The closure specialist

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Barbara Hughes - whose job is all about cold-blooded merger - is very familiar with angry parents. Lisa Parry reports

Barbara Hughes' face is becoming synonymous with school closures in former industrial areas.

As North-east Lincolnshire council's interim director of learning and childcare, she is at the forefront of plans to close between four and seven schools and amalgamate between 24 and 28 to reduce surplus places.

Her car has been scratched and police called to a parents' meeting as she presented the proposals, but Ms Hughes has been the target of parental wrath before.

She led a department which organised what she says were "four or five" school closures in South Tyneside a few years ago. And 10 years ago she oversaw the closure of eight primaries and two secondaries in Dundee.

Ms Hughes accepts that being a figure often disliked by parents "goes with the territory" but says an episode outside a Grimsby primary last month where her car was scratched was exceptional.

"It didn't make me more nervous about carrying on with the job," she said.

"Parents had marched to the school with placards and banners. They were worked up and I think a youngster got carried away.

"But this has to be a cold-blooded exercise. The one thing I can bring to this which councillors and teachers cannot is detachment. If I allowed myself to think about people's upset or distress, I would crack up and I couldn't do it. I try not to think about the individual pupils but the common good. I can justify it to myself on those grounds."

Ms Hughes' task is by no means unique, nor is the anger felt by parents in North-east Lincolnshire who have been protesting regularly outside Grimsby town hall.

Every year since 2000, 100 primary schools in England have closed because of falling rolls.

Government figures show there were 17,762 primaries in 2004, compared with 17,861 a year earlier. In 2002, there were 17,985 and in 2001, 18,069.

North-east Lincolnshire council says it will have 4,500 surplus places in 2009 if no action is taken.

Ms Hughes leaves her post at the end of June following the appointment of an outside team, Mouchel ParkmanOutcomes UK, to work with council officials to drive up standards.

She says she is now more prepared emotionally to cope with that anger, an emotion she did not fully appreciate when driving through closures in Dundee, where schools were shut for financial reasons.

She said: "We knew people wouldn't be happy but we were taken aback by the level of outrage. It hit the press and it was all out of control in about three hours.

"Now I know what to expect. I don't have a problem with parents becoming angry and shouting at me, but sometimes I find it difficult to deal with in terms of the meeting. But you'd be really worried if parents wanted you to close the schools and didn't care."

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