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The old order changes: Wareham’s school upheaval

Wareham’s schools have been going through a period of upheaval and uncertainty – and it’s not over yet. John Newth reports.

An artist's impression of the new-look Purbeck School (Justin Amphlett/cocoamedia.co.uk)

Tony Blair famously declared that ‘Education, education, education’ were the top three priorities of his incoming government in 1997. Such a ringing commitment is surely beyond criticism, but in fact it is symptomatic of the leading part that education plays in party politics, and of how governments of all persuasions feel obliged to demonstrate their radical credentials by introducing educational reforms as soon as they assume office. It is not only a dyed-in-the-wool cynic who comes to suspect that the progress of pupils and the sanity of teachers are often given less importance than the making of a political point.

Although the input of local residents was sought on the matter of a switch from a three-tier to a two-tier system, their views were clearly not, as the chart shown above demonstrates, the only element of the decision-making process (Dorset County Council)

There are political overtones to some of the reforms currently engulfing the schools in Purbeck generally and in Wareham in particular, but most of the changes are the result of circumstances and of economic necessity. Most notably, the decline in population has led to an unacceptable surplus of places throughout the system. By some estimates there are over 1000 empty desks in Purbeck’s schools, and it is self-evident, especially at a time of economic stringency, that such a situation had to be addressed. A widespread consultation was held and the conclusion was that the existing system of first schools (reception to year 4), middle schools (years 5-8) and the secondary school (years 9-13) should change to a two-tier one of primary schools (years 1-6) and the secondary school (years 7-13). The bitterest opponents of the change believe, not entirely without justification, that this was always the County Council’s preferred option and that the consultation was largely a cosmetic exercise.
The effects on Wareham are that Wareham and Sandford Middle Schools will cease to exist (as will the middle schools at Swanage and Bovington), the three first schools – Lady St Mary, Sandford and Stoborough – will become primary schools, and the Purbeck School will expand to take in years 7 and 8. The changes are being phased in over a year: children entering year 5 this month will stay at their first schools instead of going up to a middle school, and the new system will be fully operational from September 2013.

The integration of the existing buildings with the new elements is shown on this computer model of the Purbeck School's new layout (Justin Amphlett/cocoamedia.co.uk)

The scheme has many positive aspects, not least the investment of government money in new school buildings. At the Purbeck School, an £8½-million programme of capital improvements is under way. Stoborough is getting three new classrooms, a new library and the complete refurbishment of the older part of the school. Lady St Mary is also being refurbished, with the complete renewal of the interior of the building and new outside learning areas being developed. At Sandford, a new primary school will be created where the present middle school stands, either by adapting the present building or as an entirely new construction. The future of the present Sandford First School premises is uncertain, but the site will have to be handled sensitively as St Martin’s Church is an integral part of it. Indeed, the Diocese of Salisbury has been and continues to be closely involved in the process as all the Wareham schools except Wareham Middle School and the Purbeck School are voluntary-aided or voluntary-controlled.
The Wareham Middle School site is to be taken over by the Purbeck School, and the plan is that all the art, music and drama, both classroom and extra-curricular, should be moved there. This is a potentially exciting benefit of the change, as it could possibly form the basis of a community arts centre for Wareham.
‘A unique chance to totally re-shape the school’ is how Lin Goldsmith, Head of Lady St Mary First School, describes the changes, and among the surviving schools there is the sense of an opportunity that goes beyond buildings. Lady St Mary is even changing its name to Wareham St Mary Primary School, with a new logo and new website. The Purbeck School is taking the opportunity to modernise its logo and to change its uniform – out will go the familiar dark sweatshirts and polo shirts in favour of a blazer, tie and V-neck pullover.
Opponents of the changes accept that the battle has been fought and lost, but there is still widespread and bitter regret that the final choice was not one of the options that would have allowed the middle schools to survive. Rob Graham, Head of Sandford Middle School, sums up the two main concerns of those who strove to save them: ‘First, a popular and successful school is being closed. I am not saying that the new primary won’t do a good job, but this school is not far from being full, with 35% of its pupils coming from outside its catchment area, which shows how highly parents think of it. Second, children’s lives are changing quickly between the ages of 9 and 13, and it is better that they deal with those changes in a relatively small school with a family-oriented atmosphere. Middle schools were introduced for good educational reasons and it is a tragedy that the four in Purbeck are to disappear.’
Now that the decisions have been made, the chief pre-occupation of the middle school heads is to preserve the morale of teaching staff whose future employment is uncertain (although they are being given priority in the expansion of staff in the other Purbeck schools) and to ensure that nothing about their schools’ principles or educational excellence is compromised during the next, inevitably challenging year. As Rob Graham puts it, ‘We will keep going to the end as a successful middle school.’ In fact, one of the redeeming features of the upheavals has been the way in which the teachers in all Wareham’s schools, although naturally concerned about the future, have not allowed those concerns to affect their professional competence or dedication to the pupils in their care.
For the Purbeck School, an already challenging situation is hugely complicated by the imminent founding of the new Swanage School, one of the ‘free schools’ introduced by the present administration. In September 2013, the Swanage School will open with years 7, 8 and 9, growing to a five-year school over the following two years, with 84 pupils in each year and a four-class entry. Next month (October) parents have to state their intentions for September 2013 and if enough of them opt for the Swanage School, that could remove some 250 children from the Purbeck School initially, rising to 400-plus.

Battle-lines are drawn in the fight to attract secondary pupils, particularly in the Swanage area, with the proposed opening of the Swanage Free School

There are those who hold that the Swanage School will never get off the ground, but it is looking more and more likely that it will – a Head has been appointed and plans are well advanced for a new building. There is more reason to question its long-term future. Is a school of 420 viable? How is the cost of such small classes (averaging 21) going to be covered? The coalition government cannot allow free schools to fail and will give them all necessary support, but what will happen with the election of a government less sympathetic to the ideals behind them? Will parents be satisfied with the breadth of education that can be offered by a much smaller staff than at a 1000-pupil school? Swanage is often criticised for being insular, and will the fact that its children are no longer travelling out of the town to school make this accusation more justified?
Such uncertainty gives those charged with planning the future of the Purbeck School a well-nigh impossible job. County Hall has decreed that the school should assume that it will have 1400 pupils – an increase of about 400 – in September 2013, and building and recruitment are proceeding on that basis. In other words, County is guessing that the Swanage School will not happen. But if the school does open as planned and is a success, it is difficult to see how the Purbeck School will avoid ending up with a lot of redundant staff and buildings.
To add to the already turbulent mix, Richard Holman, the long-serving Head of the Purbeck School, retired at the end of the summer, and bravely into the maelstrom of uncertainty has stepped Leanne Symonds. She came from the Cleeve School in Cheltenham, where she had been Deputy Head since 2004. Like Lin Goldsmith at Lady St Mary, she sees the positive side of the situation, saying, ‘The re-structuring gives the Purbeck School a really exciting opportunity to look carefully at itself and decide how it wants to develop.’ A historian with a degree from Cardiff University, Mrs Symonds has always worked in big schools and believes that through structures such as tutor groups, they are as capable as small schools of knowing each child and meeting his or her educational and pastoral needs, while being able to offer a wider curriculum and more diverse range of opportunities than a smaller school can.
It would be good to think that soon after September 2013, the new arrangements will have settled into place and that Wareham’s schools will be able to get on with their prime function of giving the town’s children the best possible education, secure in the prospect of a stable, well-planned future. We may be wondering what all the fuss was about. Or will the politicians have other ideas?

Battle-lines are drawn in the fight to attract secondary pupils, particularly in the Swanage area, with the proposed opening of the Swanage Free School

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