West Sussex County Council has insisted no decisions have been made regarding the future of five small schools – but would like to consult on closing one of them.
The futures of Clapham and Patching Primary, near Worthing; Compton and Up Marden Primary, Chichester; Rumboldswhyke Infants, Chichester; Stedham Primary, Midhurst; and Warninglid Primary, near Haywards Heath, will be the focal point of a public consultation which is due to start on October 4.
That future could involve moving, merging with other schools, forming a federation – two or more schools operating under one governing body – or closing.
As part of its School Effectiveness Strategy, which was adopted last year, the council deemed the schools to be at risk due to problems such as falling numbers and financial viability.
Staff, governors and parents filled the public gallery at County Hall, last Wednesday where Paul Wagstaff, director of education and skills, told a meeting of the Children & Young People’s Services Select Committee that nothing had been set in stone.
For one school, though, the future looks bleak.
Mr Wagstaff said: “For Rumboldswhyke CE Infants School the options are very limited. We would like to consult on the closure of this school – but for others there may be a whole range of options worth considering.”
Some committee members raised concerns about the way the schools had been selected, claiming that some information provided was not accurate and that governing bodies had not been involved enough in the process.
As such, Kirsty Lord (Lib Dem, Hassocks & Burgess Hill South) asked for a Task & Finish Group to be set up to look at things in detail before any consultation was held.
Looking at the lengthy report provided to the committee, she said: “My understanding is this information hasn’t even been formally shared with the schools, that the governing bodies have not been heavily involved with this, that some of the information in here that is incorrect has not had the chance to be corrected before it’s come to us because there has been so little engagement with the schools.”
Mr Wagstaff said he couldn’t see the benefit of a delay to the consultation, adding that it would only cause ‘more of a worry for parents and schools’.
It was decided that the group’s work and the consultation would run side by side, leaving Ms Lord to ask what would happen if the Task & Finish Group uncovered ‘significant concerns’ about the process when the consultation had already started.
She said: “I don’t think that process should start until after we’ve at least had that first meeting and that chance to discuss it – otherwise this is effectively moving forward without scrutiny.”
Chairman Paul High (Con, Worthing West) told the meeting that he had received a number of ‘last minute’ emails from the schools which contained information that was ‘contradictory’ to what was in the report.
He said: “I’ve read things and seen emails that the rest of the committee haven’t. A lot of it disputes what is in [the report]. I’ve got a democratic problem with that.”
After a lengthy discussion, the committee supported the idea of a consultation and agreed that the Task & Finish Group’s work would run in parallel.
Its findings would be brought back to a later meeting of the committee, which would then make its recommendations to Richard Burrett, cabinet member for education and skills.
Whatever the recommendations, the final decision would rest with him.
Mr Burrett is expected to announce the proposals for each school in January or February. There will be six weeks for people to have their say before he makes a final decision in February or March.
The decisions will take effect on August 31 2020.