School closure

Dear Maria Caulfield MP,

CC Sussex Express

I am writing to you about the appalling way that parents and carers, pupils and teachers have been treated by the small group of Conservative councillors and their lead member Nick Bennett in the handling of the decision to close Rodmell CE Primary School.

I know you are aware of the closure of Rodmell CE Primary, and that you were behind our campaign to save the school. Sadly, I feel like I am emailing a year too late but I feel so strongly about how we have been treated I really had to put it into words.

It is an unfortunate truth that had we, as parents, not been so wholly focussed on the well-being and future education of our children, on sorting out the chaos inflicted upon us by this closure and then so busy every other moment of the day feeding, clothing and supporting our families, we would all have been campaigning further and all have written emails. But the last 12 months or so have been a roller coaster of emotion and upheaval and there has been little else that any of us have been able to focus on.

Following our intense campaign in spring 2016 to gain support for the school after the shock notice of consultation to close, as you know we obtained enough signatures for the matter to be debated at full council in July of the same year and we had some success then, in undermining the reasons why the group and their lead member said Rodmell School should close. The full quota of councillors then voted in our favour, giving us an extra year with which to find schools to federate with and increase pupil numbers. What this process revealed to us at the time, was that if we thought that we were being governed democratically, we had been sadly, disappointingly mistaken. Even the other councillors at the full meeting in County Hall, Lewes, were horrified that ONE MAN had effectively taken the decision for the fate of all these children and their families and this, apparently, is not only normal but deemed OK practice by the ruling party.

We felt like we had really won something after that meeting, with much support from local councillors, we felt vindicated and prepared ourselves to take on the challenge set: To increase pupil numbers and find partnerships with another school or schools. Parents worked tirelessly together, volunteering materials and time to build an extra reception play area, making the school look beautiful as well as local publicity campaigns in nearby towns to invite prospective parents to view the school, there was carpentry, painting, planting being done at weekends and in the evenings.

In our recent Ofsted, we were scored a ‘Good’ rating, indeed only a fraction off ‘outstanding’. We were determined to bring that score up and make our wonderful village school a testament to the united team that was pupils, parents and teachers.

But having been given our reprieve, this golden opportunity was swiftly taken away. In October, after a still hopeful summer of negotiations with other heads, meetings and discussions by governors, the final nail in the coffin for Rodmell School was the October 2016 census of the number of children on roll at the school. This census sets the budget for the following spring and sadly, though understandably in these uncertain times, children had been steadily leaving since the first report of potential closure. This meant that six to seven months later, of the potential 60-70 there were 30 or so children counted in the census – the remaining few whose parents were putting their faith and belief in the school and governors.

According to this figure, the upcoming budget wouldn’t allow for all three current class teachers to stay, nor all the support staff. The nursery nurse, having worked there for 40 or so years, who looked after reception children had to go almost immediately, along with another long-serving teaching assistant. We knew that in the upcoming year, 2017-2018, at least one of the class teachers would be leaving. When that budget was set, the school would be left with NOTHING to offer other schools or prospective parents... and it’s hard not to imagine that the councillors were scoffing smugly behind their hands, congratulating each other and saying ‘we knew we’d get our way in the end’.

In January 2017, the governors decided, very much with heavy hearts, that it was untenable that the school continue on this budget and be able to move forward to regain the numbers and the staff so they communicated to parents and carers their decision to close the school by the end of the academic year in 2018. They had no choice and we all understood this, hard as it was to accept. Gallingly, the council’s response to the governors’ decision, after more than two weeks of complete silence was to send all the parents and carers a letter stating that, despite what the governors had decided, “The final decision on closure will rest with the Cabinet and is likely to happen in September 2017.... If the decision is taken to close Rodmell CE School, parents of children still on roll at the school will be advised of the process for applying for a new school for their children from September 2018.” How insulting. After everything we had been through, to give us false hope, to imagine that we were too stupid to add up the figures ourselves. There was no school to revive, the school’s assets already being stripped.

Finally, on the 27th June, the council met to decide on the future of Rodmell school, and have agreed to move towards closure in August 2018. In the meeting on the 27th the council implied (as they have done all along) that they had given the school support in their efforts to federate, to find partnership with other schools, another fact that is totally untrue. No help was given, opportunities therefore lost. Our biggest hope was perhaps Iford and Kingston, 10 minutes down the road. At the time of negotiating the school was undertaking an enormous extension build to provide extra classrooms. The head felt like he couldn’t take on the extra workload until after the build was completed. One can’t help feeling that had the council been helping with negotiations, things might have been different, but then, we always had that horrible feeling that, despite denials of such, the agenda for closure was already set.

What has been consistently and glaringly obvious, throughout the whole process, is the absolute lack of support and even lack of respect for the families and the children left wondering what on earth they are supposed to do. Despite council rhetoric it is also plain that there haven’t been enough school places for children in the area and there continues to be a shortage. All those left still at Rodmell are either leavers in year 6 or those waiting for a place, in limbo. The children go to school day to day, wondering if their friends will still be there, picked off as they are, one by one as spaces become available. Those of us who have found spaces for one of our children but not another have had to endure, often months of double school runs and the stress and strain that has brought to the whole family is tangible. The whole process has been a huge emotional upheaval and a drain on all concerned. At no point have any of the officials dealing with this case ever displayed a bit of humanity, or humility, not one empathic communication, not one apology for what has obviously been a difficult situation.

We are all painfully aware of the lack of funding across all social services and the massive cuts to school budgets but no one has come to talk to us about this, or to try and explain these challenges. Lessons in diplomacy are clearly, seriously lacking within the official realms of our Lewes Council. We have felt purely as numbers on a bit of data. It has been a sad, an undermining and a frustrating process, being left to pick up the pieces of one politician’s whim, when we were by no means even the smallest village school in the county. In truth I think we were the unfortunate victims of bad political timing, the consultation going ahead in the wave of the Government’s plans to Academise schools and as Rodmell Primary would never fit into the Academy Model, our small village school was clearly under the radar, as many others are as well as those that have similarly been closed. Now, after all has been said and nearly done, accountability has become my main concern. I have fought hard for our school: I have campaigned, petitioned, painted. I have stamped my feet, I have, with my children, walked the streets of Lewes, placards held high. I have shouted. I have shed my tears, I have done my grieving (mostly). I know this is one of life’s little turns, that we will all move on, the children will adjust, we will all adjust. But for now, I would like the council to acknowledge the pain they have caused, to be held accountable for all of us parents and pupils who have had our lives turned upside down, but especially, to be held accountable for the few remaining pupils in our amazing, wonderful school. Those who haven’t been offered a school place, who are still in limbo there. The policy of the county is that every child who lives within it should be offered ‘a good school place’. Rodmell CE Primary is no longer that for the remaining pupils, not because of the teaching – the quality of teaching has been and remains outstanding and we have an amazing teaching team – but because a ‘good school place’ is not just the academic education, it is the rounded education where you have your friends and it is familiar, where you know who your playmates are and they are there every day, where there is a community. Our little community has been ripped apart and these remaining few pupils need, as much as anyone, to find a new community for friendship and emotional security. After the end of this academic year there will possibly be just a handful of children still on roll. It seems farcical the council should even consider the option of keeping the school open in this situation when education finances are in such a terrible state and this was the likely real reason for the closure plans. And what kind of a school life will it be?

Please, give the remaining children the school places they deserve for the next academic year, even if this means going over the legal numbers in key stage 1. Don’t let the council drag this out for another year.

Thank you for reading this. It was longer than intended. I hope I have explained myself and that you understand why I needed to send this email.

There has been a lot of anger, sadness and frustration amongst parents and carers and I have felt the need to voice these feelings. Never before have I, personally, felt like such a pawn in some greater game plan than in this instance, nor have I felt so keenly how powerless, apparently, we actually are in our endeavours to shape our families’ futures. Quite simply, it has felt like we don’t count. This is a deeply uncertain time in education and the lives of our children, the future workforce of the country. We need to get it right and allow each child to thrive and develop their full potential. Please help this to happen.

Georgina Hickey

Whiteways Cottages