Grange School at centre of fierce political storm

Some of the Grange parents who attended today's meeting to hear the council decide to consult on its closure

Some of the Grange parents who attended today’s meeting to hear the council decide to consult on its closure

The planned closure of the Grange School & Sports College at Warmley is at the centre of a political storm.

As recommended by South Gloucestershire education chiefs, councillors today voted to go ahead with consulting on the closure of the troubled secondary school, which has about 100 members of staff, but they also agreed to pursue funding for a new Studio School, catering for 14- to 19-year-olds and combining academic studies and work-based training, on the site.

Although councillors unanimously agreed to the new Studio School bid, when it came to the vote on the closure consultation, both Labour and Conservative members abstained, leaving it to the Lib Dem members to push it through.

After the meeting of the Children and Young People Committee, which was attended by some Grange parents, the Labour group said they had refused to vote as the situation at the school was of the Government’s making and the Government should sort it out.

They released a statement saying: “Last spring the school was judged by Ofsted to require special measures. Government policy dictates that such schools must become ‘sponsored academies’.  The Secretary of State has wide-ranging powers to intervene but instead of using these, Michael Gove dithered and has refused to do anything. His department recently advised councillors that they judge that the school “is not sustainable and should close”.  In such cases Michael Gove has the power to order the closure of the school but instead of doing this he has simply referred the decision back to the local council.

“Conservative councillors spoke in favour of the consultation on closure but then abstained on the vote, in line with their recent practice of squirming from tough decisions forced on the council by their own government.  In addition to these Conservative failures, the school has suffered from the Coalition’s cancellation of Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme. The Grange buildings are in need of major capital investment, and this is one of the reasons now given by the Government for closing the door on the school.”

Tonight Conservative councillor James Hunt (Emersons Green ward) told us: “The reason for abstaining on the vote to consult on the closure of the Grange School was due to the political gerrymandering done by the Labour Party in splitting the vote into illogical sections. As recommended by the officers and initially proposed by the Liberal Group, the complete package of recommendations offered a sustainable way forward for school provision on the site and potentially transforming it into one of the premier educational facilities in South Gloucestershire.

“I was very disappointed at the meeting that Labour councillors did not speak to the proposals at all, either in support or against. I think that this could be considered very disrespectful to the parents who turned up and made very heartfelt pleas for the school, given their strong feelings towards it, and I would like to thank those that did make the trip to express their opinion.

“Both the Liberal and Conservative groups discussed the merits and consequences of the decisions, yet the Labour Group merely were interested in manipulating a decision that they politically could abstain on. This led to a lot of confusion among officers and councillors (with at one point two schools being proposed by them on the one site), as well as those parents that had made the journey specifically to hear the fate of the school and, in my view, they should have come before petty party politics.

“Under 13 years of a high-spending Labour Government and a Labour MP, not a single secondary school was rebuilt in Kingswood and the school maintenance backlog ballooned. The Grange has also suffered falling pupil numbers and more recently a very challenging Ofsted report, so attempting to pin this local issue on central government is both misleading and insulting to the public.”

The Cabot Learning Federation, which runs the nearby King’s Oak Academy and John Cabot Academy in Kingswood, is currently looking after the Grange on an interim basis. The already falling numbers are still dropping as some parents, concerned about the uncertain future, have been finding alternative schools for their children. Fewer than 10 parents have put the Grange as their first choice for the September 2014 Year 7 intake.

South Glos Council will now consult parents on the proposed closure of the school to new admissions from 31st August, 2015 and the closure of the school to all pupils on 31st August, 2016.

If the Department for Education approves a Studio School, it would provide the capital funding. It would mean that current Year 7 and 8 students would be able to complete their education at the Grange site.

The committee also agreed the recommendations that consideration be given to relocating South Gloucestershire’s Education Other Than At School (EOTAS) service to the Grange campus, as well as expanding Warmley Park Special School, which shares the site.

Grange parents who addressed the committee this afternoon said they felt let down by the council and praised the school and its teachers who were trying to retain their focus, despite the uncertainty surrounding the school and their jobs.

Some who have already pulled their children out felt that had not been kept informed of what was happening and had they know a Studio School was an option, they would have kept them there.