Warning over school closures

EDUCATION bosses could be forced to axe a number of Suffolk's primary schools if they fail to find solutions to funding and organisational problems, it has been warned.

EDUCATION bosses could be forced to axe a number of Suffolk's primary schools if they fail to find solutions to funding and organisational problems, it has been warned.

But Suffolk County Council denied it was set for a repeat of the school cuts seen 20 years ago and said closing schools would be "a last resort".

The Local Education Authority (LEA) has called for a debate between governing bodies, headteachers and parents on how to tackle the issues facing primary schools – particularly those in rural areas.

They include rising numbers of unfilled places, problems recruiting headteachers and the prospect of grouping schools together under the control of "superheads".

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The county council's executive committee, which agreed to distribute a consultative paper about the issues, raised concerns about the problems that forced a rash of state school closures in the 1980s.

John Sculpher, the council's school organisation manager, said the LEA was facing a "completely different" situation to 20 years ago.

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But he could not rule out school closures, and admitted that difficulties recruiting headteachers to village schools and low numbers of pupils posed a threat to rural education.

"There is certainly a difficulty with recruitment and we have had particular schools where we have had no applications for a vacancy," he said.

"Being headteacher of a small school is a very difficult job and the workload and salary does not make it a very attractive option. If you cannot recruit a head then you have got to take more radical steps. There is ultimately a threat to the school's survival."

Mr Sculpher said dwindling numbers of children in smaller schools could see the Government acting to cut surplus places. Suffolk has 256 primary schools, with 21 having 50 or less pupils. The smallest has 22 pupils.

But he added the LEA aimed to find alternative ways of preventing school cuts, including extending their community links, sharing facilities and forming federations – where one "superhead" could run a group of small schools.

"The last resort would be school closures, but we are looking at it from the other end of the scale," said Mr Sculpher.

In the early 1980s, area reviews of schools resulted in the closure of a number of primary schools including Westbridge Infants School in Ipswich and Springlands Primary in Sudbury.

Mr Sculpher said: "In the past schools were looked at to see if they were viable units – would it be better if they were closed or amalgamated? That has changed dramatically."

Chris Harrison, Suffolk secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said: "I would not describe the situation as a threat to schools – it is more of a challenge in the way education is being organised and delivered. We need to be innovative and creative in terms of the school curriculum and of financial management," he said.

The county's headteachers have already voiced fears about primary school budgets for 2003/04, which could force them to cut staff and specialist classes.

David Peachey , Suffolk's director of education, admitted schools faced a "complex and difficult" year, even though the LEA had given them an extra £28.3 million.

Councillor Tony Lewis, the council's portfolio holder for children and young people, said the council wanted to avoid a situation where children would have to travel miles to school.

He added: "We're not talking about having to close small schools. What we are trying to do is to keep small schools open against these challenges that we have identified, such as headteacher recruitment and coping with the complexities of school finances."

He said the consultative paper was a way of opening up the debate to the wider community.

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