Why Sawyers Hall College closed and what was intended to replace it

As agreed in 2009, Sawyers Hall College (SHC) closed its doors for the final time on 31st August 2012. The reason for this has been slightly lost in the intervening three years since this difficult decision was taken by Essex County Council in conjunction with the schools serving the five parishes of Brentwood. In order to fully instruct visitors to this site about the basis of that decision and the agreed resolution and vision for the future at that time we present the full consultation document here:

http://www.engageessex.org.uk/essex/UploadedFiles/Sawyers%20Consultation%20Document.pdf

A review of this document clearly shows that falling student numbers had made four secondary schools serving this area unviable. It clearly states that the consequence of supporting this number would have a detrimental effect on all of them:

“in September 2009, there were over 700 spare secondary school places inthe area, all of these at Sawyers Hall College where almost two thirds of the places were empty. Due to the way that schools are funded by the government (largely on a per pupil basis) a declining roll and high level of unfilled places will have a negative impact on schools budgets and therefore on the quality of education that can be provided for children at that school.”

The projected numbers of children joining from the town’s primary schools led to this conclusion:

“expected demand against the current supply of places up to 2016 results in around 300 spare places a year, more than one school too many.”

And yet those behind Becket Keys Church of England School claimed in their proposal that the picture on surplus places was “overstated”. The consultation document makes it very plain what the consequences are likely to be when pupil numbers fall below a certain level. The following statement should be reviewed by all who support the provision of the “free school” and, in particular prospective parents given its proposed intake:

“It is widely accepted that when the size of a school falls below four forms of entry (120 pupils a year) it can face significant financial and educational challenges. For example, senior teachers can become over-stretched because there are fewer of them trying to do the same number of tasks as in a larger school. The school would have fewer teachers overall, and they may well have to teach one, two or even three different subjects. This could mean teachers having to teach outside their specialism and the quality of teaching and pupil performance could decline. The curriculum can become very narrow and inappropriate for all pupils in the school. The school would be unable to achieve economies of scale and could easily run into budget problems. This makes it more difficult to provide the appropriate range of opportunities for pupils at the school.”

The collaboration between Essex County Council, under Conservative board member Stephen Castle, and the schools in Brentwood saw a clear opportunity for a wider curriculum offer that would create opportunities for children of all abilities and talents. It also laid out a plan to collaboratively manage the students at SHC to ensure that any negative effect on their exam proposects was minimised and the transfer of existing students to Shenfield High School was sensitively managed. The plan was explained thus:

“However, to ensure that the future of Sawyers Hall pupils is secure and to create wider opportunities for young people in Brentwood, Shenfield High School Governing Body has agreed that Shenfield High School and Sawyers Hall College will form the Shenfield High School and Community Partnership from April 2010, which will support and protect current students of Sawyers Hall College from the possible effects of the closure process.”

“Recognising the need for Sawyers Hall College to close, the governing body, together with the governing body of Shenfield High School have developed a vision for the future of education on the Sawyers Hall site that will increase educational opportunities and access to learning resources and facilities for the Brentwood community; will build on the high educational standards and inclusive philosophy of Shenfield High School and will provide the highest educational standards and strong leadership and governance for pupils of both schools.

The two governing bodies undertook some broad consultations on this vision during the summer term 2009 which were generally well received and they have now asked the County Council to take this forward. This vision is supported by the County Council.

In conjunction with the closure of Sawyers Hall College, the vision is for:

• The development of a community campus on the Sawyers Hall site, under the leadership and management of Shenfield High School, comprising a range of community learning facilities and a vocational learning centre for young people across the Brentwood community.

• The provision of a higher quality, enlarged environment for Shenfield High School on its existing site with its Published Admission Number increasing from the current 248 to 266, from September 2013.

The Sawyers Hall Lane campus could also house the community sports development which Shenfield currently leads, and which would consolidate the Sports College status recently achieved by Sawyers Hall, as well as a range of other compatible uses.”

It is against this background that we must assess the decision to propose a “free school” for the SHC site upon its closure.

It is on this basis that we must judge the apparently lost opportunity to widen educational provision in Brentwood.

It is with this knowledge that we must attempt to protect the “high educational standards and inclusive philosophy” that is acknowledged to already exist in Brentwood.

Now Michael Gove has decided to sign a funding agreement with Becket Keys it is difficult to see how a future consultation will not be required to take place. On the basis of the 2009 exercise there is no guarantee that it will not become its subject.

Stephen Mayo

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