Threat of legal action over closure plan for Chichester school

A threat of legal action has been made against West Sussex County Council after its cabinet voted to close two schools.

A petition against the closure of Rumboldswhyke School was presented at County Hall late last year
A petition against the closure of Rumboldswhyke School was presented at County Hall late last year

The decision to close Rumboldswhyke Infants, in Chichester, and Clapham & Patching Primary, near Worthing, went against advice from the council’s own scrutiny committee and flew in the face of vocal support from the local communities.

Sarah Sharp, chairman of the Friends of Rumboldswhyke School – and district councillor for Chichester South – has now launched an online petition calling for changes to decision-making at the county council.

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Mrs Sharp said: “The whole process has been shambolic from beginning to end. We are now considering all options, including judicial review.

“We are sad that the council is brazening it out and so forcing a group of its own parents to take them to court.”

The petition calls for the council to switch from a cabinet system to a committee system.

The county has 70 councillors but only nine – the cabinet – are able to make decisions.

The idea of change is not a new one to West Sussex. Last year, Lib Dem leader Dr James Walsh asked for the same thing – but it received no support from the council’s governance committee and was branded a ‘retrograde step’ at a meeting of the full council.

The decision to close the two schools was made by only eight members of the cabinet.

The ninth – Deborah Urquhart, cabinet member for environment – spoke against the closures during a scrutiny committee meeting and was advised that she had ‘pre-determind’ herself so could not speak or vote on the matter.

Pre-determination was an accusation also hurled at the council after a Freedom of Information request revealed an email sent from the council’s education department in April 2019, which suggested the decision to close was made before the consultation period began.

The email read: “The leader of the council and lead member are in agreement to pursue closure quickly, target date August 2020.”

Recalling last year’s report from the Department for Education, which described a ‘bullying culture’ at County Hall and an ‘unwillingness to see alternative viewpoints’, Mrs Sharp accused the council of ‘acting more like a Soviet Politburo’.

She added: “This arrogant style of government needs to change.

“Other places have moved from cabinet government to a committee system.

“It looks like the sooner this happens in West Sussex the better for parents, children, and anyone else who hopes not to be thoroughly ignored when trying to have a constructive conversation with our county council.”

Opposition members at County Hall have also denounced the closure decisions.

Scrutiny committee vice-chairman Kirsty Lord (Lib Dem, Hassocks & Burgess Hill South) said: “Earlier this month, the committee made clear their concerns about the stress being caused to parents having to select a new school while facing the challenges coronavirus has thrown at them and members from all political groups opposed the closure proposals.

“The cabinet stated that they had carried out significant scrutiny and consultation but none of this appears to have influenced their decision.

“It is incredibly disappointing that the scrutiny committee’s concerns have been completely ignored.”

Labour group leader Michael Jones said the decisions were ‘being driven by financial reasons’ while district councillor Kevin Hughes (Lab, Chichester East) said they reflected ‘the tin ear that West Sussex County Council has for communities’.

Mr Hughes added: “These schools are vital for the parents whose children attend them and for the pupils themselves.

“I actually attended Clapham and Patching for a couple of years back in the 1970s, so I can imagine the disruption that this decision will cause there and at Rumboldswhyke.

“I feel for the tireless campaigners who must now feel totally devastated and exhausted after this decision.”

A council spokesman said members considered ‘all of the information available to them’, adding: “We appreciate that the closure of any school is a difficult decision for these school communities.”

To see the petition, log on to http://mywestsussex.org/sign-up

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