Just 15 minutes debate then they decided to shut Startforth Morritt Memorial School
COUNCILLORS took about 15 minutes to close a primary school that has served its community for generations.
Durham County Council’s cabinet met to debate Startforth school’s future last Wednesday but took minutes to make the decision, which has left parents, children and staff devastated.
Many campaigners have described the move as “short-sighted” because a total of 266 homes are in the planning pipeline for Startforth.
It means Startforth has lost its last community facility – the shop, pub and community association have already been closed.
Durham County Council’s cabinet unanimously agreed that there was “no alternative” as they voted to close the school at County Hall.
The school’s doors will shut for the final time on December 31. The school has 25 pupils and Ofsted inspectors rated the school as “requiring improvement” in 2014 and again in June this year.
Despite a number of attempts to secure the school’s long-term future by Durham County Council, the Church of England diocese, governors and other schools, as well as a petition set up by the Teesdale Mercury which gathered more than 1,600 signatures, the council’s cabinet were recommended to approve the school’s closure.
Speaking at the meeting, chairwoman of governors Sandra Moorhouse explained how the failed amalgamation with Bowes Hutchinson’s Primary School last year had begun to “destabalise” the school.
She said: “The school has not had an easy ride over the last few years.
“The school is not in deficit. The budget can be balanced for at least the next two years.
“To close Startforth school would be very short-sighted, as well as expensive. Startforth School is not just bricks and mortar. Generations have been taught there and it is the village’s only community venue.”
Acting head teacher Vicky Bain also attended the cabinet meeting. She said: “At Startforth School there is a great sense of community spirit and community values.
“The desire for the school to stay open has been seen in abundance. No one in Startforth wishes for the school to close.”
Ms Bain explained to the cabinet how some parents had moved their children to other schools “simply because of the uncertainty surrounding Startforth School”.
She continued: “The last 12 months have been difficult for staff, pupils and parents alike. We started the new school year with all 25 children that we were expecting returning to the school.
“It is with great sadness and regret that the school finds itself in such a perilous situation. The parents that continue to support the school obviously feel that the school is the best place for the children.”
Ms Moorhouse made reference to a legal document dating to 1892 which she says acted upon the will of the late Ellen Frances Morritt and stated that the school was founded in perpetuity.
Questioning the council’s right to take the school away from the community, she said: “It states quite clearly that the land must be for educational purposes and not otherwise. Therefore do you have the legal right to close the school? Can you be sure that you have legal documents that supersede ours?”
Ms Moorhouse also asked that the cabinet deferred their decision for at least one academic year so as “not to destabilise the school further”.
Interim corporate director for children’s and young people’s services, Margaret Whellans, said: “The obligation in this proposal relates to the use of the land rather than the use of the school and the council’s ability to close it. Our decision would have to be made today.”
Cllr Richard Bell asked the cabinet if the new outline planning application for 40 houses on land next to the school undermined the case for closure.
He also suggested they extend the closure deadline to next September to “permit a rescue plan to be developed by the school governors”.
The cabinet were unable to prolong the decision making process due to falling pupil numbers and continued concerns over educational standards.
Cabinet portfolio holder of children and young people’s services, Cllr Ossie Johnson, said: “The cabinet does not agree that this new development undermines the council’s case for closure. Children will be able to be accommodated in existing schools.
It is not possible to extend the closure deadline to September 2017.
“In considering closing the school it is always a very emotive issue especially for the local communities.
“What we have got to have as our overriding principle is the quality of education provision for the young people that are affected.
“The educational standards and the future sustainability of the school all affect the quality of provision in the school. With that I have no alternative but to propose the recommendations for closure as in the report.”
Cabinet member Cllr Lucy Hovvels added: “It is very concerning that the school was judged as requiring improvement back in 2014 and this judgement was made again two years later.
“I believe that for the benefit of the children the correct decision would be to close the school.”