SCHOOL REFORMS: Somerset parents and pupils protest
Somerset parents and pupils have held protests against changes to their schools following a decision by Somerset County Council.
The council’s cabinet voted on Wednesday (March 17) to push forward with reforms which would see the three-tier system (i.e. first, middle and upper schools) in place in Crewkerne and Ilminster be replaced with a two-tier system (i.e. primary and secondary schools).
The changes – which have proved controversial with parents and staff alike – will be implemented over the next 18 months in time for the September 2022 intake of pupils.
The day after the decision (March 18), a number of pupils and parents protested the changes, accusing the council of “constantly spreading lies and misinformation” during the consultation process.
The council said it would work with parents, pupils and staff to address any concerns raised during the transition period.
What changes have been agreed?
The following reforms will be implemented in time for the September 2022 intake:
- Wadham School in Crewkerne will change from an upper school with 460 pupils to a secondary school with around 780 pupils
- Swanmead Community School and Greenflyde Church of England First School (both in Ilminster) will amalgamate into a single Church of England primary school on two separate sites. A new joint site may be constructed in the future to replace them, but this depends on housing developments being delivered
- Merriott First School and Haselbury Pluckett Church of England First School will both become primary schools. Hinton St George Church of England Primary School has already made in this transition but is being considered as part of the consultation to ensure all schools have “sustainable” pupil numbers
- Ashlands Church of England First School, St Bartholomew’s Church of England First School and Maiden Beech Academy (a middle school) would form three new primary schools
- Misterton Church of England First School, which is currently federated with Ashlands, will close in the summer of 2022. All existing pupils will be transferred to another school of their choice in the Crewkerne area, while the building could be re-purposed for community use
What have the protestors claimed?
A small protest (compliant with current coronavirus restrictions) took place at Maiden Beech Academy on Thursday (March 18), organised by Year 6 pupils with the support of local parents.
The protestors have made five claims against the council’s handling of the issue – namely:
- The council refused to pause the consultation while the prospect of forming a multi-academy trust (MAT) was on the table: “This goes against everything that education secretary Gavin Williamson MP stated earlier this month, that the government wishes for more schools to join multi-academy trusts and they were ‘actively looking at how they could make that happen’.”
- The council has disregarded a potential legal challenge surrounding the closure of Misterton First School: “This is a school rated ‘good’ by Ofsted”
- That Swanmead School will close and lose all its staff since Greenfylde will be retaining its head, staff and school number: “Swanmead was fed the line they would amalgamate their two younger years with the town’s first school to create a new primary, school and the upper years (years 7 and 8) would go up to Wadham School early. This, however, is not the case”
- The council “alienated” people by holding the consultation online during the pandemic, shutting out those who have limited internet access or confidence: “By deciding to do this all online, they have alienated people who may struggle with either Internet access or the confidence to successfully navigate the online formats that they chose to use”
- The council should not have pursued this decision while a government consultation on possible unitary authorities is ongoing: “It is very strange that the council would continue with such a proposal to change our local school’s system, when there are quite significant potential changes occurring within the structure of the council itself”
One parent, who did not wish to be named, said: “The children of Crewkerne and Ilminster are the ones who will be detrimentally affected by this ill-considered proposal and unwillingness to come back to the table to properly consider an alternative MAT option.
“Our county council is not listening to their communities and seem determined to destroy our children’s educational futures. They have placed obstructions and constantly spread lies and misinformation throughout the whole process.”
How has the council responded?
Somerset County Council has thanked parents for responding to the consultation and said all concerns would be taken on board.
A spokesman said: “We appreciate it is an emotive subject and we encourage all parties to work together to make these changes happen as smoothly as possible for the children, their families and carers, and the school staff.
“This will help ensure that every child continues to receive the high quality education that they absolutely deserve.
“We encourage anyone who has questions or comments to contact us by emailing email@example.com.”
Responding to the protestors’ specific allegations, the council stated the following:
- The MAT proposals were “futile to pursue”: “Although Bridgwater and Taunton College Trust has made public its wish to secure a MAT solution, we have in writing from each of the other stakeholders a definitive statement that there are no other avenues to be explored in this regard. It is in no-one’s interest for us to continue to pursue a different outcome when all the evidence available to us says that doing so would be futile”
- Any legal challenge surrounding Misterton would be properly handled: “No legal challenges have been presented since the cabinet decision was made last week, but we would of course respond to in the appropriate way if we were to receive one in future.”
- Swanmead will not be at a disadvantage through the changes: “We are aware that concerns have been raised that staff at Swanmead may be at a disadvantage, and we can assure you that this is not the case. We will continue to work with the governing bodies at both schools to bring together the strengths of both schools as decisions are made about the detail of the implementation plan”
- Consultation was not restricted to online responses: “There were a number of ways people could take part in the consultation, from online webinars to writing letters, with equal weight given to each response. The whole process was based on openness and transparency throughout and we have not been made aware of anyone who has been unable to have their say due to the pandemic”
- The unitary discussions are irrelevant: “Local government reorganisation is decided by central government and is not something we can control. It’s about getting this right for young people and the longer we wait to make that happen, the more likely that there will be a seriously detrimental effect on their education. It would be very difficult to defend waiting until the a decision has been made around the organisation of local government in Somerset to initiate this process”
Words: Daniel Mumby, Local Democracy Reporter
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