Legal action threat over schools axe

EDUCATION chiefs have been threatened with legal action by councillors who claim consultation over plans to axe the county's middle schools was a “sham”.

Laurence Cawley

EDUCATION chiefs have been threatened with legal action by councillors who claim consultation over plans to axe the county's middle schools was a “sham”.

Yesterday it emerged Forest Heath District Council had hired the services of a barrister to look at whether the Conservative-led authority had a case against the Tory-run Suffolk County Council over its school organisation review.

Under the review, the county council plans to introduce a two-tier education system across the whole of Suffolk which would involve getting rid of all 40 middle schools.

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Forest Heath has written to the county council warning it was “minded” to seek a judicial review - in which a judge would decide on the lawfulness of a decision - over the consultation process carried out by the county council.

A case against the county council might also be lodged by Forest Heath with the Office of the Schools Adjudicator.

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The county council yesterday declined to comment on the matter.

Bill Bishop, one of a number of rebel Tories at Forest Heath who voted for legal action against the county council, said the barrister's advice was that Forest Heath would have a 55% chance of winning a judicial review and the result would have repercussions across the county.

He said: “The consultation exercise has been a sham.

“Tiers are not the problem, deprivation is. Some of the worst schools are in two-tier Ipswich and some of the best are in three-tier St Edmundsbury.

“I don't believe for one moment that Suffolk's education system is that bad. We shall also be taking this to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator.”

Tim Huggan, a Liberal Democrat councillor at Forest Heath who seconded the move to send the letter, said: “The barrister said basically because they had not made it clear that there was any option for retaining the three tier system the consultation would have ended up the way the county council wanted it to.

“There were no options for middle schools, especially in the early stages. It was only later when they realised there were protests that they started talking about options for middle schools.”

Conservative group leader, and leader of the council, Geoffrey Jaggard said: “The council is in the process of exploring whether judicial review would be an effective way of challenging the schools reorganisation consultation process.

“Undertaking a judicial review is costly - and those costs would be born by Forest Heath council tax payers.

“We need to be fully satisfied that this would be a sensible expenditure. Our difference with opposition members was over the wording of a letter to the county council seeking more information.”

Forest Heath will decide at a later date whether or not to begin legal proceedings.

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