UPDATED: Headteacher's frank letter to parents about under-threat Leeds school

Pupils from Boston Spa Academy, with their headteacher Chris Walsh (second left) and Sir John Townsley, The Gorse Academies Trust Chief Executive (left).
Pupils from Boston Spa Academy, with their headteacher Chris Walsh (second left) and Sir John Townsley, The Gorse Academies Trust Chief Executive (left).

The headteacher at a Leeds school has criticised shock council plans to close the secondary and sell-off the land and has urged the community to campaign against the proposals.

In a frank letter to parents, Chris Walsh, from Boston Spa Academy, wrote that, following support from parents, the school was still in the process of applying to join Leeds-based The Gorse Academies Trust (TGAT) in an effort to transform the school from 'good' to 'outstanding'.

However, in an unexpected twist, he said Leeds City Council has objected to the application and instead put forward a proposal to close the school, sell the land for development and instead build a new school and other facilities, including a leisure centre and community library, in nearby Wetherby.

The new school would replace the existing Wetherby High School, which is just over three miles away from Boston Spa Academy.

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."

A council spokesperson said any proposal bought 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 spokesperson said: “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.”

Parents and residents took to social media to air their views on a community Facebook page, with a post featuring the letter being shared more than 175 times so far and the plans being labelled as "bonkers".

Using the hashtag #buildabetterboston, concerns have been raised over the lack of public notice and the loss that will be felt by the community should the school close.

And concerns have also been expressed by Wetherby High School parents.

Donna Harrison wrote: "The knock on effect for Wetherby will be absolutely huge too! My son is at Wetherby and I couldn't be happier. The schools offer two very different approaches to education and that allows parents in our area to choose the approach that suits their child in order to get the best out of their education. This is a disaster!"

Parent Rachel Foster told the Yorkshire Evening Post: "To say as a parent I am shocked is an understatement. My daughter has been at this school for two years and loves it. Her academic improvement has been a delight to follow, as well as the extra curricular activities she has found whilst she's been there. I can't praise the head, teachers or school enough.

"Tonight I have to go to parents evening to choose her GCSE options. How can this be happening?"

Mr Walsh listed a number of reasons why school leaders opposed the plans, including Wetherby High School being judged by Ofsted as 'requires improvement' at its last three inspections, while Boston Spa Academy had been rated 'good' following its previous two inspections, as well as the fabric of the building being "well-looked after" after £1m was spent by the city council last summer.

He added: "It has taken Leeds City Council nine months to put these proposals forward. This has delayed, without good reason, our application to join TGAT."

Mr Walsh explained that the Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC), Vicky Beer, was the person responsible for making a decision on the school's application to join the trust.

But as a result of the objections made by Leeds City Council , she has now referred the matter to Lord Agnew, the new Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, to make the final decision.

He said: "We have written to them both, urging them to approve our application and allow us to convert to an Academy with TGAT.

"The governors believe that the future education of our children is too important to be entrusted to Leeds City Council and felt compelled to write to you to explain the truth of what is taking place."

Mr Walsh added that a decision on whether to back the local authority or the school is due to be taken by Lord Agnew in the next few weeks and parents had until next Friday, 9 February, to email Elmet and Rothwell MP Alec Shelbrooke to lodge their objections.

Explaining why he had written the letter, he told the Yorkshire Evening Post: "We felt if there was a plan to close our school that we knew about, we needed to tell our families.

"The key thing for me is there are two contrasting priorities here. One is the contrast of the local authority and councillors who are talking about building provision and the contrast of our governors who are talking about standards and outcomes of our children. I think we are deceiving our community if we led them to believe that new buildings provide exceptional outcomes.

"It's unusual for a head to come out and tell everybody that his school is under threat, but I don't want to mislead my families. They have bought into Boston Spa School and I have a moral obligation to them."

Mr Walsh said he was keen to reassure parents that during this process, the education of the children would continue to come first and would remain unaffected.

Elmet and Rothwell MP Alec Shelbrooke said: "A few months ago Boston Spa High School approached me regarding their plan to convert to an academy, take over Wetherby High School relocating all kids to Boston Spa, and then move the sixth form provision out of Boston Spa.

"Since then, Leeds City Council has come forward with a counter proposal to merge both schools into one academy in Wetherby town.

"Parents are right to feel surprised by these developments which, due to their embryonic stage, have not yet been subject to public consultation. I will be speaking to the Department for Education to ensure that a full, detailed public consultation on the future of secondary provision in the Outer North East takes place.

“Leeds Council is building a new school in the inner-city, which will mean kids who currently travel from the inner-city to attend school at Boston Spa and Wetherby will no longer need to do so. This change will create an oversupply of school places in the area and the council will have to address this, but it would be wrong to do without first consulting parents of both schools”.

In a letter to parents the chair of governors at Wetherby High School Cindy Bentley wrote today: "It is exciting to hear of new proposals to provide the town of Wetherby with a new high school, based on the current school site. We are proud of the results and continued improvement at Wetherby High School.

"We have been informed that there is no proposed merger of any schools and we look forward to continuing to work with our students, families and local community to continue to develop and support students to achieve their full potential.

"We prioritise the outcomes of our students and the provision they are receiving today and into the future and therefore are very proud that in 2017 the outcomes for our children were the best in the locality in 2017 and also showed one of the most significant and rapid rises in the city."

A statement issued by Wetherby Ward Councillors, John Procter, Alan Lamb and Gerald Wilkinson said: “As ward councillors we have been working with the city council and all schools to find a solution for secondary education in Outer North East Leeds for 18 months, having called for a meeting that took place back in June 2016.

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