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Pupil numbers ‘are in decline’

Pupils from Boston Spa School,  with their headteacher Mr Christopher Walsh (second right)  and Sir  John Townsley the  Gorse Academies Trust Chief Executive (right).
Pupils from Boston Spa School, with their headteacher Mr Christopher Walsh (second right) and Sir John Townsley the Gorse Academies Trust Chief Executive (right).

Leading councillors say there are not enough pupils to support two secondary schools in the area.

The claim follows public outrage sparked by a letter issued to parents by Boston Spa School head teacher Chris Walsh last Thursday in which he claimed Leeds City Council wants to close his school and sell the land for development.

He added that the authority planned to build a new school and other facilities, including a leisure centre and community library in Wetherby.

He wrote: “These proposals make no sense to us. We believe they are motivated by politics and conflicts of interest and do not put the best interests of our children first.”

Mr Walsh said that the school was still in the process of applying to join Leeds-based The Gorse Academies Trust in an effort to transform the school from an Ofsted rating of good to outstanding.

But in a statement to the News, Wetherby ward councillors John Procter, Alan Lamb and Gerald Wilkinson said they had been working to secure a long term solution for secondary school provision in the Wetherby district for 18 months.

“It is clearly a sensitive and difficult issue but the demographic evidence shows that there are not enough children coming through the system to support two secondary schools in our ward,” they stated.

“We are fully committed to working with all partners to find a positive way forward on this issue.”

In a letter to residents the councillors assured that there would be no snap closure of Boston Spa or Wetherby High Schools and that there would be a public meeting for all to express their views.

“A Government Minister will now decide whether Boston Spa School can become an academy, in partnership with the Gorse Academies Trust Ltd. The Minister is likely to rule on the matter within the month.”

They added: “We are further aware of two proposals that have been put to the Regional Schools Commissioner regarding secondary school provision in our area.

“Boston Spa School and the Gorse Academies Trust Ltd have proposed a merger with Wetherby High School. They would then close Wetherby High School and relocate all pupils to the existing Boston Spa School. The sixth form at Boston Spa School would also close.

“Officers of Leeds City Council have put forward an alternative plan. It proposes the closure of Boston Spa School and a new school built on the site of Wetherby High School.

“Both options agree it is only viable to have one secondary school that serves our area.”

And they added: “Last Friday, we were presented with a further option for a new high school by a local developer.

“We are referring this proposal on to the relevant decision makers.”

They said that a very high number of secondary schoolchildren travel into and out of Boston Spa and Wetherby for education.

“Only around a third of families in the local catchment areas chose their local school as their first preference and around half of all secondary age pupils in our district attend schools in North Yorkshire.”

They added: “The numbers attending Boston Spa and Wetherby High Schools has been falling consistently for several years and are not projected to increase any time soon, even when new housing is taken into account.

“We want to really emphasise that this is not an immediate pressure but if long term decisions are not taken soon, one or both schools could get into real difficulties.”

“A full public consultation on all the options was due to be held late last year.

“Unfortunately, this could not happen as Boston Spa School made its application to become an academy as part of the Gorse Academies Trust Ltd.

“Our view, both then and now, is that in any other circumstance, we would have welcomed and supported this move but we felt then, as we do now, that it should not be considered in isolation, but as part of the wider challenge facing the whole district.”

A Leeds City Council spokesman told the News: “Any proposal brought forward by the local authority would require full consultation and any implementation would not take place until after 2019 allowing for a phased approach and careful management.

“The council has cross party support to retain a school in the heart of the Wetherby community which would serve the coming generations of pupils and have capacity for additional pupils generated by proposed housing in the area.”

Commenting on the positive working relationship between MP Alec Shelbrooke and schools in his constituency, Mr Walsh said: “Boston Spa has only ever had a positive and constructive working relationship with our local MP.

“His personal support for academisation was relayed to me when we met in the House of Commons last year.

“We look forward to continuing that positive working relationship.”

Many parents voiced their anger on social media and put up banners around the village in support of the campaign to keep Boston Spa School.

Debbie Young, of the newly formed Save Our School group, said: “We’re five days into our campaign to support the head teacher at Boston Spa School with his desire to academise the school under TGAT.

“Our Facebook group has had over 1,600 members join and hundreds offering support by sharing what they know on social media.”

She added: “The local councillors state that there won’t be enough pupils in years to come to keep both schools open, but the numbers (based on new housing that LCC has planned) don’t add up.”

Wetherby High’s chair of governors, Cindy Bentley, said: “Our community-focused and caring ethos recognises what a privilege it is to be a school at the heart of our town and therefore we were delighted to learn of the council’s proposals to also develop first class facilities for the wider community as well as the school cohort.”

Head teacher Lucie Lakin aded that Wetherby High appreciated the backing of ward councillors and the local MP.

l Turn to pages 32 and 39 for more on the debate.