Battle for the children of Saul

Country Matters
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The Independent Culture
Everyone knows what "SOS" means. But now a band of doughty campaigners in the Severn Vale, close to Gloucester, has adopted "SSS" as their scarcely less desperate slogan. The letters stand for "Save Saul School", and signify a gallant fight by ordinary people to resist the bulldozers of bureaucracy.

Along with its neighbours Fretherne, Framilode and Arlingham, the village of Saul lies in flat farmland bounded to the east by the Sharpness and Gloucester canal, and to the west by the Severn, which swings round in a U-shaped bend. Because of its isolation, that stretch of gentle meadows and rough hedges seems a world away from the mainland over the water.

Saul Church of England Primary School was founded in 1818, and today is conspicuously successful in both academic and social terms. Now the only school west of the canal, it has just over 100 pupils aged from four to 11. The latest Ofsted report paid tribute to the hard work and professionalism of its teachers, praised the "secure and happy atmosphere", and acknowledged that "the school is overwhelmingly popular with parents".

Yet the Local Education Authority at Gloucester is hell-bent on closing it. So is its board of governors. So are the local MP, David Drew (Labour), and the local district councillor, Steve Greenwood (also Labour). Their reason is that they want Saul to be amalgamated with nearby Frampton, where the present school may be reconstructed or extended with temporary classrooms.

Members of SSS find the apparent hostility of the authorities hard to understand; but they are convinced that the county has had it in for their school ever since 1971, when the original brick building was suddenly demolished after parts of the roof had been declared to be dangerous. Only a vigorous protest staved off the council's plan to close the establishment down.

Temporary classrooms went up on the site, and today, 28 years later, they are still in use. Everybody agrees that they are inadequate. One of them - a metal horror consisting of three caravans bolted together and known as "the biscuit tin" - is acknowledged to be a health hazard. Nevertheless, the school is flourishing as never before, and - irony of ironies - attracting pupils away from Frampton, which has superior facilities, but a regime that impresses parents far less. Whereas Saul is bursting at its seams, Frampton is 20 children short of capacity.

The argument now raging is over what should replace Saul's outdated premises. The campaigners are resolutely opposed to the official plan for a combined new school at Frampton. One reason is that the site lies beyond the canal, which can be crossed only on a bridge with no pavements. At present, about 40 of Saul's children walk to and from school. If the council's plan went through, it would be too dangerous for any to walk, and all would have to go by car or bus, thus putting more traffic into narrow lanes and breaking the valuable walking habit.

Yet perhaps the most powerful reason for wanting to maintain the status quo is social rather than educational. During the Thirties, Saul had two pubs, a grocer, a greengrocer and a sweet shop. Today, all those have gone and the school is the only institution that provides a focus for the village. Its elimination would knock out the heart of an already fragile community. A ballot revealed more than 200 households in favour of retaining the school, and only 17 willing to see it go. Parents voted by more than 14 to one in favour of retention.

Local irritation is increased by the nature of the arguments advanced against giving Saul new buildings. The claims are so specious as to make people suspect the existence of some hidden agenda. One argument is that the site is liable to flooding. Certainly it is low-lying, and there is a theoretical risk of inundation; but the fact remains that the school has never been flooded in the 181 years of its existence. Another contention is that the site is too small. At present it is very cramped, but the Kirkwood family, which owns the large field immediately behind, has already made a piece of ground available for a play area and has indicated that it will sell further land if it is wanted.

Yet another alleged problem is that the site is in a conservation area, right next to the long, low and splendid Church of St James, a Grade One structure dating from 1150. Nobody denies that the present school buildings are an eyesore; but a well-designed successor would surely be a more appropriate neighbour for the church than the only realistic alternative - a scatter of modern houses.

In the eyes of the lobbyists, one of their principal opponents is the Rev Peter Cheesman, vicar of Frampton and all the other villages concerned (and ex officio a governor of both the schools), who remains adamant that the Saul site is not suitable for permanent buildings.

He concedes that the problem is "a very difficult one, and there is pain involved". But he argues that "decisions have to be taken in the light of the future, not just based on the present position", and that the wasteful imbalance of demand, "the see-saw of numbers", is bound to continue if there are two similar schools so close together.

Now time is running out and tempers are running high. Several parents have publicly stated that, if Saul is thrown in with Frampton, they will take their children away. The county council has issued closure notices, and the SSS group is now pinning its hopes on an appeal to the Secretary of State. Their main hope must be that David Blunkett will stand by recent government directives to keep local schools open on the grounds that they play an invaluable role in holding small communities together.