Criticism over St Neots school federation proposal

CAMBRIDGESHIRE County Council s decision to form a federation between St Neots s two secondary school will come under the microscope next week. The Liberal Democrat opposition could go on to ask the High Court to review the decision-making process if it

CAMBRIDGESHIRE County Council's decision to form a 'federation' between St Neots's two secondary school will come under the microscope next week.

The Liberal Democrat opposition could go on to ask the High Court to review the decision-making process if it is not satisfied that the council's scrutiny process is robust.

The Lib-Dems accuse the controlling Conservative group on the council of distorting last year's consultation on the future of secondary education in the town, particularly with St Neots Community College's having been put into 'special measures' last April by the Office for Standards in Education.

The Liberal Democrat concerns will be considered by a special meeting of the children's and young people's scrutiny committee to be held next Thursday (February 18) at Shire Hall, in Cambridge.

The Lib-Dems allege:

- that the cabinet made the decision without having received evidence of a thorough investigation of the options, in particular that it had no detailed understanding of how a federation might improve pupils' outcomes at the community college

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- that the cabinet did not know how this could be achieved without reducing performance at Longsands

- that it had not thoroughly investigated the option of National Challenge Trust status for St Neots Community College

They also claim that the consultation process was loaded from the outset to support the council's preference for federation, and that the strength of feeling against the federation had not been given due consideration.

Martin Land, Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate for Huntingdon and a St Neots parent, said: "We do not yet feel confident that the right decision has been made. We will of course give our full backing to the final outcome and support both schools.

"An urgent reconsideration is necessary to reassure the parents at both schools that the situation will get better for all, not worse."

But opposition councillors could take the matter further if they believe the scrutiny panel does not investigate rigorously.

Their view was echoed by a petition presented to the cabinet when it made the decision two weeks ago.

The petitioners' spokesman Peter Jones said a report on secondary education in the town and the consultation process itself were at best incomplete and at worst disingenuous.

He pointed out that the primary schools feeding Longsands were performing at a level 18 percentage points higher than those feeding the community college, and it was primary education that should have been the focus for improvement measures.

He added that St Peter's School in Huntingdon had been performing worse four years ago than St Neots Community College was now, but that it had been transformed by sound leadership and focus.

The consultation responses had overwhelmingly rejected the idea of federation - under which the whole schools would remain separate but be collectively managed - but those views had been largely ignored by the education officials who had drawn up the report to cabinet.

County Councillor David Harty, cabinet member for learning, retorted: “In education law, the decision over whether or not to form a federation between existing schools rests with the governing bodies of those schools, not the council. The authority’s role is to provide support for and advice on any structural change the governing bodies want to take forward.

“My and the authority’s main concern is that the county’s children receive the best education they can.

“Therefore, I hope this issue is resolved as quickly as possible to reduce the uncertainty facing the schools, their parents and the wider community.

“Scrutiny is a vital part of the democratic process, and I look forward to explaining to the committee the factors that led us to undertake the review of secondary provision in St Neots and the factors taken into account in reaching the recommendations approved by cabinet.”