Last week, I organised a round table meeting for all the local schools in, and partner to, the Aireborough Learning Partnership Trust (ALPT). The aim of the meeting was to find out what possible partnership working could take place to potentially save Queensway Primary School from closure.
Also at the meeting were the ward councillors for both Otley and Yeadon and Guiseley and Rawdon as well as the Executive member for Education.
There was a lot of scrutiny regarding process; the lack of effective communication on the lead up to the decision, leading to the announcement to consult feeling sudden for teachers, staff, parents and the wider community. The consultations too have felt to too many people, like a box ticking exercise, rather than any kind of meaningful engagement.
Perhaps some of this is understandable, after all Leeds have not closed a school for almost twenty years and many of those involved at the process end have never had to do it before. But I know that this is of very little comfort to those parents, staff and children who are directly impacted by the decision and the handling thereof. It is vital that lessons are learned from this and that if and when this kind of situation arises again, these same missteps are not made.
However, even if the process was to be handled perfectly, we would still be where we are now.
Schools are funded through a government per-pupil funding model and are accountable to birth-rates on a four year cycle. It is the council’s responsibility to expand, contract or close schools based on this formula, ensuring the right number of school places. Aireborough’s birth-rates have fallen dramatically and there are simply now too many places available when compared with pupils or potential pupils. On a per-pupil funding formula, this puts schools in dire financial difficulty.
What was clear to everyone at the meeting was that the most obvious alternative to closing a school in the area would be to have every school voluntarily (and it would have to be voluntarily) reduce their PAN number, that is the number of pupil spaces available in the school.
Whilst I was hoping that the second option would be one the trust would be willing to consider, we have to be clear about what we were asking. A school reducing it’s PAN number means voluntarily sacrificing funding for teachers, classrooms, facilities and resources. This would lead to job losses everywhere and serious financial implications for every school. It would still mean disruption for many families across the area and countless more would not get their chosen school. Perhaps unsurprisingly and to put it mildly, the partner schools at the meeting were very reluctant to consider this as a viable alternative, despite the huge outpouring of support and sympathy for Queensway.
The next route that is now available to me is to appeal to Government. I have written to the new Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan to outline the issues in this case and to ask her to meet with me to discuss the funding formulas that are at the route of this problem. We all know the value of a school like Queensway in our communities cannot be simply measured in pounds and pence and that much more should be done to ensure local access to schools for every community. I have also asked her why funding for children with special educational needs and disabilities in Leeds is lower than other areas of the country. The Government giving Leeds less money than other areas is directly impacting the ability to keep all schools open.
If Queensway doesn’t close, we will still have 36% too many primary school places for children that are in the area which will put other schools at risk of closure. Whatever the outcome, birth rates are unlikely to recover during difficult economic times and we still have a system that is stacked against schools in lower economic areas. Schools must work closer with each other and with the local authority to ensure that they are as strong as they possibly can be to weather the uncertainties that lie ahead.
For my end, I am not going to stop supporting Queensway, the staff and the families. If you need help my office is here to support you. Please keep preferencing Queensway whilst the future is uncertain – this will not affect your second choice if the school is to close. Our communities stick together, and it is in this spirit that we carry on.