school which gives the children a first class start to their school lives.

"It is true that Combs is a small infant school. But it serves a small community and is central to it. Derbyshire is, for the most part, a rural county, so you should understand and cherish the special role which small community institutions (such as a school) play in maintaining the life in a viable country village. In the case of Combs, the school building is also the Village Hall, the future of which is less than certain without the school. For good reasons the Government advises that there should be a presumption against closure of small rural community schools unless there is a compelling case. Is Combs not a good example of the lack of a compelling case?"
This added to what the Chair of Governors at Taxal and Fernilee CE Primary School had already written to DCC:
"While we recognise the financial implications of maintaining a very small school such as Combs we do feel that, as a Governing Body, we want to register our support for the school and opposition to the proposed closure.

"Combs is a small but thriving community and the school forms a vital part of that community. As a larger, but still very much community based school ourselves, we do feel it important that we support other schools in rural communities.

"We understand only too well the financial constraints on the Authority but hope that you can take the wider view of the social implications of the proposed closure."

Sunday, 5 August 2007

"Demonstrably Happy"

People writing in support of the campaign have kindly given the campaign team copies of their letters to DCC. It is a privilege to read what they have said, and over the coming weeks, we'll publish a few excerpts.

It's appropriate to start with a letter from an eight year old.

"When I went to Combs Infant School the teachers were so kind to me and just a few months after I started the school I started to read books with words. So as I started reading so early I love reading and I can read books with more than 100 pages.

"Our school is like a real family where everyone looks after each other and we make sure no-one is ever sad and nobody is bullied."
And at the other end of the age range, a grandparent of three children at the school (past and present) writes:

"Value, not price, needs to be the determining factor and the figures rigorously justified. I am happy to tell Sussex friends that at a Derbyshire infant school pupils learn to read and write before they are five. They can learn French and ball skills. They know about wind and weather. They mix in classless social terms. There is no bullying. They are demonstrably happy.

"It is unbelievable that, to satisfy bureaucratic accountancy, village children will be committed to a six-mile return commute to a giant (by their terms) infant/primary school of significantly lesser attainment. Surely it cannot be the intention of Derbyshire County Council to drive people from country into town, or in to private education?"