Somerset County Council shows no signs of changing course on school closures and staff redundancies in Somerset
Plans for wholesale changes to schools in the Crewkerne and Ilminster area came to Somerset County Council’s Scrutiny for Policies, Children and Families Committee this week (Wednesday 3 March), prior to the Council’s Cabinet making a final decision on 17 March.
The County Council argues that changes are needed to repair school finances in the area – particularly that of Wadham School which is projected to be nearly £2 million in the red by September 2022. The proposals will result in the closure of Misterton First School near Crewkerne, the merging of two schools in Ilminster, turning all the First and Middle Schools into Primary Schools, and sending all the 11-13 year-olds in the area to Wadham in Crewkerne.
However, parental opposition is strong. In the last consultation (Nov-Dec 2020), up to 80% of parents and carers opposed the plans.
At Somerset County Council’s Scrutiny Committee, Oliver Patrick presented a petition carried out by the Yeovil Liberal Democrats, which had received over 350 signatures.
He told the committee that, “Over the last few weeks we have heard from parents, carers, governors and school staff who told us of their serious concerns about Council’s plans. If our petition is anything to go by, then considerable opposition still remains”.
Oliver Patrick added afterwards, “Our schools have been branded ‘unsustainable’ by the County Council, which talks about schools as if they are businesses. Yet a business that doesn’t generate an income is, by definition, unsustainable. The schools transformation plan should be seen for what it really is: an exercise in cost cutting from the Department for Education.
“What’s worrying is that the changes proposed by the County Council will result in less direct funding for our schools and will mean redundancy for 4-6 teachers. This isn’t just my view – it was highlighted in a report commissioned by Futures for Somerset. The County Council’s plans represent a saving for the Department for Education, not Somerset. The school funding grant for Somerset will get even smaller as a result of these plans.
“Let’s talk in plain English: schools in Crewkerne and Ilminster don’t have the funding they need to educate our children, and every year many of them are forced into budget overspends to make sure their students get the education they deserve. This in itself ought to be the story. It’s a scandal in 21st Century Britain”.
But this isn’t the only big debate raging in Somerset. There is currently a public consultation running about the future of local government in Somerset. Robert Jenrick MP (Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government) will soon give the green light to his preferred type of unitary authority: ‘One Somerset’ (which will see all council services centralised in Taunton) or ‘Stronger Somerset’ (with services devolved away from Taunton and placed closer to communities in 2 new Councils – West Somerset and East Somerset).
Whichever model Robert Jenrick chooses, Oliver believes that local government reorganisation poses a considerable risk to the delivery of the schools transformation plan. In his speech to the Scrutiny Committee he asked “has the Council conducted any analysis of the risks that the transition to a unitary authority poses to its plans for schools in Crewkerne and Ilminster?”
Two days later, Oliver received a written reply from County Councillor Faye Purbrick (Cabinet Member for Education and Transformation), stating that “the assessment of the risk has been that it is minimal”.
“I had expected a more detailed response”, said Oliver “especially given that all of Somerset’s Councils (the four District Councils and the one County Council) will soon be abolished and replaced by new authorities with new priorities”.
Based on his experience at the Scrutiny Committee, Oliver fears that the transformation is set to go ahead regardless of parental opposition or the fact that the plans don’t address underlying school funding issues. Is he hopeful that County Councillors might have a change of heart between now and the 17th March (when the final decision will be made)?
“No”, he says bluntly. “Not unless something major happens. Essentially, I feel that the minds of County Councillors are made up. That said, it isn’t clear if Maiden Beech Academy in Crewkerne is fully on board yet. As an academy school they are independent from the County Council, and their refusal to opt-in to the plans could scupper the entire transformation programme”.
Oliver Patrick is a Liberal Democrat District Councillor at South Somerset District Council. He is a resident in the Crewkerne area, a school governor, and a qualified teacher with 10 years experience running a department in a thriving middle school.