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Fears planned closures of Westley and Horringer Court Middle Schools in Bury St Edmunds could damage education and communities

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Concerns have been raised over plans to close two Bury St Edmunds schools - with fears that education and communities could suffer.

Unity Schools Partnership is consulting on proposals to shut Horringer Court and Westley Middle Schools by August 2023.

It says the move is due to dwindling pupil numbers and it would expand provision at sister schools Tollgate Primary and County Upper.

Westley Middle School.
Westley Middle School.

However, fears have been raised over the impact on education and the level of future provision in the town with the loss of two Ofsted-rated 'good' schools.

Other concerns include the distance families on the Westley and Horringer estates would have to travel to other schools and the potential for diminished facilities for communities which use the school buildings.

Cllr Richard Rout, who represents the Hardwick division on Suffolk County Council, said: "All of us in the town want children to have the best possible education and if these proposals improve that education, on face value we need to welcome it.

Horringer Court Middle School.
Horringer Court Middle School.

"However, access to that education is paramount. We still have Westgate Primary which isn't part of Unity and that's an excellent school but I'm sure parents will have understandable question marks as to where their children will go and they might have real concerns about the distance to Unity's other sites.

"The walk across to County Upper or Tollgate isn't unsubstantial - it's a long walk."

Cllr Rout said residents on the Horringer estate - the only estate in town without a community centre - would want clarity about the future of the site which is a 'valuable community asset'.

"I went to Horringer Court Middle (as a pupil) and even back then it was the hub of the community," he said.

Cllr Richard Rout.
Cllr Richard Rout.

"It's home to a local church and public meetings take place there.

"If it's released from educational use and the natural assumption of many people is that it will be developed then I would want to see a cast iron guarantee that any future use or development of that site delivers a building for the community."

As a former pupil, Cllr Rout said while there was a 'sense of sadness and nostalgia' for the loss of the school, he felt a 'first rate education is far more important'.

Cllr Clive Springett.
Cllr Clive Springett.

West Suffolk Cllr Clive Springett, whose Minden ward includes Westley Middle, feared pupils' education and attainment levels would suffer in the run up to its closure as teachers potentially look for roles elsewhere.

Cllr Springett, who was a pupil at Westley, said he was 'extremely sad and disappointed' at the move.

He said he had written to Unity to suggest they combine the pupils from both schools onto one site.

"I'm really quite concerned about the parents and children living on the Westley estate," said Cllr Springett.

"The proposals for them to go to Tollgate and County Upper is nowhere near ideal.

"Western Way is about to undergo huge development so the additional traffic on the road and the distance away from the estate isn't ideal at all."

He feared the decision would 'resurrect a lot of issues' dating back to when Suffolk County Council closed other middle schools in the town in 2016.

Westley and Horringer Court survived when they joined the Bury St Edmunds All-Through Trust, which later became part of the Unity Schools Partnership.

Cllr David Nettleton.
Cllr David Nettleton.

Cllr David Nettleton, who represents the Tollgate ward on West Suffolk Council and the Tower division on Suffolk County Council, said he would be listening to the views of the governing bodies at the schools and those of parents and pupils affected by the plans.

He said: "In respect of Tollgate Primary – where I was a parent for seven years – and County Upper – I am already worried about traffic congestion twice daily in Tollgate Lane and Beetons Way, and the resultant reduction in air quality arising from poisonous emissions from the exhaust pipes of petrol and diesel engine cars.

"The public consultation must not be rushed as this is an important decision for Bury St Edmunds.

"We have to get it right."

Under the plans, Tollgate would become a primary school for children aged 3 to 11 and County Upper a secondary school for children aged 11 to 18.

In its consultation document, Unity said: "Although some families currently choose schools that follow the three-tier system, the number doing so has reduced."

The number of pupils attending middle school has dropped from 841 in 2018 to an expected 694 in September 2022, and to 550 in September 2024.

It said: "If the three-tier system continues, we expect the number of pupils leaving the middle schools at the end of Year 8, to move into Year 9 at County Upper, to reduce to 189, 210, 152 then 137 over the next four years.

"Typically, approximately 20 pupils from schools outside the middle school system also join Year 9 at County Upper.

"These numbers are considerably less than the 275 pupils that joined County Upper a few years ago, and the 220 in recent years.

"We believe that it is time to propose that we recognise that the pupil numbers are too low to maintain the three-tier system, and it is now time to have one common system for transferring between schools."

The two middle school sites are owned by Suffolk County Council and Unity has leases to use those sites but would return them to the authority if the schools close.

There are 63 staff at Westley Middle School and 34 staff at Horringer Court Middle School.

If the proposals go ahead, the trust’s aim is to offer staff a chance to be redeployed in another school in the trust.

This would include additional posts needed at Tollgate Primary and County Upper but could also be at one of the other schools in the trust.

A spokesman said: "The proposals are not based on cost savings, but on avoiding schools becoming too small to be viable.

"Feasibility studies have taken place on expansions at both Tollgate and County Upper.

"We are not at this stage expecting this to include new buildings, but instead modifications to ensure existing buildings are suitable for the enlarged schools."

The consultation will run until Thursday, February 17 when the Department for Education will consider the proposals along with the views expressed.

Tim Coulson.
Tim Coulson.

Tim Coulson, chief executive of Unity, said: “We believe it is the right time to convert these group of schools into a primary and secondary model and harmonise admissions at age 11 across the town and across Suffolk.

“We want to encourage our local community to share their views over the plans, whether through the various public meetings that are planned or via our consultation website.”

Public meetings, where attendance must be booked in advance, will also be held on Thursday, January 27 at Westley Middle School; Monday, January 31 at Horringer Court Middle School and Wednesday, February 2 at County Upper School.

To book a place at the public meeting, find out more about the plans or take part in the consultation, visit http://consultationbse.unitysp.co.uk.