Save our schools: Fight on Wight over closures

A radical programme of school reorganisation has sparked warfare on the Isle of Wight – and shone a light on contradictions at the heart of government policy on rural provision. Steve McCormack reports
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The Independent Online

To the outsider, Arreton St George's Church of England Primary School, in the middle of the Isle of Wight, looks like a perfect setting for children to start their schooling. Cradled in gently rolling hills, within a stone's throw of the 12th-century Anglican church and local pub, the school stands at the heart village life. Its 86 pupils, as they hurtle out of their classrooms for lunchtime play, have a wonderfully open area in which to stretch their legs and draw lungfuls of fresh air.

Only last September, the school was substantially enhanced with an investment of £1.4m in two new classrooms, a kitchen and a refurbished computer suite. When Ofsted's inspectors visited in January, they rated the school outstanding, the highest grade possible, noting consistently high-quality teaching, the impressive personal development of the pupils, and the school's excellent links with outside bodies.

Ofsted reports don't come much better.

Imagine, then, the shock of teachers, pupils and parents when Arreton appeared on a list of schools that the Isle of Wight's politicians want to shut down. It is scheduled to close under plans for reorganising the island's schools proposed by the council's controlling Conservative group. The proposals, which are designed to save money and improve results, have provoked a wave of protest. They are due to be voted on next Wednesday.

"I find the idiocy of it particularly galling," says Sarah Green, a hospital doctor and the mother of a seven-year-old girl at Arreton school. "The councillors seem to want to wipe out everything and start with a clean slate, and they're naive enough to think that pockets of high standards, such as the one we have here, can simply be reproduced."

The proposed reorganisation affects the three levels of schooling on the island – primary, middle and secondary. All three options put forward by the council entail the complete closure of almost half of the 46 primary schools, and the relocation of many on new sites. Most of the high schools, which take Year 9 upwards, would have to close and reopen as conventional secondary schools.

This wholesale redrawing of the Isle of Wight's school map is needed, according to the Tory council leader David Pugh, because of three serious fault lines running through the local education system: chronically poor exam results, particularly at GCSE and A-level; indifferent leadership in some schools, and a surplus of places caused by declining numbers of children entering the system. "We don't want to sit around in the vain hope that things will improve by themselves," he says. "It's time that we finally made a decision. The island does need to change."

The extent of the closures required is made worse by the Isle of Wight's three-tier system which, under two of the options being considered, would change to two tiers. The third solution involves a radical rejig of the three-tier arrangement.

Alan Wells, the cabinet member for education and Pugh's key political ally, argues that sweeping structural reform is the only way the island's schools will be able to raise standards. "We make no apology for doing this," he says. "A change of structure will unlock a number of changes. We will have stronger leadership, a smoother transition for pupils moving between schools, and we'll be able to offer more choice to students post-14.

"In addition, we will be able to realign funding so that we get fairness for all pupils on the island."

Some island schools have only 20 or 30 pupils, and hence consume, in spending per head, much more than the bigger schools. But the parent protesters say this factor is being applied too brutally.

"We absolutely support efficiency, but I just don't believe that the cost per pupil has to be the be all and end all," says Green.

And Paul Critchley, a former teacher, with four children spread around the school system agrees: "Everyone on the island accepts that a small number – maybe five – schools may need to close; but 23 just doesn't make sense. It'll be a disaster."

The widespread shock at the extent of the plans has galvanised what were several disparate educational pressure groups on the island– each with its own campaigning platform – into a united and voluble force. The common message is that all three options are too severe, amounting to mass slaughter of schools.

Thousands of people have attended rallies outside council buildings in the island's main town, Newport. Public meetings, staged as part of the council's consultation process, were so full that people had to be turned away, and the island's newspaper and local radio station have been inundated with letters and phone calls. This Saturday, campaigners plan to march to the council's headquarters, where they'll form a "wall of protest", with large banners representing every threatened school.

At the heart of the opposition campaign is financial adviser and part-time coastguard Chris Welsford, also with four school-age children. He is pressurising councillors to consider a fourth option at their meeting next week. This would halt all the existing closure plans, while an island-wide referendum would give people the choice between two reform packages, both focusing on classroom improvements rather than structural surgery.

"I'm angered at the way the politicians have decided what they want to do, and fixed the consultation process to match it," he says.

For the chair of governors at Arreton, Sarah Bishop, however, the experience of fighting the proposals has not been entirely negative. "The process of opposition has actually been a very positive one. It's made us look at the strengths of the school and it's really brought the community together."

Across the island, anger has been heightened by some of the council's tactics: in particular the way head teachers were told of their potential fate. Summoned, en masse, to a breakfast meeting in an island hotel – governors weren't allowed to accompany them – they were handed letters outlining the implications of all three options. Many, apparently, wept openly on hearing that their schools and jobs faced the axe.

"The heads are quaking in their boots," one school governor said.

Far from offering reassurance, however, Steve Beynon, the chief education officer, criticised the calibre of some school leaders. "There are some heads, particularly at middle and high schools, who are just not strong enough," he says. "Things have been fairly comfortable and mediocre on the island for too long."

The council's press officers have also been put in the unusual position of highlighting deficiencies in the island's education system to justify the need for change. Unprompted, one told me of the "very, very poor" performance of secondary schools at GCSE. Council press officers are not normally given to running down the schools in their bailiwicks, which suggests this is part of a concerted campaign.

So what are the exam results like? Some 42.1 per cent of 16-year-olds get five good GCSEs including English and maths. This is less than five percentage points below the national average of 46.7 per cent, and the recent trend is firmly upwards. Moreover, unlike in most areas of the country, there are no schools on the island whose results sink anywhere as low as the 30 per cent mark, considered by the Government to be the bare minimum.

But it is not only councillors and parents who are at one another's throats. The row on the island has revealed deep splits in the ruling Conservative party which have erupted into open warfare. It has its roots in the council election of 2005 that saw the Conservatives sweep to power after what most on the island understood to be a manifesto pledge not to change the system or to close schools. Nine of the 40 Conservative councillors have now set up a rebel group, because they feel the plans put forward by Pugh and Wells break that promise.

One of them, Win McRobert, accuses Pugh of sending highly critical emails to colleagues who questioned his approach. "Pugh and his supporters have a blinkered attitude and are not listening to what the people are saying, which is what I thought democracy was all about," she says.

Pugh and Wells counter that their election manifesto pledge was to refrain from closures only until a sustainable solution to the island's education problems was developed. And they say no firm decisions have yet been taken.

The island's Tory MP, Andrew Turner, is also unhappy. "I can't support any of the options because I believe the inevitable disruption that will come with wholesale change will depress standards, not improve them," he explains.

Despite the Conservatives' turmoil, life is not much more comfortable for Jim Knight, Labour's Schools Minister. The Isle of Wight saga of small schools being forced to close is mirrored in several other counties, including Shropshire, Kent and Suffolk, and the actions have drawn attention to what many see as contradictory messages from Knight's department.

In December, the Department for Children, Schools and Families told councils that they should not maintain schools with empty places. But in January, Knight himself wrote to all authorities reminding them of their statutory duty to have a "presumption" that rural schools would not close. "It's unacceptable for them to propose closing popular, successful schools which parents want to send their children to, if they have not fully looked at alternative uses or consulted their communities," he said.

His words underline a recurrent dilemma for education policymakers: how to keep parents happy while at the same time controlling how taxpayers' money is spent.