Selwyn's call to arms

A CONSERVATIVE stalwart who fought against his own party to save Suffolk schools from closure 20 years ago has pledged to renew his fight if new cuts are threatened.

By Jonathan Barnes

A CONSERVATIVE stalwart who fought against his own party to save Suffolk schools from closure 20 years ago has pledged to renew his fight if new cuts are threatened.

Selwyn Pryor, a county councillor for 25 years, said he was "horrified" to hear small primary schools could be facing the axe if Suffolk County Council failed to solve funding problems.

The 66-year-old pledged to make a "nuisance of myself – again" to make sure "precious" rural schools were kept open.

Last week, the EADT revealed a number of small primary schools could be facing closure if the Local Education Authority (LEA) fails to meet the challenges threatening rural education, such as problems recruiting headteachers and surplus places.

Education bosses are set to decide the future of Gazeley Primary School, near Newmarket, which has just 25 pupils. Closing the school is one option the LEA is considering after it received a poor Ofsted report.

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For Mr Pryor, a former tea merchant, the scenario has echoes of the early 1980s when the ruling Tory party on Suffolk County Council adopted a policy to axe small primary schools.

The Conservative councillor said he was threatened with being thrown out of the group for voting against the controversial cuts. Some schools did close, but not nearly as many as planned by the LEA.

"I was furious about it and started fighting as hard as I could. To say it made ripples is to put it mildly, but the policy was immoral and wrong." said Mr Pryor, from Bures.

"Primary schools are the most important and it's vital children are educated in their home villages."

The campaign's success limited the closure of just a handful of schools, and Mr Pryor said: "I thought they had learned their lesson. It was very encouraging what we managed to achieve."

But he reacted with dismay after reading of a new threat to schools under the Labour-Liberal Democrat administration. "I could not believe my eyes. I just felt horror. It is absolutely awful."

Mr Pryor, who represents the Stour Valley ward, said the closures of primary schools in Assington and Polstead in the early 1980s had made a significant impact on village life, losing a key "focal point".

He believes the problem of recruiting headteachers to small rural schools – one of the challenges facing the LEA – could be helped by better use of council employees as stand-in heads at such schools.

Father-of-five Mr Pryor, a governor of Bures Primary School and chairman of Hamden Hostel in Sudbury, also thinks the LEA could raise vital funds by cutting bureaucracy and paperwork.

"I'm sure a lot of the paperwork isn't necessary and I don't believe there is no way they can find the money if they have the determination to keep schools going."

He added: "I don't think the LEA realises how far I am prepared to go to make myself a nuisance. That's not what I particularly want to do but nothing is too much for precious schools.

"I'm sure they will say I'm getting the wrong end of the stick and they will not be closing schools – but they are the ones who mentioned the word 'closure'.

"There are about 20 schools with less than 50 pupils in Suffolk. If they close Gazeley school the others will be thinking 'are we next?' We should make sure they are not."

Tony Lewis, the council's executive committee member with responsibility for schools, said Mr Pryor's fight against school cuts in the 1980s was against a "completely different" backdrop.

"The education scene then was completely different and the expectation of schools was completely different. We are dealing with challenges that face smaller schools," he said.

"Closing schools is a last resort. If, in our judgement, the education of children would be better served in a different school, that would be considered. We would not be talking about schools where there is no alternative."

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