When I first visited Saltway school to meet some of the staff, I was astonished to think that anybody would propose closing this school. Its buildings and facilities are better than most. And I was impressed by the commitment of the staff. I wrote a letter on behalf of Swindon TUC to the Council challenging the rationale of the closure. Read it here. For more information visit Swindon TUC's web site at:
Swindon Trades Union Council is writing to you to protest at the proposed closure of Salt Way School, and the way in which the process has been conducted.
First the process.
Staff at the school received a letter from Simon Nowell, Head of Staffing and Curriculum, dated 18th April, indicating a lunch time meeting on April 20th. Mr Nowell described the purpose of the meeting as to “formally consult with members of staff and discuss the proposals for the future staffing requirements of the school”. Trades union were not informed of this meeting. Mr Nowell indicated that they would be informed and invited to attend “subsequent meetings”. How could it be a formal consultation meeting when the unions were neither informed nor invited?
Mr Nowell, obviously somewhat embarrassed, and guarding his back, apologised for the “short notice”, “but I myself was only asked to send this letter out at the end of last week”!
Understandably parents are very angry about the way the Council has dealt with the potential closure. They learned about the threat to the school in the local paper. Within two weeks of this disclosure, a recommendation to close Salt Way was made by the Council Cabinet. It can hardly be a surprise that parents believe the future consultation will be a formality with no prospect that they will be listened to.
In fact when the West Swindon consultation meetings took place from February of this year parents were led to believe that this was “the start of a process to provide high quality localised services for children and their communities and to invest in our schools”. Any closure/amalgamations would not take place for 18 months to 2 years. There would be lots of chances “to have your say”. Yet here we are with a proposal to close Salt Way in January 2005.
Of course, as soon as closure is mooted the chances are that parents will panic and try to move quickly so that their children are guaranteed a place as near to their home as possible. Kate Reynolds sent a letter to parents, dated April 14th, asking them to give an “early indication” of which school they would like their children to go to if Salt Way was closed. This was even before the Cabinet took the decision on April 19th to propose closure. This can hardly be read as anything else other than a scandalous attempt to encourage the parents to accept the closure as a fait accomplis.
Salt Way school OFSTED report
Why has the proposal to close Salt Way been made so hastily? It seems that some of the content of the OFSTED report has been picked up as a pretext. For instance, “the school does not provide value for money”; a projected deficit of £65,000 in 2005/06, which might rise to £287,000 by 2007/08; falling rolls; a high level of teaching vacancies are possible from September 2005.
However, if you read the OFSTED report you can see that there is much to be admired about the school. Firstly, it was not deemed to be a “failing” school. It was not put in special measures.
The report says that the school was not “effective enough”. It provides an “acceptable standard of education” but has “serious weaknesses”.
What are the strengths of the school?
The OFSTED report says that:
“Pupils feel safe and secure in school.”
“Pupils respond well to the school’s expectations and behave well.”
“Pupils are happy to come to school and keen to learn.”
“Behaviour is good.”
“…unauthorised absence is low. Most parents are conscientious in contacting the school when the children are ill. Pupils are punctual in the mornings and lessons start promptly.”
“The generously proportioned accommodation and grounds are well cared for and used.”
“Staff organise after school clubs and sport specialists make a good contribution to the provision. Activities are popular and well supported by pupils.”
“Pupils have good and trusting relationships with adults in the school, especially lunch time staff and teaching assistants.”
“Parents agree that children are happy and well cared for and they are happy with the school’s induction arrangements.
“Children’s attitude to school and work are good, and they behave well.”
“Good practice in the nursery in listening to others, taking turns and sharing resources prepared children well for the reception class where these skills are effectively developed further.”
Provision is described as good in the following areas - communication, language and literacy; in mathematical development; in knowledge and understanding of the world; in physical development; in creative development.
What are the weaknesses of the school?
Essentially, most of the problems relate to poor management.
“The governance of the school is unsatisfactory. The leadership of the head teacher is unsatisfactory…The governing body does not sufficiently hold the school to account. The head teacher does not communicate effectively with staff and parents.”
This has resulted in a high turnover of staff, and dissatisfaction amongst parents that the management fails to respond to their concerns. As a result “a significant proportion of parents have withdrawn their children.”
“Governors rely too much on the head teacher to inform them about the work of the school. They do not take an active enough role in evaluating its work or effectively challenging senior managers. Under the direction of the present chair person, and with the involvement of external support, shortcomings and priorities are improving but their role as the school’s critical friend is not robust enough.”
Where the learning of pupils in unsatisfactory this has generally been because of turnover of staff, and the difficulty of the school finding teachers to cover absences.
These are long standing problems which the LEA has done little to tackle.
Despite the weaknesses which OFSTED listed even they indicated that improvements were being made.
“The green shoots of recovery are becoming evident. Following the recent intervention of the local education authority, a clear improvement plan is being implemented. New permanent teaching staff have brought fresh blood, enthusiasm and commitment to the school.”
In Maths they say pupils in Years 5 and 6 had made good progress “because of the high quality input of new staff”. In swimming “the new subject leader has made significant progress because, through her enterprise, enthusiasm and hard work, she has empowered colleagues.”
The problems in ICT which related to poor equipment and the delay of renewal, were being tackled.
“During recent years, the subject has lacked effective leadership and management at a senior level. In the absence of a subject leader, the head teacher and governing body delayed taking action to address shortcomings in resources.”
However, a new subject leader joined the school at the start of the school year.
“His leadership and management are effective; he has identified weaknesses and begun to address them. He is working well with the governor now responsible for this subject and they have made significant strides in preparing plans and auditing needs.”
From the foregoing it is clear that this is a good school but with significant problems related to its management. But they are not insuperable problems. Indeed to rip out the plant when there are “green shoots of recovery” might be deemed to be an act of vandalism.
Why close Salt Way?
The rationale for closure of Salt Way appears to be falling rolls. This seems to us to be a short sighted approach. As the NUT has pointed out, falling rolls can also mean smaller classes, improving the amount of time that teachers can spend with individual pupils.
Garry Perkins was quoted in the local paper as saying that the parents had “voted with their feet” by sending their children to Shaw Ridge and Brookfields.
“These two can deliver the education to the children of the area so we can remove one school and still deliver the education.”
In our view this effectively blames the parents for the situation when the real problem was the failure of the school and LEA to address the failure of management, which has created the conditions where parents have withdrawn their children.
It also seems to us a very odd situation that the decision on closure of a school takes place in a consultation which did not take account of all the primary schools in West Swindon, and gave no consideration to the secondary schools at all.
In another context (the potential development at Coate), Garry said that:
“Communities lose any sense of social cohesion if children have to travel to other areas to attend school.”
Perhaps this sentiment could be applied to the area surrounding Salt Way. You have admitted that there will be a problem finding places for all the children in West Swindon.
Many people are suspicious that the main attraction in closing Salt Way is the considerable plot of land on which it rests. Naturally, they are asking what you would do with this land if the school were closed. Their suspicions have been fuelled by the fact that a request under the Freedom of Information Act for Land Values of schools in West Swindon has been refused by the Council on the grounds of “commercial interests”. The Council’s Freedom of Information Officer responded to the request by writing that:
“The public interest does not favour disclosure as it is in the public interest to maximise the consideration received and there is no overriding public interest in the disclosure of the information.”
We’ll take that as you wanting to maximise your return on any land sales. But it is surely in the interest of parents in West Swindon to know whether you are selecting their school because it will maximise your income. Even if you do not disclose a figure you could, if you wanted to show that the selling of the land at Salt Way was not your motivation, provide a table of value, indicating the place of each school in it, without giving away the actual expected price. Why don’t you?
Garry was quoted in the local paper as saying that “we don’t intend to build on the whole site”, and that there is a possibility “it will be used for another educational establishment”. What sort of establishment would that be?
Having visited the school myself and met some of the staff, it is no exaggeration to say it is a marvellous school. The buildings and facilities are in excellent condition, well maintained. The staff I met are a great team of people, committed to what they do, enthusiastic, and as the OFSTED report indicates do a good job.
Closure would be a terrible waste of resources, both physical and human. £40,000 has just been spent on a new computer room. In addition there is a nursery on site, a scarce resource, and a staffed kitchen.
The parents and school have suggested to you that one consideration would be to develop Salt Way as an “extended school”, opening it to the local community. They have rightly said, in responding to the threat of closure that:
“…the Salt Way campus is one of the newest and best looked after in West Swindon and we may be able to use our unused classroom facilities to build an Extended School to provide additional benefits for the school and community and at the same time remove the issue of excess place.”
This surely makes sense. A school can be, and often is, a focus for a local community.
If the sole criterion is falling rolls, then you can easily have a situation where decisions of an LEA are based on chasing the population. But demographic changes usually mean that the numbers of school age children rise again. As one parent suggested in the local paper, it would be a crazy situation if in the future, after closing Salt Way you found you had to build another school to cope with increased numbers.
We have also been told that the Council can no longer justify “throwing cash at schools that are not full”. However, this is not a production line we are talking about here. You are not planning how many widgets to produce according to your analysis of market conditions.
What about the social context?
The Council appears to have taken no account of the social context of the school. With 31% of children qualifying for free school meals (the highest figure in Swindon), it is clear that the parents of many of the children are poor, and they do not necessarily have transport. The ‘bad’ reputation of the school appears to be associated with the social housing within close proximity.
It has already become clear that there is no guarantee of alternative places for all the children in West Swindon. Not every parent has a car, and in any case, given the lip service often paid to ‘sustainable development’ should we be taking a decision which will add car journeys to our already heavily laden roads?
Then there is the question of the disruption of the education of the pupils at a school where they are happy, according to OFSTED. To propose to close the school in the middle of the school year seems to us to be a thoughtless decision which takes no account of the impact this would have on the pupils. The OFSTED tells of the disruption to the education of many pupils as a result of teacher turnover and problems with arranging teacher cover for absence. How much greater will that be when children are forced to move to another school? Bear in mind that 27% of the pupils have special educational needs. Social services will probably have to pick up some of the emotional and behavioural consequences.
We will, of course, have the opportunity to raise formal objections should you press ahead with the proposed closure. However, we would like at the earliest opportunity, to meet with you to discuss the issues at hand.
Secretary, Swindon TUC