Rural Suffolk schools to stay open despite falling numbers

EDUCATION bosses have pledged to keep rural primary schools open despite falling pupil numbers and a high number of spare places.

Richard Smith

EDUCATION bosses have pledged to keep rural primary schools open despite falling pupil numbers and a high number of spare places.

Latest figures show that some primaries are only half-full of pupils - leading to fears that smaller schools may be closed or merged.

There are 82 primary schools in the county with at least 25% spare capacity, many of which are in rural locations.


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They include Peasenhall Primary (68% surplus places), Ringsfield (60%), Ringshall (60%), Snape (58%), Benhall (57%) and Middleton (57%).

The maximum level of surplus places recommended by the Government is 10%.

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Fewer than 10 primary schools across the county are fully or over-subscribed.

Suffolk County Council said the high number of unfilled spaces was largely due to falling birth rates and the move from a three-tier to a two-tier system in certain areas of the county would boost primary schools' numbers.

But campaigners said rural schools were suffering because families were struggling to afford to live in villages with high house prices.

Last year, Cookley and Walpole Primary School, near Halesworth, was forced to close as pupil numbers had fallen into single figures.

Dr Wil Gibson, chief executive of rural charity Suffolk Acre, said there was “always a threat” to rural schools.

“The county council has a good record of supporting rural schools but there is the issue of how you maintain these schools without rural communities having a provision of housing for young families.

“We need to ensure the houses are there for people to stay in villages and raise their families in those communities - otherwise we may lose local schools. It is vitally important to keep them open.”

The council said it was focussing on ways of making rural primaries “sustainable for the future”.

But it insisted it was “committed” to keeping primaries open and was considering measures such as schools sharing staff or resources.

Overall, the number of surplus places in Suffolk schools last year was 17%, a slight fall from the previous year.

But spare capacity has proved a problem in the county for a number of years and the council said it was tackling the issue by a range of measures, including the School Organisation Review, which is proposing to close the county's 40 middle schools - a move which will increase the length of time children in the affected area stay on in primaries.

Proposals to merge three infant and primary schools in Felixstowe and Ipswich have also been suggested.

Patricia O'Brien, the council's portfolio holder for schools, said: “The number of young people needing schools places has reduced over the years and we therefore need to address the surplus capacity currently in our schools.

“We are tackling the issue through a number of projects, including the School Organisation Review.”

She said the number of spare places was “generally higher” in rural schools but she denied such schools could be facing the threat of closure.

“We are committed to retaining these schools and, through the School Organisation Review, are looking at ways to make them sustainable for the future,” she said.

“This could mean federating with other nearby schools which would give greater flexibility in use of staff and other resources.”

She said tackling surplus places across all schools was essential for the Government to give the county �750million for the Building Schools for the Future project and �100m through the Primary Capital scheme.

This will help the council bring primary schools up to modern standards. It has drawn up a list of priorities and costs, including more than �800,000 to improve Leiston Primary School, more than �400,000 to be spent on Sir Robert Hitcham Primary School in Debenham and more than �1m for Whitehouse Infant and Junior Schools in Ipswich.

The primary school programme is also looking at merging Fairfield Infant and Colneis Junior School in Felixstowe; Maidstone Infant and Causton Junior School in Felixstowe; and Castle Hill Infant and Castle Hill Junior School in Ipswich.

SCHOOLS WITH MORE THAN 40% SPARE PLACES

Peasenhall (68%)

Ringsfield (60%)

Ringshall (60%)

Snape (58%)

Great Heath, Mildenhall (57%)

The Willows, Ipswich (58%)

Barnby and North Cove (56%)

Benhall (57%)

Middleton (55%)

Whatfield (55%)

Badwell Ash (50%)

Yoxford (48%)

Whitton Green, Lowestoft (48%)

Hollesley (47%)

Tollgate, Bury St Edmunds (45%)

Whitton, Ipswich (44%)

Crawfords, Haughley (44%)

Somerleyton (44%)

Great Cornard (43%)

Tuddenham St Mary (43%)

Creeting St Mary (42%)

Cavendish (41%)

Southwold (40%)

Somersham (40%)

Great Waldingfield (40%)

Edgar Sewter, Halesworth (40%)

OVER-SUBSCRIBED OR FULL PRIMARY SCHOOLS

Brampton

Dennington

Holton St Peter

Henley

Dale Hall, Ipswich

St Mark's, Ipswich

Sidegate

Cedarwood, Kesgrave

Kersey

Risby

St Mary's, Woodbridge

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