Comment: Last day to reply to public consultation on schools in STARS area

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‘One day more’ sing the people of Les Miserables in a rousing cry as they prepare for battle on the streets of pre-revolutionary Paris.

In the STARS area of West Sussex - Storrington to Steyning and the six surrounding primary schools - there is one day more to reply to the public consultation which closes on September 18th.

Some of the public meetings have been lively and while all parents and staff are passionate about wanting the best education for children in the area, there are conflicting opinions how to deliver that.

West Sussex County Council is asking parents to support the principles of planning for a future school system including a change to the age at which children transfer to secondary education.

It would mean that year 6, for pupils age 10-11, is taken out from Rydon Commmunity School to be delivered in line with national standards, in primary schools.

Benefits of the move outlined in the consultation document include alignment with national standards, accountability for the whole of the current measurement in year 6 or “Key Stage 2”, and making the structure simpler for parents, particularly those moving into or out of the area.

Mr Alan Brien, Chair of Governors at Rydon, in a heartfelt three-page letter delivered to all doormats in the area outlined his fears that “Rydon is in danger” if the only change is that year 6 moves to primary schools and Rydon shrinks.

“It would become a school waiting to close,” he wrote.

He is worried that the change leaves Rydon vulnerable in a financial system that is determined by headcount and where the money follows the child. Fewer children means a smaller budget.

The secondary schools closest to Rydon are both large. Steyning Grammar School has nearly 2000 pupils and The Weald in Billingshurst close to 1900.

Brien has suggested in the longer term a preference to become an 11 - 16 secondary school.

“We want to see Rydon develop into a secondary school with around 700 children,” wrote Mr Brien.

“We believe it is beyond question that a new secondary school on the west side of the A24 will be needed within 10 years, probably sooner.”

Projected pupil numbers based on birth rates and housing to 2030, indicate overall expansion in West Sussex in proposals published in ‘Planning School Places 2015’.

However the STARS consultation principles also state that the current school system is unlikely to be educationally and financially viable, given the ongoing changes to the revenue funding formula which are expected to affect small primary and secondary schools.

All central government departments have been told to model two scenarios, a 25% and a 40% cut in spending in real terms, by 2019 - 20 in the current spending review at the Treasury. It singles out back office spending in Education as an area for efficiency.

If we accept government cuts are necessary, we must also accept that there will be significant changes to our public services as a result. The belief whether austerity is an economic necessity or a choice, is one of politics.

Like The Elephant of the Bastille, this overall real terms reduction in planned spending is so big, it cannot be ignored. This is the elephant in the room that the public consultation does not address.

Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education at the Select Committee on September 9th affirmed her support of the Prime Minister’s vision for all schools to become academies.

Where a school is rated as failing, or the newly appointed regional school commissioners decide a school should become an academy, the requirement for parents’ consultation has been removed in the new Coasting Schools Bill. The change in law will give the Secretary of State power to directly impose academy status on schools.

Becoming an academy means coming under the umbrella of private, often corporate sponsors, breaking away from local authority control and moving to direct funding from the Department for Education.

Whatever the outcome of the consultation, the spending cuts which lie ahead and the potential for imposed academisation may affect how all secondary and primary education in the area will look over the next five years and beyond.

Whether governors, parents and staff support the principles reached in this consultation in the short term or not, the real battles may still lie ahead for all small primary and secondary schools.

This consultation is only a first step. Once a decision is reached some will be happy and others less so.

The question may then be whether people, including staff and parents, are prepared to work together across all the schools and at County, despite differences of opinion, to shape our public education provision positively in the big picture and for the longer term.

The alternative may be to build barricades in the playgrounds.

To Have Your Say in the consultation closing on September 18th go online at www.westsussex.gov.uk/about-the-council/have-your-say/planning-the-stars-area-schools-for-the-future/

Sources mentioned:

Central Spending Review: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/447101/a_country_that_lives_within_its_means.pdf

Have Your Say consultation: www.westsussex.gov.uk/about-the-council/have-your-say/planning-the-stars-area-schools-for-the-future/

Nicky Morgan comments at Select Committee: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/education-committee/news-parliament-2015/evidence-secretary-of-state-15-16/

Planning School Places 2015: https://www.westsussex.gov.uk/media/5089/planning_school_places.pdf

By Jen Persson, writer and mum of three children at primary school in the STARS area