Residents urged to ‘keep fighting’ Lewes school closure plans

Ruth O'Keeffe at a protest against the school closures in April
Ruth O'Keeffe at a protest against the school closures in April

Opponents of plans to close two Lewes primary schools have been urged to ‘keep fighting’ by one of the town’s county councillors.

East Sussex County Council is consulting on plans to close both Rodmell and Pells Church of England primary schools by August 2017 as according to the authority both have struggled to attract enough pupils.

Carla Butler, a Lib Dem East Sussex county councillor outside Rodmell CoE Primary School (photo submitted). SUS-161105-155720001

Carla Butler, a Lib Dem East Sussex county councillor outside Rodmell CoE Primary School (photo submitted). SUS-161105-155720001

A petition with more than 5,000 signatures calling on the county council to stop the closure of these two schools was presented at County Hall on Tuesday (May 10).

Ruth O’Keeffe (Ind, Lewes), leader of the Independent group, put forward a motion recommending to cabinet that plans to close the schools are halted in view of the increasing demand in primary school places once the consultation ends.

The majority of county councillors were in favour of the motion including Independents, Lib Dems, Labour and UKIP, but members of the ruling Tory group voted against it.

It will now go to cabinet to consider.

After the meeting Cllr O’Keeffe said: “Everybody who wants to keep Pells open keep fighting. Get your opinion into the consultation as many people as possible because it will make a difference.”

The motion was seconded by Carla Butler (LDem, Newhaven and Ouse Valley West), who represents Rodmell, said: “The parents, governing body, staff and protesters should be proud of their achievement of running an excellent campaign.”

She added: “Sadly, because the county council operates on a ‘cabinet’ system this decision by all members of the council can only be handled as a recommendation to a future cabinet meeting.

“However it does have the effect of putting the Conservative controlled council under pressure.”

During the meeting, David Tutt (LDem, Eastbourne, St Anthony’s), leader of the Lib Dem group, suggested that the Tories had been whipped to vote against the motion, and added: “The overwhelming evidence is the schools are loved and wanted and needed in terms of future need.”

He continued: “This sends a message to the public that their voice has been heard.”

Meanwhile Michael Wincott (Lab, Hastings - Baird and Ore) suggested the political leadership of the council had a ‘track record of ignoring the results of consultation and overwhelming public opinion’, and there was a ‘culture of arrogance in the decision making of this council which has to end’.

Steve Wallis (LDem, Eastbourne - Devonshire) added: “To close schools seems daft to me. We need all the schools we have and more. I think this is a backward step.”

But Nick Bennett (Con, Alfriston, East Hoathly and Hellingly), lead member for education and inclusion, special educational needs and disability, urged the public to send their views in, but said the motion contradicted the petition which asked for a consultation and would not allow all the evidence to be considered.

Keith Glazier (Con, Rye and Eastern Rother), leader of the county council, said it was a ‘genuine’ consultation, and the final decision would be taken by the lead member after consultation. He thought it was ‘imperative this process continues in the proper legal way’.

According to information and evidence in the Lewes Area Review of Primary School Places both Pells and Rodmell ‘often struggle to meet their pupil admission number which impacts on the ability of the schools to secure financial stability and good outcomes for pupils’.

Cllr O’Keeffe explained that Pells was working towards an overall Ofsted rating of ‘Good’.

According to the county council’s own documents, by 2020 there would be 1,540 primary places in Lewes town for 1,399 estimated children, but after the school closures there would be just one spare place, not 141.

Cllr O’Keeffe also suggested the county council’s estimated demand for places was far too conservative, with new homes being built and many families with several young children each moving into the town.

Meanwhile Cllr Butler explained that Rodmell felt some of the data presented in the consultation was ‘biased and misleading’, and it had ‘not been fairly represented’.

Meanwhile parents and governors were convinced that ‘all possibilities have not been explored’.

Cllr Butler said the closure of village schools was just ‘another nail in the coffin of the vibrancy of lovely villages in the downs’, and would turn places such as Rodmell into ‘dormitory villages’.

She added: “I believe there’s a future for Rodmell school.

“Vote to halt these closures and let’s work together to find the best solution.”

Frank Carstairs (UKIP, Seaford Sutton) said it was a ‘nonsense’ to suggest closing schools when they were facing a surge of demand for places, while Rosalyn St. Pierre (LDem, Ringmer and Lewes Bridge) added: “I’m devastated that Pells school is going to be closed. It just needs more support.”

Visit https://consultation.eastsussex.gov.uk and click on ‘find consultations’. The consultation closes on Friday May 27.

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