It should come as no surprise to the Labour council that their rushed plans to close two schools in the city are being fiercely opposed.
St Peter’s school, in Portslade, and St Bartholomew’s School, by London Road, Brighton, are earmarked for closure as soon as the next school year.
Parents are angry – and they’re right to be. Labour campaigned for votes in the last local election with a manifesto pledge that read “keeping schools open”.
The closure plans were announced little more than six months later, with little warning, based on no engagement and with a schedule for consultation limited to a matter of weeks.
With two petitions calling on Labour to save the schools attracting hundreds of signatories a day, it’s clear people feel passionately that Brighton and Hove must remain a welcoming place to educate and raise children.
We know increased living costs, soaring rents, extortionate energy bills and expensive nursery fees are making things harder for families.
In this context, it’s the little things that matter. Like a warm, welcoming school environment with teachers and pupils embedded in the local community – a school close to home, with minimal travel costs and cheaper nursery places, providing support for children with special educational needs and kindness around a difficult situation at home – a small school setting, with small classes.
Yet it’s two small community schools that are slated for closure. St Peter’s has been described by one parent as a “beacon of hope for children who struggle in larger educational settings due to unique SEN needs. It’s not just a school. It’s a community”.
There are concerns the closure will leave parents in South Portslade with no local primary school.
Similarly, St Bartholomew’s School supports a high percentage of children living in poverty, with 56 per cent of children meeting the government’s definition of poverty – “eligible for free school meals” – and 51 per cent of children from black and racially minoritised families, compared with 10 per cent in Brighton and Hove schools overall.
Listen first, decide later
It is doubtful that any councillor seeks to get elected in order to close down schools. But with Labour spokespeople commenting in the press that they “must take decisive action”, it’s not hard to understand why parents and teaching staff now fear the existing consultation may be nothing more than a paper exercise.
But it’s vital the consultation responses are given proper consideration before any decision is made.
Campaigners have rightly flagged a series of unanswered questions: Why these schools? What will happen to the communities in these areas? How will children cope with the transitions? Why did school staff feel uninformed of the plans? What will happen to the buildings? Why is a consultation that also affects staff jobs being scheduled over Christmas?
It’s important that these questions are answered. What’s more, alternatives to this rushed and ill-considered process do exist.
It’s telling that these closures come after Labour scrapped the council’s only body focused on addressing the challenge of falling pupil numbers in the city.
The Cross-Party Schools Organisation Working Group – made up of councillors of all parties – was tasked with proposing solutions to the issues affecting local school admissions.
During the last Green minority council, meeting after meeting took place with councillors, school governors and heads to discuss the pupil admission numbers (PAN) reduction and possible alternatives.
No stone was left unturned. Labour, Greens and Conservatives worked together to a shared goal of keeping schools open as best they could.
But rather than acknowledge this hard work, Labour has ditched this group, presenting the bizarre argument that because Labour councillors failed to support closing schools before, Labour councillors need to support the closure of schools now. But it’s not clear everyone agrees.
Against the backdrop of 13-plus years of destructive Conservative government policy, there can be no doubt it is becoming harder both for councils to support schools and for families to keep up with living expenses.
However, closing schools must be a last resort if we are to put up any resistance to the multiple crises – including in early years and education – that are being handed down by a callous government.
Families in the city centre are fighting the loss of Bright Start nursery, less than a year after money was found to keep it open, and a local primary school.
In other parts of the city, there are frustrations about a lack of consultation over pupil admission numbers (PAN).
Staff and parents at Benfield and Hangleton primary schools are challenging academisation plans being proposed by their governing body.
The picture for schools in our city is a worrying one: it’s never been clearer that our local education settings need staunch supporters.
Greens are calling on Labour to extend the consultation on school closures and to present a report to councillors detailing all possible alternatives.
The issue of falling pupil numbers is no easy one to resolve. Head teachers may be willing to discuss mergers, cross-party groups and the parent/staff consultation may yet find alternative routes.
Either way, Labour must do much, much more to convince parents they are listening and go beyond arguing that they have to close schools because none were closed before.
Councillor Sue Shanks speaks for the Greens on children, families and schools on Brighton and Hove City Council.