'I will do everything in my power to stop the closure' - MP supports school campaigners
PUBLISHED: 16:47 12 July 2019 | UPDATED: 15:05 27 July 2019
The proposed closure of a village school in Suffolk should be "halted immediately", a government minister has said, as the campaign to fight the plans gains momentum.
Beck Row Primary Academy, in Beck Row, near Mildenhall, could shut with pupils being sent to Great Heath Academy in Mildenhall as part of a government pilot scheme to turn educational sites into housing.
Parents and school governors at Beck Row have expressed their shock over the proposal that emerged after documents were leaked following a presentation by LocatEd, the Department for Education's property company.
It is understood the Academy Transformation Trust - which runs both schools - is in early discussions with the Department for Education (DfE) over the plans.
West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock, secretary of state for health and social care, said he "strongly opposes" the threatened closure of Beck Row school, which has about 200 pupils.
He said: "I am completely opposed to the wrong-headed proposal to relocate Beck Row Academy to Great Heath Academy in Mildenhall.
"We should be doing everything possible to retain our wonderful tradition of village schools, not closing them without justification.
"These plans should be halted immediately, and if not I will do everything in my power to stop the closure."
The presentation documents, which have been seen by this publication, do not name the schools, but aerial images reveal Mildenhall airbase and highlight two school sites.
It is understood the anonymised case study was used in the presentation to explain the concept of the pilot and to help schools to consider the potential use of surplus land on their own estates.
A Department for Education spokesman said: "The pilot scheme identifies opportunities for schools that have surplus land to rebuild or improve education facilities with significant condition issues.
"It will focus on areas of England which have a high housing need to explore if the surplus land can be released to contribute to the cross-government Public Land for Housing Programme.
"How individual projects will be delivered will be specific to the site. This work is still in its early stages, every potential site has a number of options being explored and none are yet confirmed. The decision on how to proceed will always be the school and landowner's choice."
Sarah Mower, a parent governor at Beck Row Primary Academy, has launched a petition to save the school, which has gained more than 1,400 signatures.
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She said: "It's come as quite a shock. The school itself has been in Beck Row for generations. Generations of my family have gone there. It's a very fast-growing village as well. We have already had numerous housing estates built over the last few years."
The 37-year-old, who has two boys at the school, added: "It's great the local councillors and Matt Hancock have got involved."
Councillors back the campaign to save the school
Suffolk County Councillor Louis Busuttil, who represents Mildenhall, said he would be against Suffolk County Council releasing the land for this proposed school merger.
Amongst his reasons, he said the pupil numbers at the two schools are forecast to rise and both are "very well managed".
Mr Busuttil, who is on the governing bodies of both schools, said: "I can tell you they are both good schools - that's not me talking, that's Ofsted talking. Great Heath is already rated by Ofsted as being good and Beck Row is en route to get a good rating. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Councillor John Smith, district councillor for Beck Row, said "we will campaign to the end".
"It's almost like they have identified it as a vacant site, an under-used site, and it's the complete opposite."
What the Academy Transformation Trust has said
A spokesman for the ATT said: "We are at a very early stage of considering our future plans, but before any decision is taken we are absolutely committed to an extensive consultation with our valued school community, the local community including Mr Hancock as the MP, and the local authority, in order to take all views into account.
"We will be working closely with all of these groups and will keep them regularly updated. Our overarching priority in any decision the trust takes is that it is in the best interests of the children we serve."
What the landowner, Suffolk County Council has said
A spokesman for Suffolk County Council said: "We are currently awaiting plans and more detail from LocatED on this so we can understand the proposals further."