Much loved community schools threatened with closure

Brighton and Hove is currently in the midst of a school’s consultation which is proposing the closure of two deeply cherished schools (St Bartholomew’s C of E School and St Peter’s Community Primary School) along with pupil admission reductions in 9 other schools. The Labour run council’s proposal has been met with much criticism from concerned teachers and parents, including about the wider impact for the affected communities.  

A combination of factors, including a falling birth rate and the stretched budgets caused by central Government’s funding formulas, are putting schools under huge pressure, not just locally but nationally too.  The city’s schools acknowledge that difficult decisions need to be considered, but the speed of the process, in particular the administration’s push to close two valuable community schools this September when alternative suggestions are still being put forward, is causing alarm. 

Many residents are telling me they feel the plans have been rushed through, with the consultation period meeting the bare minimum statutory requirement.  The final decision is currently set for later in January. Schools have been given very little time to be meaningfully involved in the consultation process, and in particular for their alternative proposals - like the option of Bright Start nursery moving to St Barts - to be properly explored before decisions on closures are made. 

When I asked the council why the consultation is being rushed through, I was told that a prolonged closure period would be the most detrimental scenario. This isn’t what I’m hearing from those impacted though – rather it’s the speed of the changes that seems to be causing the most significant damage to schools, parents, and children.

This damage is avoidable. If schools were to close over a longer period, if alternative options are found to not be workable, families would be able to leave at their own pace and staff members wouldn’t need to be immediately redeployed or made redundant. In the absence of solid evidence in support of a speedy closure, there are a lot of unanswered questions about the reason for the council’s hasty course of action.  

There have also been issues raised over the inaccessibility of the proceedings. Some families with English as an additional language have not been given the support necessary to have their voices heard. This is unacceptable. 

From listening to my constituents, it’s clear that more time is needed to come up with an alternative proposal – one which has the wellbeing of the children, families and staff at its heart. No one wants to see school closures. But the council would face less criticism if there had been a genuinely collaborative process, which harnessed the wealth of knowledge from school staff and parents, in order to create a meaningful plan for the future of our city’s schools. I have pointed to examples from elsewhere in the country about the way in which other local authorities have handled some of the difficult decisions around falling pupil numbers and budget pressures in my contact with the council.

Late last year I wrote to Brighton and Hove City Council to highlight the strength of feeling I’m hearing from my constituents on this issue.  When I visited the school before Christmas, and spoke to parents, children and staff, I was so struck by their love for this school and its inclusive culture and ethos, as one of the most diverse schools in the city.   Along with Green councillors I have called for an extension of the consultation period and for plans to be paused to allow for some meaningful listening and a rethink. This would give the council time to create a more inclusive, schools-led process, ensure that all voices are heard, and deliver the best outcomes for these schools and the wider community.