School and college governors in West Somerset appear to be backing down from plans that would have brought damaging fragmentation of education in the district. The change follows a campaign by the Labour Party – which urged governors to work together in the interests of all children.
Conflict was sparked by a proposal by West Somerset College to take pupils in Years 7 and 8 (aged 11-13). This would have undermined West Somerset’s three-tier system of education and was seen as a threat by Minehead Middle School. The school retaliated by saying it would compete with the college by taking pupils in Years 9, 10 and 11 (aged 13-16).
At a meeting last week, college governors excluded the public and went into private session to discuss their admissions policy. But Somerset Labour understands they decided not to enrol pupils in Years 7 and 8 at the Minehead college site. This removes the main bone of contention with the Middle School – which is now expected to suspend its proposal to take older pupils.
‘Three Tier System’ could be compromised
In another sign of peace breaking out, it is understood that the school and college will have representatives on each other’s governing bodies. A governor from the Middle School will be able to speak and vote at West Somerset governors’ meetings, and visa versa.
The developments have been welcomed by West Somerset Labour Party, which has been pressing for education providers to end their civil war. In a letter to both boards of governors in January, the Party said: “we fear that the three-tier system which has served West Somerset well for many years could be compromised.”
Responding to the latest developments, Labour secretary Andy Lewis said: “Both sides have stepped back from the brink of what could have been a disastrous battle. It would not have made sense to have two schools half a mile apart competing to attract pupils in the same age range.
“There now seems to be a recognition that co-operation, not competition, is the way forward for education in this area. Most people will be relieved that the the three-tier system of first schools, middle schools and the college will continue.”
Restore democratic controls over schools
Labour members hope lessons can be drawn from what has happened in West Somerset. The local party branch is calling on a future Labour government to restore democratic controls over schools. Members passed a resolution saying:
“The branch calls on a future Labour Government to restore accountability of all schools and community colleges in the public sector by making the elected Local Education Authority responsible for the age range, selection criteria and joint working arrangements of them all.
“A Labour Government should work towards restoring a situation in which Local Education Authority schools are the norm, and schools respect the comprehensive principle.”