St Martin's parents write letter over school concerns
All the parents on St Martin's have written an open letter to members of the Isles of Scilly Council expressing their concern over the future of the off-island school bases.
Some 26 parents of children who are attending Five Islands School or will do so in the future have signed the document, which outlines their concern over the arrangements for the St Martin's base and Schoolteacher's house when the school becomes an Academy.
The letter's signatories make clear that while they are fully in favour of the conversion, they are "determined to see the education provision for the off-island children protected for future generations".
The letter is copied to the Five Islands School IEB and the Director of Schools at the Diocese of Truro.
Read the open letter in full below:
We write to you as residents of St. Martin’s, some of us with children currently attending the Five Islands School and some with children who will attend the school in the future. We have a collective and unanimous concern regarding the arrangements within the academisation agreement for the St. Martin’s base and Schoolteacher’s house, and we respectfully request that you act to address our concern in the best interests of the education of the children of St. Martin’s.
Some of you will already be aware that in Appendix 1 of the statutory notice which established the current Five Islands School, the Local Authority and the Diocese of Truro agreed the following regarding all the school bases:
“In the event that an island has no school children for a period of time, the site may be used for educational and community related purposes. If the building is not used for its prime purpose, it shall be kept in good repair and order and reopened as soon as practically possible when needed. Preparation will commence to re-open the school site as soon as it is apparent that it is required for one or more children.”
By writing this simple statement into the Federation agreement, the Diocese of Truro, the Council of the Isles of Scilly and the Secretary of State for Education all demonstrated a clear commitment to off-island bases in the long term, and an understanding that they are absolutely essential for the effective education and safeguarding of the off-island children.
We understand that there are currently no plans to write a similar clause into the agreement with the new MAT. Accordingly, you will understand that we have very grave concerns about this omission and feel that it will leave our off-island bases extremely vulnerable to future financial pressures on the MAT, the majority of whose members would not even be resident on Scilly, let alone aware of unique factors affecting off-island children.
The MAT of course will be an independent business and its board will have a duty to act accordingly when managing its financial performance and objectives. Whilst we have confidence that neither the existing IEB nor the prospective members of the MAT board would wish to close off-island bases, we cannot have any such confidence in the behaviour of future board members who are not likely to have the same empathy, local understanding and grasp of context as the current incumbents.
During 2013 & 2014, the Council of the Isles of Scilly commissioned and adopted an independent report by Indigo Children’s Services, ostensibly into the provision of secondary boarding at Five Islands School. Since permanent loss of an off-island base would mean that daily boating was the only option for any future primary children on that island, as is now the case on Bryher, the Indigo report’s conclusions can be taken as entirely analogous:
The Council of the Isles of Scilly has a duty under the Education Act (2006) to promote high standards, equality of opportunity and fulfilment of potential for all pupils.
Boat operators are reluctant to operate daily boating and unable to run boat services during hours of darkness.
Daily boating is likely to result in unacceptably high levels of pupil absence which would be detrimental to the learning, results and future life chances of off-island children.
It is not possible to provide a viable contingency for stranded pupils.
In short, the report identifies that daily boating significantly compromises the level of education received by off- island children; a fact borne out by the hidden attendance issues faced by primary children from Bryher who only have to cross a very short and sheltered stretch of water. The report and recommendations also highlight the often-unspoken safeguarding issues which arise from the compulsory transportation of school children in small, single- engine boats across open sea. The unequivocal recommendation of the Indigo Report was that “boarding provision for off-island pupils must be maintained”. By extension, the only conclusion that can be drawn for primary pupils is that off-island bases must be maintained.
Whilst we fully understand that there is no statutory obligation on any party to consult with parents in the case of academisation of Five Islands School, we are extremely disappointed that neither the Local Authority nor IEB have undertaken any meaningful consultation to help inform negotiations with the MAT in the almost two years since the Academy Order was made.
We would like to make it unambiguously clear that we are unanimously in favour of the proposed MAT and enthusiastically support all the improvements in leadership, teaching, learning and opportunity that the structure and partners are already delivering. We are, however, determined to see the education provision for the off-island children protected for future generations. Inclusion of the above clause in the academy agreement would be a very quick and straightforward method of ensuring this and would be entirely justified as being in the educational and safeguarding best interests of the children, both now and into the future.
We appreciate that the duties enshrined in the Education Act (2006) are incumbent upon the Council only until the moment where the new Academy is established, we also have some sympathy that the excessive amount of time already taken by the academisation process must be leading to considerable fatigue and pressure on your officers to swiftly complete matters, almost at any cost. However, we respectfully ask you as elected members to use the remaining time whilst the statutory provisions of the Education Act still support you, to direct your officers to negotiate the inclusion of the clause quoted above, or one very similar to it, into the MAT agreement. It would seem that whilst negotiations are currently considering the transfer of the Council-owned Schoolteacher’s house on St. Martin’s to the MAT, the Local Authority still has significant leverage with which to negotiate (the house could always be retained by the Local Authority and made available to the MAT with a protected rent and under the spirit of the original clause, thereby ensuring that education could never be priced out of St. Martin’s by use of punitive rents administered by an absentee Business Manager).
Finally, although not a matter directly affecting the children, we would like to highlight the impact that closure of an off-island base would have on the economic and demographic sustainability of the island. Most businesses on St. Martin’s are owned and operated by families with school age children; almost without exception, none of those parents would have chosen to live and start families on St. Martin’s if education were only accessible via daily boating to another island. A future with no school on St. Martin’s would lead to a shrinking and aging population as well as a much-diminished local economy. We hope you agree that as a Council you have an important role in protecting and supporting sustainable island communities, and that guaranteeing the presence of the remaining off-island schools is an extremely effective way to help achieve this.
The ultimate question of course must be: If the MAT has no intention of closing off-island bases, then what possible objection can there be to writing the clause from the current Federation notice, directly into the new agreement with the MAT?
Raising concerns with the academisation process at this late stage is obviously a serious matter and not one that we take lightly. However, given the lack of consultation and transparency with the process, the future peril of off-island primary education and bases has only just come to our attention, so our late intervention is not entirely of our own making. If it would help your full understanding in any way, we would be glad to come and speak to full council and answer any of your questions.
We would appreciate a response from the Council by Friday 14th September on this matter. You will understand that time is of the essence when it comes to influencing the academisation process and should you feel unable to support the future of the off-island bases, we will need the opportunity to take our concern to a higher level.
In anticipation of your help with this matter,
Parents of current pupils and pre-school children: 26 signatures