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Stowmarket: Concern over new classrooms being fit for purpose

09:32 27 February 2013

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NEW classrooms built as part of Suffolk’s controversial schools shake-up may not be fit for purpose, parents fear.

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Heads ‘not told to stay away’

AT yesterday’s cabinet session Graham Newman faced accusations that headteachers had been “leaned on” to discourage them from attending a heated meeting about school closures.

Mr Newman said school leaders and governors had not been under any pressure to stay away from what turned out to be a tempestuous School Organisation Review (SOR) meeting in Bury St Edmunds on Tuesday night.

He did, however, acknowledge that heads in the Bury pyramid had been sent an email telling them they “should not feel obliged to attend” the session, organised by Suffolk Action for Truth on SOR (SATS), which was attended by council’s education top brass.

He said: “Heads were told that they were not obliged to attend last night - it was up to them to decide whether they attend or not.”

Schools in Bury St Edmunds will be the last to undergo the transition to a two-tier set-up and at Monday’s meeting at the Apex in Bury SATS campaigners called for the move to be scrapped altogether.

Extra facilities must now be built at primary and high schools in the Stowmarket and Stowupland area to accommodate more pupils after it was confirmed yesterday four middle schools – Stowmarket, Combs, Needham Market and Bacton – will close in 2015.

Graham Newman, the county’s head of education, insisted the new buildings would be up to scratch – but conceded less money was now available for the changes in the area than had been spent in other parts of the county which have already completed their phase of School Organisation Review (SOR).

It has led to fears that the extra classrooms will not be good enough, but Mr Newman said: “I accept that they are not ‘Rolls-Royce’ buildings but they are certainly a car that will get you from A to B.”

Last night, Bury St Edmunds MP David Ruffley said he would be pressing the council to ensure accommodation was up to standard.

“The critical question I will be asking is ‘Have you got as much money as possible to deliver good accommodation at what will be expanded primary and expanded secondary schools?’. It’s my job to ensure that as much money as possible is devoted to expanding the schools.”

Suffolk County Council’s cabinet voted unanimously yesterday in favour of continuing with the next phase of the SOR, despite pleas from parents and opposition councillors to delay the decision.

It will see the closure of Stowmarket, Combs, Needham Market and Bacton middle schools, with pupils staying on for two more years at the area’s 13 existing primary schools – as well as a planned new primary school – before moving on to high school at Stowupland or Stowmarket at the age of 11.

Mr Newman argued the transition to two-tier education would help raise attainment by reducing the disruption to pupils through having to change schools twice.

He said parts of Suffolk where the SOR had been completed had already shown signs of progress and improved grades.

But concerned parents, speaking before the vote, urged the cabinet to postpone the decision.

Issues raised at the meeting included the fears about the quality of new classrooms, pupils’ safety when walking to and from school and worries about parking around some primary schools, which will have to accommodate up to 60 extra pupils.

Councillor Gary Green, who represents Stowmarket North and Stowupland, said he was concerned that plans to operate Stowmarket High School on a split site – using some of the buildings of the current Stowmarket Middle School – could lead to a drop in attainment.

He referred to The Denes High School in Lowestoft which was rated “good” by Ofsted in 2009 but since SOR concluded in the area – and the school moved to a split-site operation – it had been downgraded and placed in special measures.

He said: “What we need to know is what measures will be in place to ensure this doesn’t happen in Stowmarket. There’s 50% less money being spent than in the Sudbury area. This again doesn’t seem fair and doesn’t seem justified. Why not wait until the appropriate money for the job is there.”

Mr Newman said there were plenty of examples of split-site schools working very well and actually improving.

He added: “If we postpone this I think the money will be frittered away and spent on other things – that’s the last thing I want.”

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