Campaigners brand community school closure consultation a ‘shambles’
Parents of children currently attending Almondbury Community School (ACS) in Huddersfield will face limited choice at neighbouring schools from next year.
That was one of the findings of Kirklees Council’s Children’s Scrutiny Panel, which considered the decision by education chiefs on the authority to axe secondary places at ACS following a call-in request by campaigners.
After hearing evidence from campaigners, councillors, Cabinet members, senior education staff and legal advisers the panel ruled that the decision should be “freed for implementation.” That means there are no obstacles in its way. Cabinet took the decision on July 16 to close the secondary school.
Clr Paola Davies (Lib Dem, Almondbury), who led the call-in request, said she was “disappointed” that the decision to close ACS had not gone back to Cabinet for a re-think. But she expressed satisfaction with the various points that had been raised and the depth of the panel’s deliberation. She added: “There’s no doubt that the decision to close the school is a big one and some of the comments that the panel made reflect the concerns we raised about the decision-making process.”
The panel chaired by Clr Andrew Marchington looked at the capacity of the school system in the borough, as well as the openness and lawfulness of the process to determine the school’s future.
He pointed out that the panel did not have the power to overturn the closure decision. Clr Marchington (Lib Dem, Golcar) said the council had made an assumption “at the outset” that ACS was not viable and would fail a due diligence test for academisation. And he said the council had failed to fully explain the rationale for making such an assumption. In addressing the call-in review, which took place in Huddersfield Town Hall, Clr Davies said the decision to end secondary provision at ACS “should be recalled and reconsidered.” She suggested that parents with children at ACS had been misled over which schools their youngsters might be able to attend in future.
And she accused the council of a lack of openness, particularly around the school’s financial position, with the result that the decision to close was made “without the benefit of the full facts.” “From the outset it was not ‘if’ secondary provision at ACS closes, but ‘when,’” she said. “I remain unconvinced that a full exploration of the options has been considered.”
Clr Bernard McGuin (Con, Almondbury ) said the council had failed to provide what he called “appropriate answers” to a range of key questions around finance and pupil numbers. “It’s the council’s assertion that no-one would take on the running of the school. We asked for the facts to show that it wasn’t viable and we were never given them.”
Speaking on behalf of parents Eileen Marchant said the council’s decision “almost immediately” to close secondary provision at ACS in the wake of a negative Ofsted report last year had had an impact on pupils’ mental health and well-being. “The decision was a short-term one,” she said. “I am not convinced they planned ahead.”
Father-of-two David Whittingham said parents had had no information, leaving children “bewildered”. He described a consultation process as “a shambles.” And addressing senior councillors directly he said: “There is nothing wrong with admitting that mistakes have been made.”
Answering campaigners Clr Carole Pattison, Cabinet member for Learning, Aspiration and Communities, reiterated the council’s stance that falling pupil numbers at ACS made it non-viable. She added that the school’s budget overspend was significantly overspent and was likely to rise from £500,000 to more than £1m by the end of the financial year. She stressed there was sufficient space within local schools without the presence of ACS. And she rejected comments that the council sought to mislead parents and that the decision to close ACS was taken “blindly.”
Referring to King James’s School, which campaigners said had been offered to parents and then withdrawn as an option, she said it was “still a player” in the process. And Jo-Anne Sanders, the council’s Service Director – Learning and Early Support, said the council was exploring whether some pupils would be able to stay on at ACS for an extra year. But she also said youngsters could be “easily accommodated” at Newsome High School.
Speaking after the review Clr McGuin said: “I judge it to be a success. The panel has taken notice that the openness of the decision was not very clear. I felt that we made enough points to show that this has been done wrongly. The council has made so many errors.”
Kirklees Council said: “After listening to a wide range of evidence from Cabinet members, other councillors and members of the public, the panel highlighted learning points for Cabinet to consider and recommended that the change can be implemented. The Scrutiny Panel’s recommendation – that the decision is ‘freed for implementation’ – will be discussed by Cabinet members at their meeting on August 13.”
Article originally appeared on Examiner Live
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