West Sussex County Council has pledged to do more to help small schools which may be considering forming federations.
There have been ongoing concerns that some schools are struggling to remain financially viable, and teaming up with others to form a federation is one of the options open to them.
A federation involves two or more schools operating under one governing body, sharing staff, resources and facilities.
At a meeting of the full council, Dr Kate O’Kelly (Lib Dem, Midhurst) tabled a notice of motion calling for support, officer time and guidance to be given to such schools.
She said: “The process of federation relies on school governors, who are volunteers, often with full time jobs and other commitments, and who do not always have the time and skill sets needed, to explore and develop the federation options fully themselves.”
Dr O’Kelly accepted an amendment to the wording of the motion from David Simmons (Con, Southwick) who pointed out that some help was already being offered.
Kirsty Lord (Lib Dem, Hassocks & Burgess Hill South) said the council’s wealth of experience and resources could make the process easier for schools.
She added: “It’s not this council’s responsibility to lead the process. But if we’re to do the best for our schools, we shouldn’t just be leaving them to muddle through it. We should be working with them.”
Ms Lord told the meeting the motion did not intend to derail an ongoing consultation into the future of five small schools in West Sussex.
The schools – Clapham and Patching Primary, near Worthing; Compton and Up Marden Primary, near Chichester; Rumboldswhyke Infants, Chichester; Stedham Primary, near Midhurst; and Warninglid Primary, near Haywards Heath – all have very low pupil numbers and were identified as being ‘at risk’ in the council’s School Effectiveness Strategy.
Depending on the outcome of the consultation, they could find themselves moving, being part of a merger, forming a federation or even closing.
Ms Lord was critical of the consultation process and said the way information had been shared ‘leaves quite a bit to be desired’.
She added: “While we’ve got concerns about it we don’t want to cause even greater upset or uncertainty. This is about the future and how that happens in the future.
“Nor are we attempting to ensure small schools are preserved in aspic. Instead we want to make sure that any future consultations are more transparent and fair to all of those parties involved.”
Labour’s Michael Jones (Southgate & Gossops Green) accused the council of ‘currently not standing up for small schools as well as it should be’.
Jamie Fitzjohn (Con, Chichester South) agreed.
One of the schools – Rumboldswhyke – is in his division. He said : “We have to be there for those children and those parents.
“The correspondence and emails I’ve received over the past couple of weeks is heart-wrenching because that school is at the heart of that community.”
Members voted unanimously to support the amended motion.
After the meeting, Dr O’Kelly said she was delighted with the cross-party support and that federation was a ‘win-win for pupils, staff and communities’.
She added: “Vitally the schools stay open. They sit at the heart of our communities. Closure should be the last resort.
“Passing this motion means the local authority must take a more proactive approach to helping schools find partners rather than looking at closure.”
She also called for Nigel Jupp, the new cabinet member for education, to call a halt to the consultation, describing it as ‘flawed’.