Why I'd love to open up on closures

19th December 2003 at 00:00
A governor who is helping to choose which of his authority's primary schools should be axed unbuttons his lip

I'm a co-opted governor at a local primary school, and I enjoy it. I'm also involved in the local governors' association, and I'm governor representative on the working party looking at our local education authority's rather large surplus of primary school places. The 1960s baby boomers have had their own baby boom, and most of those children are now of secondary age. So the LEA has at least 10 per cent more primary school places than it needs.

The working party has spent many long afternoons looking at projected figures for the schools, maps of priority areas, information about school-building and so on, and has come up with recommendations on which schools should close. The local paper is full of articles and letters about why one school or another is a special case and should stay open. Posters in car windows read "Save our school".

It was agreed at one of the early meetings that we would not publish a list of members, just the groups represented, so although some people know I am involved, most do not.

School closures are a topic of conversation in many places where parents, teachers or governors are gathered together, and I bite my tongue, smile sweetly, nod occasionally, and walk away as soon as I can.

I was at a party a couple of weeks ago and someone came up to me and said:

"You're a school governor aren't you? Is there anything you can do about them closing my child's school?" I refrained from asking who the person thought I was - chief education officer, Education Secretary, God - and said, vaguely, that the council executive made those sorts of decisions. He went on to give the reasons why his children's school should stay open, mainly because of its small size.

It would be inappropriate and unprofessional for me to comment in these conversations, and so I have a badly bitten tongue. This school closure programme is a national initiative, not a local one. Whether you are a parent, teacher or governor of a school earmarked for closure, this is what I want to say in the conversations:

* If you think your school is so wonderful, why haven't you been telling people for the past few years, so that people are queuing up to send their children to it?

* A school may just about be able to sustain one teacher per class with classes of 24 or 25. But the schools we have recommended have falling rolls, and are projected to have intakes of 10 to 15 students in the next couple of years. Not only that, they will have only about 80 children in the school, giving three classes for a whole primary school, and three year groups being taught together. Is that what you want for the children of your school?

* A favourite comment, especially from staff, is: "It's all about money, isn't it?" In a word, yes. Tiny primary schools in large conurbations are not financially viable. And yes, I know independent schools have small classes - but in our area their fees are typically at least twice the amount a primary age child is funded for in the state sector. Would you still want to keep your school open if it meant a huge hike in your tax bill?

* I hear: "But the children have to be taught, whichever school they are at." True, but it is more cost-effective to teach children in classes of 30 than of 20. Not just because you need employ just one teacher, but because of economies of scale in, for instance, the cost of upkeep of the buildings and secretarial and caretaking staff.

* I also hear: "What about parental choice?" With parental choice, education becomes market-led - most of the parents are choosing other schools; that is one reason why your numbers are falling.

All this sounds harsh. But it is the economic reality of education in 21st-century Britain. We have more schools than we need, and some have to close because we can no longer afford to keep them open. It isn't nice but it is real life.

The writer, who wants to remain anonymous, lives in Essex

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