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How to close a school: a case study.

March 7, 2012 1:45 PM
John Holt at the recently closed Barford St Martin school

John Holt at the recently closed Barford St Martin school

As Wiltshire Conservatives steadily close village schools, here's a note we drew up at the time Steeple Ashton went in 2004.

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Steeple Ashton is a picturesque village in Wiltshire, with a population of about 600. Until 2004 it had a primary school.

The village faces the same pressures as most villages in southern England. Soaring house prices evicting young families, declining facilities, increasing traffic as everyone has to drive to town for all their needs.

In September 2002 though the school at least seemed secure. There was a good atmosphere, staff and children were happy, the setting was idyllic - what could go wrong?

A brand new school opened two miles away in a new housing development on the outskirts of Trowbridge, and a few pupils who might otherwise have come to Steeple Ashton went there instead. Then the village school appointed a new Head Teacher.

The pressure on any Head is enormous. In a village school the work is similar to that of larger schools but generally with less staff, resources and facilities. Not everyone can cope: the new Head resigned just six weeks after taking up her post, due to stress.

The atmosphere in the school had changed. The older pupils began to show a lack of discipline, staff were unsettled, parents were worried, and a few more pupils moved away.

Then the Local Education Authority jumped in with intervention support and provision of an acting head.

The school's finances were in trouble. The costs in paying the Head whilst she was on sick leave before her resignation, and the additional cost of an Acting Head, were mounting.

Governors held interviews for a new Head but were not able to appoint. They needed specific qualities but could not afford the salary to attract them.

The position was to be re-advertised when the LEA dropped a bombshell. A feasibility study was underway to assess the viability of the school and its future, and no interviews were to be held until this study had been completed.

Another Acting Head arrived bringing more changes and insecurity. More parents were getting itchy feet.

In Summer 2003 the feasibility study arrived. It turned out to be nothing more than an inaccurate desktop study with no new options.

From time to time the possibility of federation was mentioned. Federation of some kind probably represents the best lifeline for village schools, but it has to be done when all the schools involved are in a healthy condition. No-one wants to be shackled to a school which may be dying.

In June 2003 the LEA said that to avoid closure a 10 year business plan would need to be developed showing how the school could remain viable and how desperately needed finances were to be found.

In July 2003 a committee was formed to develop an action plan. They also tried, without success, to get advice from the LEA or the Diocese.

By now confidence was slowly being restored and the remaining parents and pupils were steadfastly loyal and willing to ride the wave.

During all this, the school received notice of an Ofsted Inspection in Sept/Oct 2003.

They appealed for a delay, but were denied

In Autumn 2003 the search for the 'perfect' Head Teacher was moving along. Several candidates offered hope and the governors were eagerly preparing for the interviews.

By now the school had less than 20 children, but staff and governors had plenty of ideas and were working hard to turn them into actions.

But then came the Ofsted feedback, just before the Head Teacher interviews. Ofsted put the school in special measures, even though they knew the consequences of such a finding would be severe. Leadership and Management was poor. Monitoring was barely in existence and KS2 children were not achieving the expected standards. These were just some of the many criticisms.

The staff were despondent. All their hard work, time, dedication, heart, spirit and soul had gone to try to prevent this very result. They deserved a medal not a slap in the face.

The governors admitted defeat, cancelled the interviews and voted to close the school.

Wiltshire Local Education Authority doesn't like village schools because they're expensive. It can cost more than twice as much to educate a primary school child in a village as in a town, as, in an effort to divide and rule, the heads and governors of town schools are frequently reminded.

The DfES and OFSTED don't like village schools because they don't fit with modern ideas on education. It's difficult to use mass production techniques in schools of less than fifty children.

Village schools by their very nature can be insular. They will only survive if they become the very essence of their local area, and a vital part of the community.