Alan Charles replies to Tom Levitt

You will remember that Tom Levitt wrote to Alan Charles. Here is Alan Charles' reply in full.

Our Ref: AFC/TLJ/4675
14 June 2007

Dear Tom

Thank you for your letter of 25 May asking a number of questions in relation to the proposed closure of Combs Infant School. My responses are as follows:

1. What impact would closure have on the county’s finances and surplus place reduction programme?

As with all small school closures, the individual impact of any single closure is marginal. The total budget for Combs Infant School this year is £136,181. If all the children were to transfer to alternative Local Authority maintained schools in Derbyshire the approximate saving per year may be calculated in simple terms by taking the difference between the cost per pupil at Combs (£5,447) and the average cost per infant child (£2,635) multiplied by the number of Children. At Combs this amounts to £73,112. Our accountants have carried out a more sophisticated analysis and have arrived at a ‘savings’ figure of £87,000
[Note 1]. Opponents of the proposal have quoted a figure of £53,000 based on the funding per child at Chapel Primary School (their funding is higher owing to the ERS provision at the school). Whatever figure is used we would accept that the savings are marginal, especially when calculated in terms of the difference this will make to the funding per child across the County. However, that is always going to be the case when a primary school closure is being proposed, and if we followed that argument we wouldn’t close any schools. The Adjudicator for Stoney Middleton acknowledged that the marginal effect of a single school closure on finances was not a reason for rejecting closure:- “Objectors argue that the savings are very small relative to the Council’s overall budget. This is true, but is not an argument for not making those savings.”

A similar argument applies with regard to the effect on surplus places. The effect of closing one small school will always be negligible, but the overall effect of rationalising provision across a number of schools would be significant.

2. What other measures could be used to reduce surplus places?

As indicated in the consultation paper there are currently 60 surplus places at Chapel en le Frith CE Primary School. There are probably ways in which remodelling could be undertaken to reduce that figure, but this would not address the issue of whether it is equitable to keep such a small village school open at such a high funding level per pupil when such a small number of pupils (currently 10) live in the area. As I said clearly at the public meeting, we would not be proposing the closure of this school if it was genuinely providing an education for children living in the normal area. We would acknowledge that the number on roll at Combs is relatively stable, but only as a result of a majority of parents bringing their children to the village from outside the normal area, mostly (13) from the Chapel en le Frith area.

We would consider Federation as an option if the School could put forward a proposal in conjunction with one of its neighbouring schools, but there are no natural partners that we can envisage for this to be a realistic proposal, as outlined in the consultation paper. Also, I cannot see how this would address the issues which form the basis of the closure proposal.

The projections of future pupil numbers are based on the evidence we have regarding pie-school children living in the area, together with a ‘popularity’ factor which assesses the number of children attending from outside the normal area. At the consultation meeting one of the Governors suggested that there were larger cohorts of children of pre¬school age. We have asked the Governors to provide evidence of that as our data does not suggest that the current picture will change in the foreseeable future. If such evidence can be produced that will of course be a significant issue for the Authority to consider.

3. How have you calculated the net travel costs and carbon footprint implications of closure?

We have said in the consultation paper that “A significant proportion of the pupils at Combs Infant School travel from outside of the school’s normal area to attend this school. Hence the closure of Combs Infant School is unlikely to increase journeys.” This is based on the assumption that children would attend their normal area school if Combs were to close, Of course, we cannot guarantee that that would happen. We have acknowledged that if the current school bus arrangements are not satisfactory on health and safety grounds for infant aged children we would need to consider an alternative arrangement for any children attending Chapel CE Primary School from the village of Combs. This would also ensure that the journey time was reduced significantly.

4. Does DCC have the final say?

Yes — at this stage the Authority is only at an initial consultation stage. No decision has been taken regarding the publication of a statutory proposal to close the school. For any statutory proposals published from now on the Regulations introduced by the 2006 Act will apply. So if it is decided to proceed with the publication of a statutory notice in September, the Local Authority will be the decision maker as specified in the new Regulations. If, following that statutory consultation period, the Authority determined to approve the closure, the Church of England Diocese or the Catholic Diocese could refer the matter to the Schools Adjudicator. The only other appeal mechanism would be a judicial review.

5. Parental choice: are not all but one of the nearest school to Combs faith schools?

Chapel en le Frith, Dove Holes, and Taxal and Fernilee are Church of England Controlled schools. Whaley Bridge is a community school and Chinley is a Foundation school. There is therefore a mix of alternatives in the area although I accept that this is ‘weighted’ towards the CE voluntary schools. Whaley Bridge is not oversubscribed; the Planned Admission Number is 36 and for September 2007 there were 23 applicants for places on the ‘offer day’, 22 from the normal area and 1 sibling. So if parents strongly object to a Church controlled school place, there is a community school alternative. The differences between a CE controlled school and a community school are marginal. I could understand this being more of an issue with a church aided school, where the Church’s involvement is much greater.

6. Is there a presumption in favour of ‘excellent’ schools being protected in the Act?

Not specifically; certainly not in the same way as the specific reference to protecting rural schools. The Regulations state; “The Government’s aim is to transform our school system so that every child receives an excellent education — whatever their background and wherever they live. A vital part of the Government’s vision is to create a more diverse school system offering excellence and choice, sense of mission and a centre of excellence or specialist provision.”
[Note 2]

7. How do you assess the impact of closure on a rural community?

This will be a key issue for the Cabinet to consider when a decision is taken on moving forward with the proposal. As you will be aware, there is a presumption against the closure of rural schools and the impact on the local community is one of the issues which must be considered. We have received a response from the Chair of the Village Hall Trustees expressing the Trustees’ concerns about the future viability of this facility and officers have discussed the financial position further with him as part of the consultation process. The Trustees will be submitting a detailed response in writing.

I appreciate the political considerations outlined in the final part of your letter, and the next report to Cabinet will certainly consider all the issues you have raised and will be in the public domain. It will be a difficult decision and the evidence gathered will be scrutinised closely before that decision is reached. I anticipate that the report summarising the responses and determining whether or not to proceed to the next stage — the publication of a Statutory Notice — will be submitted to Cabinet in August or early September. If a Notice is published there will be a statutory six week period for the submission of responses. A further report would then be submitted to Cabinet, probably in December.

Yours sincerely

Alan Charles

Note 1
DCC have been asked to explain this 'sophisiticated' analysis. Why wasn't it made available at the start of the consultation process?

Note 2
Closing Combs School will be the eradication of a centre of excellence. The guidance was emphasised by the reply to Tom Levitt's written Parliamentary question: "When deciding proposals to close a school the local authority must take account of statutory guidance issued by the Secretary of State. The guidance does not specify the weightings that decision-makers should apply to the various factors they take into account, but it makes clear that they must be satisfied that closing the school would contribute to raising the standard of provision locally and lead to improved attainment for children. The statutory guidance also includes a presumption against closing rural primary schools. Although this does not mean that no rural primary school will ever close, the case for closure needs to be strong."

The Secretary of State for Education has said recently, in relation to this issue: "We do encourage Local Authorities to take action to remove surplus places, as empty places can be poor use of resources, but our guidance makes clear that their removal must support the core agenda of raising standards and respect parents wishes by seeking to match school places with parental choices."