By Betsy Everett
The finances of a Wensleydale primary school appeared to have “fallen off a cliff” since it joined a federation with two other schools, despite parents being assured that the move would safeguard its future, a public meeting has been told.
West Burton Church of England Primary School had gone from “the top to the bottom of the class” financially since the Bainbridge, Askrigg and West Burton (BAWB) federation had been created in April 2016, said North Yorkshire county councillor John Blackie.
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“Parents feel they have been led up the garden path,” said Mr Blackie. “They were told the federation would bolster the fortunes of their school and now there are concerns it might not exist at all after September next year.”
He said he had been asked by parents to call the public meeting, to which he had invited education officers, to answer concerns they felt had not been addressed elsewhere.
One parent told the meeting he felt West Burton had been “asset-stripped” to support the other two schools.
“To be the ones being asked always to bear the costs seems unfair,” he added.
According to figures presented to the meeting by North Yorkshire County Council, at the end of March this year Askrigg School would have had a deficit of £17,600, Bainbridge a small surplus of £2,000 and West Burton a substantial surplus of £21,500. The overall surplus was £4,100 compared with around £40,000 the previous year, said Anton Hodge, assistant director of strategic resources for the county council.
However, he cautioned the figures showing the split were only “indicative” and could be affected by other factors. Although the schools received funding individually according to a strict formula determined by government, the federation managed and reported its overall budget as a single entity.
Mr Blackie said West Burton parents had asked for the meeting to express concerns about finances and other aspects of the schools’ management.
- The possibility of Charlotte Harper, executive headteacher, taking on teaching duties. Given the schools’ size (projected to be 40 at Askrigg, 22 at Bainbridge and 22 at West Burton in September) parents said “a non-teaching executive headteacher is a luxury [we] cannot afford.” In a written response, Marion Sadler of the LEA, said: “. . . the advice would be that this should not be more than 0.2 fte (20 per cent full-time equivalent).” On that basis the estimated saving would be around £6,000 a year. Richmondshire district councillor Caroline Thornton Berry said it was “ridiculous” to have a non-teaching head and that the LEA were ducking their responsibility on deployment of staff.
- The possibility of “de-federation.” Andy Dixon, strategic planning manager for the local authority, said it would require a written request from either a fifth of parents, a fifth of staff, the local authority, the trustees or the diocese but the ultimate decision would rest with the governors.
- Communication with parents was not satisfactory. Father of three Dr Graham Bottley said the West Burton parents had no representation on the federation’s governing body, as new government rules stated there could be only two parent governors: both these were from Askrigg. “I was concerned about the future of West Burton school and I stood for election. I wasn’t chosen, probably because I wasn’t known, and that is fair enough. But we feel that we are not involved, asked or informed about anything, and we have no representation,” he said.
- Parents wanted to know what were the “12+, fully-costed, potential models” for the future of the schools that they had been told had been discussed with the local authority finance team. Mr Hodge said he was not aware of any such discussions and had not seen the models.
- There were no permanent contracts for teaching staff at West Burton. Staff were on one-year contracts making recruitment difficult and creating uncertainty for parents. Since the federation five pupils had been taken out of the school. “We are being given a reprieve year by year and that is not sustainable,” said parent Kate Jump. “There is a lot of support out their from parents, prospective parents and the local community and there are families who want to send their children to West Burton. But obviously this whole atmosphere of uncertainty is killing that.”
- Staff turnover: local authority figures showed the three schools had lost 32 members of staff in four years, 25 of whom had resigned, nine of those from West Burton. Staff turnover at West Burton had been 40 per cent since federation, compared with 20 per cent across primary schools generally. Parents asked why staff were leaving, were exit interviews carried out and why money was being “wasted” on recruitment and supply teachers. Ms Sadler said the local authority held no data on exit interviews, or whether they were carried out.
Andy Dixon told the meeting that in the autumn term there would be an “informal consultation” on the future of all three schools.
If a preferred option was agreed there would be a further two-stage consultation.
Meanwhile the authority would look at the possibility of a representative of West Burton parents being co-opted onto the governing body.