Parents fighting to save a Surrey primary school have been thrown a lifeline

Surrey County Council (SCC) has announced a “pause” in the process to shut Ripley CofE Primary School, which until this time last year had 144 pupils.

The move comes after concern that officials failed to follow correct procedures during the process.

UNISON South East has been working extensively to support affected members at the school, who have been campaigning hard to overturn the closure and save their jobs.

The school received an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted grading in May 2017 after two and a half years of interim Head teachers and poor governance, which led to the invocation of a Directive Academy Order. This meant that the school needed to find a multi academy trust sponsor or would face the possibility of closure.

As Ripley CofE is a designated ‘Rural School’, Surrey County Council (SCC) had a legal duty under Section 15 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 to ensure that all alternative possible options were carefully considered before proposing to close the school. It has become clear that all possible options for keeping the school open were not however considered.

The Leaders Decision Meeting on Monday this week left SCC Officers looking stunned when it was exposed that neighbouring schools had not been approached regarding federation or supporting the school, as claimed in the proposal. Notes were rapidly passed between SCC Officers and the Leader of the Council and the meeting was adjourned. Minutes later, the Leader announced that he would “allow” Ripley School one more week to look at possibilities of federating with another local school.

Julie Iles, Conservative County Councillor for the Horsleys Division, who raised concerns about the proposed closure with David Hodge, the leader of Surrey County Council, is also asking for the school to be allowed a reasonable length of time to explore these options. She said after the decision meeting, “Ripley is a designated rural school and the Council must ensure that all possible options for retaining the school have been fully explored. The Diocese and the RSC have advised there are no suitable multi-academy trusts but there is an option with Shere CofE School which needs to be properly investigated. It is important that we take the time to ensure that we get this right for the children”.

Campaigners added “It is not the responsibility of the school, our campaign group or any neighbouring school to justify why Ripley should stay open. It was SCC’s job to look for a solution. It is unacceptable to give us one week to do the job they should have started one year ago, when numbers at the school were much higher”.

Friends of Ripley CofE Primary School claim that the entire process has been flawed for a number of reasons including factual errors, out of date housing figures and a lack of consultation.

Cllr Colin Cross, Lib Dem Councillor for the Lovelace Ward (including Ripley) expressed his concern with SCC’s forecast housing figures. “The recently approved Local Plan shows housing in the Lovelace and Send Wards is set to increase by 840 houses over the next 5 years. SCC’s projections only account for just over half of this. It follows that this underestimation of housing has led to lower forecast figures for future demand in the area. 840 additional houses will result in around 40 additional primary aged children each year and this is just in the Ripley and Send areas. It gets even higher over the next two 5 year periods; with each area seeing over a 1000 homes and 3000 in the total period how they will cope with only one local primary school?”

Friends of Ripley Primary School campaigners state “Given the increased housing forecast for the area, and the clearly flawed process we now hope Councilors’ will drop the closure process completely and give our school the fair chance that it deserves”.

Guildford Diocese have also faced criticism for their lack of support and refusal to allow a secular MAT to sponsor the school. At a recent parish meeting about the future of the school, Alex Tear, Diocesan Director of Education explained “we didn’t approach any other MATs because we don’t believe the school is viable”.