‘Hidden agenda’ accusation over new schools consultation in Midhurst and Petworth area

Petworth town councillors fear further traffic chaos  around the town's primary school
Petworth town councillors fear further traffic chaos around the town's primary school

Another schools consultation has been slated, following hard on the heels of the much criticised unveiling of expansion plans at Easebourne Primary School.

West Sussex County Council (WSCC) held an exhibition at the Easebourne school but were criticised for not informing parents and other schools. The consultation itself was labelled ‘misleading’ and there have been calls for more information.

Now communities have been taken by surprise by a new consultation on ‘school admission arrangements for 2019-2020’.

It came to light shortly before Christmas and responses are due by January 15.

Trotton with Chithurst parish councillors are leading the fight for more information and a ‘wider discussion’ about the future of the county’s schools - especially the small schools which they fear are becoming an ‘endangered species’.

Alerting communities across the Rother Valley they said: “This latest consultation came just after two other WSCC consultations regarding schools which were not sent to most parish councils but which also affect the schools which are a vital part of our communities. The impression given is WSCC is at least considering closing some of the small village primary schools and pushing the children towards the larger schools in nearby towns.”

Vice chairman of Midhurst Town Council Gordon McAra said: “I’m very disappointed WSCC has not informed us about this consultation. We are also disappointed they are holding it over the holiday period and could have easily included it in the previous consultation. Suspicious people might think there is a hidden agenda.” He said town councillors wold seek to ensure schooling in Midhurst did not suffer.

Petworth town councillors have already expressed fears there would be increased traffic chaos if small village schools were closed and the former Herbert Shiner reopened in the town.

A call for ‘joined up thinking’ over the future of schools has come from its chairman Chris Kemp.

He told fellow councillors he believed it was ‘inevitable’ smaller village schools would close and children would be bussed to bigger schools such as the former Herbert Shiner, which closed in 2008 when the new Midhurst Rother College opened.

“I believe this was always an assumption and we are trying to say that in our neighbourhood plan, raising awareness and trying to get a new school access. I am disappointed there isn’t more joined up thinking at West Sussex County Council, where they are still pressing ahead with plans to put housing on their own site on the old primary school.”

But he said officers were not addressing the growing traffic problems at the school, where a new access was needed.

Neville Fox told councillors there was a move to ‘consolidate’ West Sussex schools and facilities made available in bigger new schools were ‘far better than the village school’. However, ‘nice’ village schools were, he said, ‘education has got to be better in larger schools’.

“Here in Petworth we have half a school unoccupied. The benefits of a larger school outweigh the advantages and niceties of the smaller schools.”

Trotton with Chithurst parish councillors have pointed out they represent ‘a tiny community half way between two tiny village schools’.

They claim both of these schools ‘could be starved to death if the wrong policy decisions are made’.

They have called on people to lobby their county councillors for a public debate.

“We know the government’s view is schools with under 150 pupils are no longer viable, and we do accept the need for the education budget to be well spent,” they said.

But they added: “We believe the government, and WSCC, are ignoring the vital part village schools play in community life (especially after the post office, village shop and pub have closed) and the fact many parents specifically choose village schools for the ethos and educational environment they can provide.

“We also believe there are various ways to group small schools and make them financially – as well as educationally and socially – efficient and WSCC has been very backward in considering, and consulting on, these options properly.”

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