Council ‘can’t win’ as schools consultation is branded ‘divisive’

West Sussex County Council found itself in a can’t-win situation when parents branded its consultation on local schools “damaging”.

Thursday, 1st October 2015, 7:27 am
Allison Murphy, head of Rydon Community College, and Nick Wergan, head of Steyning Grammar School
Allison Murphy, head of Rydon Community College, and Nick Wergan, head of Steyning Grammar School

The consultation was launched in July into plans to change the age children in Storrington Area Rural Schools (STARS) transferred to secondary school.

At a public meeting in Pulborough Village Hall on Monday (September 28), Councillor Jeremy Hunt, cabinet member for education and skills, defended the consultation and criticised one school for the stance it had taken during the process.

During the meeting, which was organised by the council and attended by more than 100 people, Jan James, who has children at Rydon Community College, said: “As a parent, I feel this consultation has been damaging greatly to the children’s education by putting against each other headteachers who have worked in collaboration over many, many years, and have worked tirelessly to build bridges.”

Rydon Community College march to Sullington Parish Hall before drop-in SUS-150907-162028001

Ms James said she felt not enough information had been given to explain the possible outcomes of the changes suggested, which had left people “making assumptions”.

With others expressing similar feelings, Mr Hunt pointed out it had been a “normal consultation process”.

He added: “If we had come out and said ‘we’re going to do x, y or z with your school’ you would have all jumped up and said ‘you haven’t even spoken to us’. The council is in a can’t-win situation.”

The panel at the meeting was made up of three headteachers – Julian Rose, of West Chiltington School, Allison Murphy, of Rydon Community College, and Nick Wergan, of Steyning Grammar School – and was chaired by Dr John Godfrey, deputy lieutenant for West Sussex.

A representative from Rydon presented the meeting with more than 1,000 letters supporting its desire to become a secondary school for 11-16-year-olds.

Mr Hunt, however, said there had been a lot of misinformation in the initial letter sent to residents by Rydon.

Addressing Mrs Murphy, he said: “You are blaming the council for stirring up ill will but the council has asked for your thoughts. It’s totally wrong.

“I understand and think you run an excellent school and I thank you for that – but I think it’s unfortunate the stance you have taken.”

Emotions at the meeting ran high with parents voicing support for their children’s schools and some wondering why the consultation had become so divisive.

Mr Wergan said: “It’s time to reassure parents that, while we may be having some public disagreement about structure, we’re working for your children with no change. We are working behind the scenes as we always do. Your children come absolutely first.”

Mr Rose put the ball in the council’s court by stating: “The time is well overdue for us to have some leadership at senior level from our local authority. We’ve tried hard to make it as good as we can and this elongated process has resulted in acrimony. We need some decisions quite quickly.”

Before the meeting closed, Mr Hunt said he hoped the council’s plans for the schools would be announced in early November, when the next stage of the consultation would begin.

Age of transfer consultation – background

Throughout West Sussex, children join Year 1 at primary school at the age of 5 and transfer to secondary at the end of Year 6, aged 11.

Known as the age of transfer, this matches the educational Key Stages within the National Curriculum – Key Stage 2 ends at the end of Year 6 and Key Stage 3 begins when the pupils join secondary school in Year 7.

The STARS area (Storrington Area Rural Schools) is the last place in the county where this does not happen.

Six of the schools take children aged 4-10 before they transfer to an intermediate school – Rydon Community College – until they are 13 when the majority then transfer to Steyning Grammar School.

In 2001, Ofsted advised the council to review its age of transfer to ensure consistency in the future. This was done in Crawley, Adur, Rother Valley and, most recently, Worthing.

The schools involved in the STARS consultation are Amberley CofE First, Ashington CofE First, Storrington First, Thakeham First, St Mary’s CofE First, Washington, West Chiltington Community and Rydon Community College.

Steyning Grammar School is also involved as a majority of pupils transfer there at the end of Year 8 to complete their secondary education.

Head describes trouble attracting staff

A headteacher has called for schools to conform to an all-through primary system to attract top-quality teachers.

Julian Rose, of West Chiltington School, spoke during a public meeting to discuss the future of the Storrington Area Rural Schools (STARS) on Monday (September 28).

Mr Rose told the meeting attracting and keeping high quality staff in the area was “no easy task”.

As an example, he explained how he had recently received only three applications for a teaching role, compared to 30 for a similar role three years ago.

Mr Rose said he wanted to see the area adopt the same all-through primary system as the rest of the county, which he felt would improve the performance of children. Currently, pupils transfer to intermediate school at 10 and then on to secondary school at 13.

He added: “At Level 4, children in our area under-perform compared to their statistical neighbours by as much as 10 per cent.

“If you have a school system where standards are at best standing still and at worst declining, how easy will it be to attract ambitious first-rate teachers?”

Delight over support for Rydon

More than 1,000 people have thrown their support behind Rydon Community College’s bid to become a secondary school.

Last week, some 12,000 letters were sent to residents in the RH20 area explaining the college’s ambitions.

Rydon’s chairman of governors Alan Brien said that, out of the 1,454 responses received so far, 1,405 supported the secondary school call.

Mr Brien said: “The county council has to decide now whether to formally propose any changes to local education and we really hope Mr [Jeremy] Hunt will take fully into account the clear message from the electorate who, after all, are the people who put councillors into office.’’

He added: “In 37 years here I cannot recall a single instance where a local community has spoken so clearly, and in such numbers, in support of a local school, or for that matter on any other issue.

“Replies are still coming in and I suspect the final figure in support of Rydon will exceed 1,500.”

Rydon children ‘play catch-up’, meeting told

Children who join Steyning Grammar School from Rydon Community College usually “under-perform”, a meeting has been told.

During a public meeting at Pulborough Village Hall on Monday (September 28), a parent asked how former Rydon students compared with those who joined Steyning Grammar from its lower school in Church Street.

Steyning headteacher Nick Wergan told the meeting: “There is usually an under-performance from Rydon children compared to Church Street.”

He was supported by one of the Church Street governors, who said: “I know it’s not going to be very popular but at Steyning it’s common knowledge that kids from Rydon have to catch up.”

The claim was vehemently denied by Rydon representatives.

Staff member Lisa Reid said: “I dispute the claim Rydon children play catch-up. When children leave us they are above the national average.”

Headteacher Allison Murphy added: “Children might come in below the national average but when they leave us they are above the national average.”

Their claims were echoed in Rydon’s last Ofsted report which said of the pupils: “Standards in a range of subjects, including English, mathematics and science, are above average by the time they leave at the end of Year 8.”

When it came to their GCSE results at Steyning, though, figures published in the consultation showed the gap between children who came to the school via Rydon and those who attended the Church Street site was widening.

In 2013, 68.9 per cent of the 119 former Rydon pupils gained five or more GCSE grades A*-C (including English and maths), compared to 74.5 per cent of the 196 former Church Street children.

In 2014, the gap grew as 63.8 per cent of the 116 former Rydon students hit the mark compared to 73.1 per cent of the 193 from Church Street.

Call for catchment area change

Rydon Community College’s headteacher has called on West Sussex County Council to consider changing the catchment area for her school.

Allison Murphy, who would like to see her school become a secondary school for 11-16-year-olds, spoke at a public meeting at Pulborough Village Hall on Monday (September 28).

Reacting to claims there were not enough children in the area to warrant another secondary school, she said: “There will be other children moving to our area. Our catchment area could be looked at by West Sussex.”

A parent added: “If we change the catchment areas and re-look at it, maybe we could have three big schools.”

Mrs Murphy’s desire for Rydon to grow had been supported by hundreds of parents and residents who carried banners as they marched to a consultation event in July.

Steyning Grammar School headteacher Nick Wergan told the meeting 150 children a year from Rydon joined his school in Year 9. He warned: “A decision to go to 11-16 at Rydon is a decision to dismantle Steyning.”

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