Decision made on closure of school near Heathfield

Proposals to close a rural East Sussex primary school are to move ahead after rescue plans were judged not to be ‘achievable’ by council officers. 

Monday, 9th March 2020, 2:40 pm
Broad Oak School

At a meeting on Monday (March 9), lead member for education Bob Standley confirmed East Sussex County Council would be moving ahead with plans to close Broad Oak Primary School at the end of the current school year (August 2020).

The decision came after a potential rescue plan, which would have seen Broad Oak join with the Woodlands School Federation, and use its combined budget to address a shortfall in funding. 

As part of this, Broad Oak would restructure its leadership team (to combine with the current federation of Dallington and Punnetts Town primary schools) and reduce down to just two classes of mixed year groups.

These proposals were not considered to be appropriate by the council, however, as Broad Oak would be left with little spare staff capacity and, even so, would still be running at a financial deficit due to low pupil numbers.

‘Valiant effort’ by school to stay open

Speaking at the meeting, director of children’s services Stuart Gallimore said: “While the leadership team has made a valiant effort and done all within their power to propose a solution, it simply does not appear practical and runs the risk, if accepted, of creating significant vulnerabilities in all three schools. 

“[School leaders] were at pains to point out that this was an interim position while the [pupil numbers at] Broad Oak rose and with it the school budget. They estimated an increase of 30 pupils during the next academic year. 

“Unfortunately there is no evidence that this is achievable, particularly when compared with the year-on-year fall in numbers since 2014/15.

“I do not believe the governing board’s proposal creates a sustainable role for the school or federation as a whole and risks disadvantaging Punnetts Town and Dallington, through an understandable desire to keep Broad Oak open.”

‘School has progressive solution’

This view was not shared by ward councillor Bill Bentley (Conservative, Wealden East), however, who urged Cllr Standley to pause the proposals in order to consider the rescue bid in more detail.

Cllr Bentley, who is also a member of the county council’s cabinet, said: “A community and its school are being driven to a rock bottom situation and they are looking for a solution. 

“They have come up with a plan, which is a progressive, interim to long-term solution, but they have found little support here at County Hall for the proposals that they have made. 

“You have heard  – both verbally and written form – from the governors and the head teacher about their concerns and their responses to elements of this report and I am sure you have reviewed them in detail.  Nevertheless, I remain with some concerns.”

Cllr Bentley went on to say he felt Heathfield and Waldron Parish Council’s offer to ‘do whatever it can to support the school’ had not been properly considered by the county council. 

He pointed to a similar intervention (including financial support) by Fletching Parish Council, which had seen the council suspend its decision to close Fletchling Primary School.

Cllr Bentley also raised concerns about the potential impact of Wealden District Council’s Local Plan failing, arguing that this would be likely to result in a larger than expected increase in new housing over the coming years. 

He also praised the school’s provision for SEND (special educational needs and disability) pupils and said he was concerned that some of the alternative places suggested for them were more than nine miles away. This would not meet the council’s definition of local, he said.

In response, however, officers said some of these alternative schools had been included due to their proximity to individual families, rather than the distance from the existing school.

Officers also said the impact of the Wealden Local Plan failing had been taken into account, but that it was not currently expected to see any significant increase to housing in Broad Oak or the wider area around Heathfield.

Similar concerns were raised by Liberal Democrat councillors Alan Shuttleworth and Kathryn Field during the meeting, both of whom urged Cllr Standley not to move ahead with the closure.

Both also spoke in favour of the mixed age group classes, arguing that similar arrangements had worked well elsewhere.

‘Cabinet member didn’t come into job to close schools’

This view was not shared by Cllr Standley, however, as officers had said the exact arrangements (which would see children aged between four and eight-years-old in the same class) were not in operation anywhere else in the county.

Cllr Standley said: “I am not an educationalist but, I have to say as a parent, having a school with only two classes and four age groups within that does not seem right. 

“We have lots of mixed age classes across [East Sussex] but my opinion as a non-educationalist is that does not seem right. 

“The finance element I think is an important one and I am particularly concerned, because it seemed a bit confused that the Broad Oak school would be separate but part of the federation. 

“The only way that would work is if at some point the resources allocated to Dallington would be cross-subsidised. That does cause me some considerable concern. 

“I have noted the provision of SEND and that is incredibly important. I know that the needs of those children will be taken into account. 

“This is an incredibly difficult situation and I didn’t come into this job to close schools, but I think through the whole process we have looked at it very, very carefully.

“My decision on Fletching, although not for discussion this morning, was made on the side of caution. I did think there would be increased pupil numbers in Fletching but that is not the case in this school. 

“I have read the evidence and I know it won’t be popular with parents and pupils but I will accept the recommendation to close Broad Oak school.”

Huw Oxburgh , Local Democracy Reporting Service