Closure of school could be delayed but not halted

Acklington CofE First School

Councillors have recommended delaying the closure of a north Northumberland village first school by eight months – but that it should still go ahead.

As we reported last week, Northumberland County Council’s decision-making cabinet is recommended to approve the proposal of the governing body to close Acklington CofE First School.

The initial proposal was for the closure to take effect at the end of this year – December 31, but at this morning’s meeting of the council’s family and children’s services scrutiny committee, a majority of members were concerned that this was not an appropriate timescale.

Therefore, while voting by seven to zero to recommend the closure, against the wish of parents, members did vote by six to three to suggest that the school stays open until the end of the academic year (August 31, 2018).

The final decision will be made at the cabinet’s meeting next Tuesday.

Despite the first school becoming part of the James Calvert Spence College (JCSC) hard federation in 2015 to support it and reduce overheads, the falling pupil numbers meant the governors launched a consultation on closure in May. At that time, there were 13 pupils on roll, but that has now fallen to just eight.

Introducing the report to councillors, Andy Johnson, the authority’s interim director of children’s services, said: “The ability of a school to deliver a curriculum to a very small cohort of pupils is always a challenge.”

This was also discussed by JCSC’s executive headteacher, Neil Rodgers, alongside the impact on children’s social and emotional development.

“We understand that closure of any school is very emotive,” he said. “No one is pleased about this at all.”

Unsurprisingly, finances and the viability of the school with so few students, when funding is based on pupil numbers, was also a key issue when governors made their proposals.

Mr Rodgers said: “We didn’t feel it was fair to take money from students in Amble to subsidise the education of 13 pupils, as it was at that time.”

Having two or three pupils per year group is ‘just not a sustainable model’, he concluded. “It’s reluctantly and with regret that governors feel that closure is the only viable option.”

However, parents don’t feel that the governing body ‘has taken the necessary time or actions to consider alternative options’, according to Steven Bush, who spoke at today’s meeting.

He questioned why the governors didn’t start consulting until May when an informal decision had been taken in December 2016 and also said that it offered an opportunity for the local authority to explore options for alternative education.

“Closure at the end of December 2017 is clearly not based on the wellbeing of the children,” Mr Bush added. “Continuing to the end of the academic year would give the children the continuity they deserve and allow other options to be fully explored.”

In a statement provided by local ward member, Coun Jeff Watson, he suggested that a delay to the summer should be considered if closure is to be approved and Mr Johnson confirmed that the committee and the cabinet should certainly consider if it was appropriate.

And this was the feeling of a majority of the members. Coun Deidre Campbell said: “It’s wrong to uproot children in the middle of the winter.”

Concerns were also raised that the Church of England has not responded formally, although Mr Johnson will ask again prior to the cabinet meeting next week. A ‘very disappointed’ Mr Bush said: “The church has washed its hands of the school.”

There are places available for the eight pupils across the other first and primary schools in the Coquet Partnership.

If the closure is approved, part of Acklington’s catchment area would be incorporated into Broomhill First School’s as the nearest school (1.3 miles) and part would be incorporated into that of Warkworth CofE Primary School as the closest Church of England school offering primary education (2.9 miles). The council would guarantee transport to these schools for eligible pupils.

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