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Thursday, 1 November 2007

DCC Announces Decision

This press release was issued on 31 October by DCC. See below for some observations.


An infant school threatened with closure is to stay open, Derbyshire County Council’s cabinet has decided.

Members of the cabinet followed a recommendation by education officers to keep Combs Infant School in Chapel-en-le-Frith open.
[NOTE 1]

Before a council can take a decision to close a rural school it has be satisfied – under the terms of the 2006 Education Act – that pupils would receive a better standard of education if they were moved to alternative schools.

Councillors were told that although the nearest alternative school, Chapel-en-le-Frith Primary School, provides a good quality education standards at Combs Infant School are currently higher.

The cabinet decided against closing Combs Infant School but to keep the problem of surplus places in the Chapel-en-le-Frith area under review.

Councillor Alan Charles, cabinet member for schools, said: “Currently there are only seven pupils from the catchment area
[NOTE 2] of Combs that attend the school.

“In theory there could be no pupils from the catchment area but we would still have to keep the school open if we cannot show that educational standards would be improved by moving pupils to an alternative school.

“Keeping the school open means we are providing a costly and privileged education for children not directly from the Combs community
[NOTE 3]. This is at the expense of tax payers and every other child attending a Derbyshire school.”

The cost of educating each pupil at Combs Infant School is £5,447
[NOTE 4], compared to £2,635 at other infant schools [NOTE 5] in the county.

The decision followed an informal public consultation during which there were 180 letters and a petition with 1,687 signatures
[NOTE 6] opposing the proposals to close Combs Infant School.

There were also concerns expressed about the impact that closing the school would have on community groups, who use the same building.

(Ref: JF.375.07) Media enquiries to John Fern on 01629 585234 or email
[NOTE 7]
OK, ready for the explanation? Go and grab a cup of tea, because the explanation is almost as long as the original press release.

Note 1:That's a subtle one, isn't it? Quite easy to miss on first reading. Combs is not 'in Chapel-en-le-Frith', although if it was it could make sense for all the kids to go to Chapel-en-le-Frith school, couldn't it? Combs is 'in Chapel-en-le-Frith' like St. Albans is 'in London'.

Note 2:DCC told us that there was no such thing as a 'catchment area' any more. So why is Alan Charles referring to it now, how is it defined, and what effect is it supposed to have legally?

Note 3:Similarly, how is 'not directly from the Combs community' defined?

Note 4:That's a budget number, not the actual cost, which is lower. Budgets were most recently discussed here.

Note 5:The £2635 is an average for primary schools, not infant schools as stated here.

Note 6:They're still getting the petition numbers wrong. There were 2141 signatures - that's about three times the population of our small village of Combs. They're out by about 20%. Not enough to matter? The amount they're wrong by is about two-thirds the population of Combs. What else do you think they'll have got wrong?

Note 7:Just in case you think that these press releases could be misleading by accident, this is what DCC's press officer told us: "All press releases are approved by the senior officers involved in the particular issue concerned and by the relevant cabinet member. If there are legal issues involved they are also checked by one of our lawyers."

School Closure Plan Was Vandalism

This letter appeared in today's Buxton Advertiser. It comes from Barrie Taylor, County Councillor for Whaley Bridge & Blackbrook. He is the Liberal Democrat Group Leader on the Council.

The County's grudging agreement not to close Combs Infant School is a huge relief to the local community, and a great credit to all those who have campaigned so hard and so effectively to keep the school open.

Barrie TaylorHowever, joy at the decision is tempered by annoyance that the closure procedure was ever started, and that it was allowed to go on for so long.

The final report to Cabinet recommended that the school should survive, but hardly referred to all the compelling evidence provided by the school governors and the local campaigners. The decision was based entirely on the fact that closure of the only "Outstanding" school in the area, as declared by Ofsted inspectors, could not improve local standards of education. That was glaringly obvious from the outset.

It soon became apparent that none of the other criteria that are set by the Government for the closure of rural schools were met, as the school is also the village hall, and there would be no benefit to other schools that are experiencing falling school rolls.

At the original public meeting I asked for the closure process to be stopped straight away, as the evidence was already so conclusive.

Councillor Alan Charles, Cabinet member for schools, continued to insist that the process had to grind on to the end, despite clear government guidance that it could be stopped at any time. He subsequently accused me of making a "grandstanding speech to get a cheap round of applause".

In the attempt to justify the original proposal to close the school the Council continue to quote inflated figures of the cost per pupil at Combs, despite the Ofsted report stating that it gives "outstanding value for money".

Pupils at Combs are very lucky to be able to attend such an excellent school in lovely surroundings, and it would be wonderful if all infants in the County could have the same experience.

However to propose closing Combs school because this is not possible is the politics of envy.

At the outset I said that to close this centre of excellence at Combs, without any benefit elsewhere, would be an act of vandalism.

The report to Cabinet of the County's education officers comes to the same conclusion, in more diplomatic language.

Peak School Wins the Battle, but Fears a War

Report from today's Buxton Advertiser.

"IT IS a battle won, but not the war," was the reaction from one delighted parent this week after Combs Infants School was saved from closure.

Members of Derbyshire County Council's Cabinet agreed with an officer's recommendation to keep the school open when they met on Tuesday.

Campaigners, who have spent the last six months fighting the plans, were delighted with the decision, but feel there is still more work to be done.

Parent Carah Boden said: "It is a battle won, but not the war. We need to try and stabilise the situation. Now all this is behind us, we need to ensure its ongoing future."

Chair of governors Nye Rowlands added: "We need to move on from this decision, and work with Derbyshire Council to remedy the damage that has been done by their threat to close the school.

"The cabinet said that if you put a lot of money into a school, it is going to be excellent but if you look around Derbyshire, Cheshire or the rest of the country, putting a lot of money into schools does not bring excellence. Being in the top ten per cent of schools in the country, Combs Infant School didn't achieve that through money. It achieved it through the standards of the teachers.

"We have now got to generate an even closer relationship with the community who are very much part of the school. They have stood by us and supported us and the parents have stood by us.

"This has proved a cause which everybody can unite behind."

High Peak Borough councillor Andrew Bingham has supported the campaign group for several months. He said: "There is still a war to be fought and I feel sure that the council will probably revisit the matter again given half a chance.

"When that will be I don't know.

"I'd like to pay tribute to the campaign group for everything they did. Education committe chairman Alan Charles mentioned it had been a well constructed and polite campaign and that is a tribute to the people who have organised it."

Derbyshire County Councillor Barrie Taylor, who represents the Whaley and Blackbrook ward, which covers Combs, added: "I'd like to thank everybody who ran the most impressive campaign in support of the school, which has brought all the community together."

The campaign group are holding a celebration at the school on November 9 to thank everyone who has been involved in the fight.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Let's Tidy Up After Ourselves

If you find a 'Save Combs School' sign on the verge, or tacked to a lamp post or gate, please remove and dispose of it.

Don't leave it for someone else to do!

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Tune In To Andrew Bingham

Andrew Bingham, Conservative Parliamentary candidate for High Peak, will be interviewed by High Peak Radio on Thursday.

Is there anything you'd like to ask him in connection with the Save Combs School campaign? Leave your questions in the comments, and we'll pass them along to the station and ask them to try to fit them in to the interview.

High Peak Radio's web site

The station is on 103.3 and 106.4 FM.

Second Stage of Campaign Begins

We issued the following press release at 15:00 today.


Combs, Derbyshire: At a meeting held in Matlock today, Derbyshire County Council’s Cabinet voted to accept a recommendation from education officers to keep Combs Infant School open.

The school had been threatened with closure by the Council as part of their search for a solution to their problem of surplus places in other High Peak schools. Derbyshire County Council decided that closing Combs Infant School would not improve educational standards in the area, and would therefore cause them to fail in their statutory duty.

Campaign supporters gathered outside County Hall after hearing the decision to keep Combs School open and were joined by Councillor Barrie Taylor and Andrew Bingham, Conservative Parliamentary candidate for High PeakFollowing the meeting, the ‘Save Combs School’ campaigners announced that their campaign would immediately move into a second stage, which aims to provide long term stability for the school.

Decision Welcomed
Head Teacher, Avis Curry, welcomed the news: “This is such a relief. Everyone connected with the school and campaign has felt under a great strain for months.”

Under Mrs. Curry’s leadership, the school achieved an ‘outstanding’ rating in every category examined by Ofsted in September 2006. The school will now be able to continue to provide up to 26 places for Key Stage 1 pupils.

Combs resident Diane Williamson said: “I was driving when I heard the news of the Council’s positive decision, with tears streaming down my face. We can now make sure that our two-year old daughter will get the best possible start to her education.”

“The decision by Derbyshire County Council is very welcome,” said parent governor Nick Boden, “but it’s regrettable that their decision focused only on the educational merits of the school, and didn’t mention other important elements of the case we put to them, such as the value of a small rural school strongly linked to the community surrounding it. We will continue to explain these points to them.”

Second Stage
The campaigners announced today that the second stage of their campaign has begun. Chair of Governors, Nye Rowlands, said: “The decision today by Derbyshire County Council is only the conclusion of the first stage. The school simply can’t operate successfully if it’s constantly under imminent threat of being re-proposed for closure.”

Nye Rowlands explained: “We need to move on from this decision, and work with Derbyshire Council to remedy the damage that has been done by their threat to close the school. We will assist them in putting in place the support for the school that will help it regain stability. We want parents to have full confidence that the school is now there for their children to attend in the coming years.”

Community Involvement
Combs School rents their use of schoolrooms in a building that began life as a Wesleyan Chapel in the nineteenth century. The building also serves as the Village Hall, which is the only community resource for Combs.

The building is managed and maintained by the Combs Village Hall Trust. Chair of the Trustees, Mike Evanson, commented: “Following the Council’s decision, we want to move on with exciting new environmental projects that will extend the use of the Village Hall. One good result of this campaign is that it has emphasised the wealth of diverse talent we have in the Combs area. A strong sense of community has been evident throughout this campaign, and people are saying ‘OK, what’s next?’”

Celebrating Success
“First things first, though.” said Nye Rowlands, “We need to say ‘thank you’ to everyone who has played a part in bringing the first stage of this campaign to a successful conclusion, and there will be a celebration at 7pm on 9th November at Combs School and Village Hall for everyone who has wanted to see this outcome.”

Full details of the planned celebration will be posted on the campaign’s web site, at

Download a copy of the press release (56Kb Adobe Acrobat PDF format).

A Big Thank You

We'd like to say a sincere 'thank you' to:

  • All the people who signed the petitions, including the people of Chapel-en-le-Frith and Whaley Bridge, and the visitors to our village.

  • All the people who put up posters (and then took them down again in July, to keep the place tidy).

  • All the people who wrote letters to DCC.

  • The politicians who looked at the evidence and spoke up in support of the campaign. (High Peak Borough Council and its staff; Chapel-en-le-Frith Parish Council and its staff; Whaley Bridge Town Council; Barrie Taylor; Andrew Bingham; Tracy Critchlow; Tony Bingham and Steve Sharp).

  • Plain Talk Print in Glossop, who printed leaflets for us, and Staley's Dailies in Chapel-en-le-Frith, who helped to distribute them for us, both at no cost.

  • The governors and staff at nearby schools (Taxal & Fernilee; Kettlehulme; Chinley)

  • The people from the Plain English Campaign in Combs, who produced T-shirts, balloons and the DVD which gave people a real sense of what life in our valley is like.

  • The other organisations who backed us. (Peak District National Park Authority; Derbyshire Rural Community Council; and the Methodist Church)

  • Tom Levitt MP, who came to the school, and then asked questions of DCC.

  • The staff at DCC (in particular, Dee Hill and Dave Molyneux), who were very helpful in answering our many questions.

  • Prof. Chris Woodhead (former Chief Inspector of Schools, now University of Buckingham) for advice on the subject of educational standards.

  • The print and broadcast media who helped to keep the campaign visible. (Louise Bellicoso and everyone at Buxton Advertiser; Glossop Chronicle; High Peak Radio; Dave Guest at BBC North West; David Andrew at Primary Review; Derbyshire Times; Nicola Winship at Best of Buxton)

  • And perhaps most of all ... thanks to those who thought we could and should win, and never faltered in that opinion.

How The Decision Was Made

In the Cabinet meeting at County Hall today, Councillor Alan Charles opened his remarks about Combs School with, “I find myself in the unusual position of presenting a recommendation that I do not agree with, which is for Combs School not to be closed.”

In acknowledging that there had been a lot of opposition to the proposed closure, he complimented the campaigners (of which there were over 20 present) on their polite and courteous conduct of the campaign.

Alan CharlesHe referred to the Education Act 2005 (although that Education Act has been superseded by the Education Act 2006), saying that the school couldn't be closed because it could not be shown that doing so would improve educational standards in the area. Of course, we pointed that out to him when this process began: everything that has followed need not have happened.

Alan Charles maintained that the Act was “intended to protect small rural schools, not small schools for rural communities” and that, “even if the school roll was to fall to zero, the school still couldn’t be closed”. He’s completely wrong on the last point, and goodness only knows what he means by the first bit. We'll have to ask.

With regard to the quality of education at Combs School, he gave a nod to the work of Mrs. Curry and her staff. “Of course,” he said, “with double the funding that other schools get, I would not expect anything other than an outstanding education. You would rightly expect that of any school.”

Why does he continue with that argument? He’s been shown that it doesn’t cost “twice the average” to teach a pupil at Combs, and that there isn’t a clear correlation between money spent and the outcome for pupils. It’s only a few months since he tried to close a school that had a worse performance but a higher per-pupil cost – he must have forgotten that case.

Alan Charles made reference to having got hold of some numbers “ten minutes ago”, which showed that Combs School is “only serving seven children in the village”, and tried to depict it as a small school that, “if it relied on its catchment area, would not have enough pupils”.

We have no idea how he’s defining ‘village’ in that statement, or where his numbers come from. We gave him plenty of well-researched, detailed and accurate numbers. None of them agree with his presentation of the situation.

Two weeks ago, in closing another school, he maintained that there was no such thing as a catchment area, so his reversal of logic is baffling. As we’ve explained before, even the Council can’t explain how the ‘Normal Area’ for Combs is defined, and it bears no relation to the ‘Natural Area’ from which pupils come to the school. He doesn’t seem to understand that it’s in the nature of a rural area for people to be scattered about a bit. We’ve shown him that there is high demand for places at the school now and in the future. And of course, parental choice, a policy supported by the council, allows parents to request that their children go to schools that aren’t on their doorstep.

In closing, Alan Charles said, “I believe it was right for the Authority to propose the closure of Combs School, and it was right that we consulted as we have done. Very reluctantly, I move that the recommendation be accepted.”

The chairman asked for questions and comments. There were none.

The recommendation was put to a vote. A few of the councillors raised their hands an inch or two above the table, the chairman mumbled something, and the decision was made.

So, a conclusion to this completely unnecessary process has been reached. Now it’s time to get on with more positive things, as noted in the press release issued today.


Read DCC's version of the meeting: download the meeting minutes.

This formal recording of the decision fails to convey the bad tempered and incoherent way in which the recommendation was presented.

This is the relevant excerpt.

A petition of 1,687 signatures had been submitted to the Authority, opposing the proposed closure of Combs Infant School.

RESOLVED to receive the petition opposing the proposed closure of
the Combs Infant School, as part of the consultation process.


In outlining the background leading to the proposal of the closure of the Combs Infant School, the Strategic Director for Children and Younger Adults outlined the process undertaken for consultation, and in particular the procedures for closing a maintained school, bearing in mind not only the criteria for education and sufficient school places in the area but also the need to preserve access to the local school for rural communities. Whilst this did not preclude the closure of rural schools, it did mean that the case for closure should be strong, with proposals clearly in the best interest of educational provision in the area.

Issues raised during the consultation process included:-
  • standards of education;
  • effect on the village hall and community;
  • budgetary and financial considerations;
  • normal area and natural area;
  • parental choice;
  • consideration of alternatives to closures;
  • increased housing in the Chapel area;
  • portrayal of village;
  • surplus places issue;
  • school as provider of local employment;
  • ethos of school in balance against costs.
Arguably the single most important issue was that of standards and whilst the removal of surplus places supported the core agenda of raising standards, it was acknowledged that Combs Infant School provided a high quality of education, which many parents argued was the most significant for the future development of the child. Standards of education at Chapel-en-le-Frith C of E. Primary were deemed satisfactory by OfSTED, although there was the perception that because of its size, the quality of education was not as good at that provided by Combs Infant School. Some detail was given of the development of Chapel-en-le-Frith C of E. Primary where the quality and provision were improving.

Specific reference was made in the statutory guidance to the issue of standards and the need to ensure that the proposal for a school closure would lead to improved attainment for children and young people.

In accord with current legislation and the overriding concern that any proposal for closure has to be in the cause of raising standards of education, it was felt that the Authority should not proceed with the proposal to close Combs Infant School at this time, but the situation would be kept under review.


(1) that the Authority does not proceed to the publication of Statutory Notices in respect of the proposed closure of Combs Infant School with effect from August 2008; and

(2) that situation regarding surplus places in this area of the County be kept under review.

Final Decision:
Combs Infant School is Saved!

A large group of campaigners attended the DCC Cabinet meeting in Matlock today.

The report on the school was presented by Alan Charles, and the Cabinet voted to accept the recommendation that Combs Infant School should not be closed.

Campaign supporters gathered outside County Hall after hearing the decision to keep Combs School open and were joined by Councillor Barrie Taylor and Andrew Bingham, Conservative Parliamentary candidate for High Peak