Record of public meeting concerning St Hilda’s Roman Catholic Primary School, Whitby

Meeting held on 24 November 2020 using Microsoft Teams (during second national Covid 19 lockdown)

Present

County Cllr Patrick Mulligan (Executive Member for Education and Skills, NYCC), Andrew Dixon (Strategic Planning Manager, NYCC)) Matt Blyton (Senior Education Advisor, NYCC), Kevin Duffy (Director of Schools, Diocese of Middlesbrough), County Cllr Joe Plant (LA Governor and Local Member), Pam Crabtree (Headteacher, St Hilda’s RC Primary School) Matt George (Strategic Planning Officer, NYCC) and  Sue Turley (Strategic Planning Officer, NYCC)

Three governors and a National Education Union representative (North Yorkshire District) also attended.

Apologies 

13 people were present including the Headteacher, who due to connection issues joined some of the meeting via phone.

Agenda

Meeting opens – brief welcome

Andrew Dixon – Strategic Planning Manager NYCC

Executive Members Opening Remarks

  • Introduction to the Panel
  • Short statement about background
  • Handover to LA Officer for presentation

County Cllr Patrick Mulligan

Presentation

  • The proposal
  • Background to the proposal
  • Pupil numbers
  • Finances
  • Local Schools
  • New Local Housing
  • Catchment area
  • How can people comment

Andrew Dixon

Question and Answer Session

County Cllr Patrick Mulligan

Meeting Close

County Cllr Patrick Mulligan

1. Welcome

Andrew Dixon, Strategic Planning Manager at NYCC welcomed everyone to the meeting and invited County Cllr Patrick Mulligan to open the meeting.

It was highlighted that the Microsoft Teams Meeting was being recorded to support the note taking and would be deleted once the notes had been compiled.

Executive Member opening remarks

County Councillor Patrick Mulligan introduced himself and the rest of the panel, noting Kevin Duffy from the Diocese and Cllr Joe Plant who is both a Local County Councillor and also the LA Governor on the Governing Board, were in attendance. The meeting was also supported by Matt George and Sue Turley, Strategic Planning Officers from NYCC.

2. Presentation

Andrew Dixon explained that the purpose of the meeting which is part of the first informal consultation stage for the proposal that the County Council should cease to maintain St Hilda’s Roman Primary Catholic School from Easter 2021. The meeting was part of the process to consider the views of all those likely to be affected by the proposal are recorded and considered as part of the decision making process.

Andrew Dixon explained the background to the proposal, noting the unusual situation having had a previous consultation and said that information throughout the meeting would look at the actions taken since then. Kevin Duffy from the Diocese would as part of the meeting set out the position from the Diocese. Andrew said the presentation would address school numbers, the financial position and places available locally at other schools.  

As part of the first consultation there was a governing body resolution in January 2020 for consultation on closure and this was started before Covid restrictions came into place with a Public Meeting on 3 March 2020. During this meeting and immediately afterwards, there was representation made that in an ideal world, there would be a period of reflection in terms of what other options could be considered to avoid school closure. Whilst considering this position, the Covid situation accelerated and national lockdown occurred and the school closed.  At that time representation was made for further opportunities for exploration between the LA and the Governing body on options. LA Officers at this time were heavily involved in the Covid response and the unprecedented closure of schools. A decision was therefore taken in early April 2020 to halt the closure consultation. 

Between April and September 2020 a complete restructure of the Governing Body occurred and they commissioned, alongside the LA, some additional financial analysis work to look at options for a potential recovery plan for the school. After concluding that a recovery plan was not possible, the governing body took a new resolution to ask for consultation on proposed closure. The school community was informed on 10 September 2020 as part of the process. The consultation process was launched on 2 November 2020.      

Andrew Dixon then asked Kevin Duffy to speak from a Diocese perspective.

Kevin Duffy Director of Schools, Diocese of Middlesbrough, explained that the Diocese expressed concern on numbers around 4 years ago and the subsequent impact on school finances. Although numbers were high in KS2, lower years in the school were not as high and it was evident that a KS1 reduced intake would work its way through the school. They could see when larger cohorts left the school last year this would present a problem with the total number of pupils on roll and the need to set a balanced budget. The School tried to address this position from 2016 onwards and to look at attracting more pupils to the school and to manage some of the financial pressures. The Bishop of Middlesbrough had made a decision that all Roman Catholic schools would become academies as part of the regional academy trust structure in place. St Hilda’s was due to join one of the trusts in September 2019 but failed the ‘Due Diligence’ as it was seen as not financially sustainable. The governing body were made aware of this in January 2020 and they resolved to ask for consultation. One key reason the Bishop supported the consultation was that they could see the school could not live within its means and attract numbers at the pace required. With very few Catholic children remaining in the school and low numbers of Catholic pupils coming into the school it was felt at that time there was no longer a need for a Catholic school in Whitby. It was regrettable but they agreed with the consultation on a proposed closure.

From this time there was an impetus and a heroic effort to look to find a solution and garner support of the local community at fundraising but it was too late to bring in the pupil numbers to set a balanced budget against the timeline. So, at the September governing body meeting and with huge regret, they had to look at consultation on potential closure as they were unable to set a budget which would allow them to get a licensed deficit as they could not reach a position for the school to be financially stable within the three years required.  

Andrew Dixon talked through the slides relating to pupil numbers. The school’s  current capacity is for 105 pupils. Numbers on roll have been reducing for some time from 54 in 2013 to 28 in 2018. Significant efforts to attract additional pupils have been made over a period of time in areas including the private nursery on site, press advertisements, flyers to new housing and open days for prospective parents.

At the first consultation in March 2020, pupil numbers were at 24 for the whole school. Year 6 had 9 pupils that would be moving to secondary provision and therefore there would be a reduction overall in school numbers as the school was not recruiting additional 9 pupils. At the start of the autumn term, 19 pupils were on roll at the school including 4 in reception. Communication of the second resolution in September had resulted in a further significant drop, with now only 2 pupils in the whole of the school and they are in Year 1. 

Andrew Dixon then talked through the financial projections of the school. The in-year deficit projections of £39k in 20/21 and £53k in 2021/22 would lead to a projected cumulative deficit of £144k in March 2023. These projections were based on pupil number assumptions of 20 in Autumn 20 and 26 in Autumn 21. Given the current numbers at the school, this will be a much changed position going forward with a much more severe deficit.

A number of financial strategies were deployed over time by the school including reducing the Headteacher’s teaching commitment, restructured classes and latterly a shared Headteacher arrangement was explored again.

There are 5 local schools within 2 miles of St Hilda’s, the four town schools are academies. All have surplus capacity. Overall, there are 1073 places available (October 2019 census) in the area and 793 pupils on roll, so there is well in excess of 200 surplus places (23%) which reduces to 21% surplus after allowing for all housing in the next 5 years including those proposed within the Local Plan within this time period.

In terms of planning places the LA would normally allow for 5-10% surplus places to allow for the more significant yield that might be expected and to take into account of parental preference.  

New local housing in the area has seen 430 Local Plan dwellings proposed and is therefore by its nature, medium to long term in relation to those already with planning permission. The LA uses a ratio of 1:4 pupil yield arising from new housing developments.

Unlike Community Schools, St Hilda’s does not have a defined catchment area and draws in pupil from a wider area than just Whitby Town and catchment proposals are therefore not required. Andrew highlighted that the LA would ask that parents familiarise themselves with admission arrangements for other schools and noting that Academies are responsible for their own admissions.

This consultation is not about school standards, the school was rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted in 2017 when there were 34 pupils on roll. The Ofsted inspection noted that although the school had only two classes, it continued to be a ‘Good’ school. Andrew added that with ever-decreasing numbers on roll, maintaining the quality and breadth of education will become more challenging.

Other Options were discussed and included;

  1. Academy Sponsor – not possible through due diligence
  2. Federate/Amalgamate – there are a number of existing federations but there would be little attraction for another school to partner with St Hilda’s in that way.
  3. Continue as is? what are the prospects of increased pupil numbers delivering financial sustainability? No recovery plan was identified by the restructured Governing Body over the past period.

For remaining pupils at the school, advice and assistance is available at any time. Pupils which remain on roll if a decision on closure is made, will be offered places at alternative schools, with places available in line with parental preference wherever possible. Assistance with transport would be provided to children who were eligible where this involves travel beyond 2 miles (or 3 miles for those aged 8+) to the nearest catchment school or nearest school to home address (catchment decision pending). There would be the option of transport to St Hedda’s, Egton Bridge in order for pupils to continue with their Catholic education.

School staff will be supported throughout the process. There will be a parallel staff consultation. The governing body would remain in place through to the implementation of the decision, if indeed that is agreed. The Governing body would then be dis-established in April 2021.

School buildings and part of the site are owned by the Diocese with some in NYCC ownership. Future use would be a matter for the Diocese and NYCC. Decisions about the future use would be taken after determination of the closure proposal.

Andrew Dixon outlined the next steps and timeline and encouraged responses to the consultation.

  • The consultation launched on 2 November 2020 and will run until 14 December 2020
  • County Council Executive considers responses to the consultation on 12 January 2021, If there is a resolution to move to the next stage, there is a further four week representation period between January and March when a decision would be taken on the proposal and in the event of a closure decision is taken the school would close at Easter.  
  • Final decision – 9 March 2021
  • School would close – 9 April 2021 

The formal presentation ended and Councillor Mulligan asked for questions and for people to identify themselves when asking a question or commenting by raising the yellow hand icon within the Microsoft Teams function.

3. Questions and Answers

Cllr Plant, an LA Governor at the school, expressed his sadness at the position the school found itself today and as Kevin stated, it was a heroic effort and acknowledged the outstanding work and fundraising achieved. He acknowledged and appreciated the commitment and determination of the re-structured governing body and the work they had done. One fundraising event had raised £2k. The governing body were so determined to save the school and had the community behind them. As a LA Governor, he also threw everything at it.

Cllr Plant also thanked the commitment from the LA and Cllr Patrick Mulligan and everyone else noting that everything he asked for he had received, including the independent financial review to see where the school could go.

Cllr Plant also thanked the Governors who came on Board and who did believe something could be achieved, but it is a very disappointing evening and hard to take, as no one wants to close a school, children are our future and we need to ensure they get the best education. Unfortunately, the pupil numbers are simply not there. Catholic pupils are not coming through and generally, numbers at the school are dropping each year. Cllr Plant reflected on the parents evening held and the subsequent governing body meeting held to decide to consult on a proposal for closure. It was a good meeting, which had something else on the table in terms of a proposal from St Hedda’s and one could not blame the parents for their subsequent actions sending pupils to St Hedda’s. It was important that the pupils from St Hilda’s received a good start to the academic year.

A final thought was to the Governing Body for their great commitment and a big thank you to them all.

Cllr Mulligan thanked Cllr Joe Plant for his comments and said it was a sad day in terms of the position we find ourselves in today.

Paul Busby, National Education Union, North Yorkshire, noted it was a real tragedy and requested more information around the statement regarding ‘there was little attraction for a partner to Federate with the school’. This question was also supplemented with a further question, asking if it is the view that the Catholic community is reducing in numbers in the area which has impacted on the school or is it other factors?

Kevin Duffy responded saying that the school was never wholly supported in pupil numbers entirely by the Catholic Community and always relied on its popularity in the local area. It was able to attract 8, 9 or 10 pupils and at around 70 pupils in total, it could run and operate and it is only in recent times numbers have dropped. With very few local children being baptised it had lost its natural bedrock and no longer a school of choice for other children.

If it doesn’t have the foundation of three, four or five Catholic pupils coming through, it is then fighting with community school pupils who aren’t naturally going to choose a Catholic school who want to go to a small school in Whitby but not such a small school as St Hilda’s.

In terms of ‘partnership’ the school could only enter a Catholic academy trust. As a Catholic school the Bishop would seek them to enter a Catholic academy trust but this was not achievable as it wasn’t sustainable. The school financial position as seen tonight, could not get to a breakeven point in the future. As Cllr Plant alluded to, once the second resolution had taken place and parents told of going out to consultation again, there came the feeling there was an inevitability about this.  Despite efforts, governors wanted to say to parents, it is bad news but what you want to know is certainty for your child at the start of the academic year and can you wait for the outcomes of the consultation. A really good offer was made to parents if they still wanted a Catholic education at the nearest Catholic school and that the academy trust would pay for free transport. It was felt that parents voted at this point for certainty and numbers at the school collapsed overnight from 18 to 2 and that was parents accepting the inevitability. If you consult twice in a calendar year, parents think closure is inevitable. 

Paul Busby thanked Kevin and the Chair

At this point in the meeting Pam Crabtree was able to join the meeting via telephone and was asked if she had any questions. She responded with no further questions at that point in the proceedings.

Cllr Plant said he was interested in understanding in the current on-going Covid situation who the ‘consultation link‘ had gone to? It was important for everyone to understand this particularly in the current Covid situation.

Andrew Dixon responded saying in accordance with normal practice, a full copy of  the consultation document was emailed to known stakeholders which included parents and staff, Councillors both County and District and in addition, the Town Council, National Teaching Union, local Parish Priest, all other local schools in the area and Early Years providers were sent the consultation link.

Andrew highlighted a further reminder was sent last Thursday to everyone regarding the meeting tonight. Andrew stated that it was unusual to do a virtual meeting for a proposed school closure but this was due to the current Covid situation. In order to support this situation, a request was made to the Town Council in advance of the meeting, for their assistance with the matter. This was to ensure if they knew of anyone who wanted to take part or who wished to be engaged in the consultation but didn’t have access on line, to make themselves known to the school and the LA could then look at what alternative arrangements could be put in place. Nobody had done this to date but Andrew said that group phone calls for example could happen to ensure people’s views were heard. 

Cllr Plant added that the Scarborough and Whitby Area Constituency Committee had recently been held and that he mentioned the proposal at this meeting including  process and dates. Cllr Plant took that as a record that local councillors knew about the meeting tonight. The Press Officer also knew the meeting was going ahead tonight.

Matt Blyton said he echoed Cllr Plant’s earlier words and comments and wanted to thank the governing board and those who had joined to try to mitigate against the proposed closure. Matt reiterated for the record, there were no school standards or school improvement issues in the proposal. Excellent education had been provided to pupils over many years. Matt paid his personal tribute and thanks to Pam Crabtree, Headteacher at the school and staff commenting how they had conducted themselves over a very difficult period of their professional careers. Pam had made an enormous contribution of 20 years plus to the school and latterly, wrestled with the challenges of Covid, two consultations and a significant loss of pupils. It is their health and well-being that is really important and he will ensure whatever decision is taken that he will be standing alongside staff and providing pastoral and the school improvement agenda to the end.  

Leanne Coates, parent and school governor thought it would be useful to provide the meeting with an update regarding the children who had moved to St Hedda’s and it was important to end on a high note saying the children who had moved had settled in really well and were not concerned about the transport. This is all a massive credit to the Headteacher and staff St Hedda’s.

Cllr Mulligan responded and thanked Leanne for her contribution said that was good to hear and as Cllr Plant had remarked, it is all about the children.

Cllr Plant, following on from Matt Blyton’s comments added that the children come first and it is about the children and their health and well-being ensuring they are well served. He wanted to pay tribute to the children and their parents for their outstanding determination in coming through all of this. 

Cllr Mulligan after receiving no further comments from the public, thanked everyone for attending and closed the meeting, it is a sad day but good to hear positive comments about the school and how children have settled into their new school, which is encouraging. 

The meeting closed at 19:46.