They ought to make a film about the Queensway School Closure Proposal, one of those feel good British movies where a community rises up against bureaucratic injustice and unexpectedly wins. It’s got all the characters, pontificating politicians, maligned heroes, surprise climatic betrayal, and battling women with strength and skills they never knew they had.
On Wednesday the 23 November Cllr James Lewis, Leader of Leeds City Council, officially announced at Executive Board the withdrawal of the council paper on the closure of Queensway School, adding that “recommendations in it were no longer going forward”. (There is a video of the meeting here, go to 41mins.)
Cllr Jonathan Pryor, Deputy Leader of the Council and main sponsor of the proposed closure, put what Cllr Andrew Carter, Leader of the Opposition, called a “screeching U-turn” down to the fact that Aireborough had clearly ‘demonstrated the strength of feeling in the area about the school’ with an unusually high consultation response . It was “quite a victory for those campaigners in the school” he added. (The six week consultation produced 1061 responses, 30 supported or somewhat supported closure, with 1019 against. A petition against closure with 3,601 signatures was also submitted.)
Indeed it is a stunning victory. When news broke on Facebook from Headmaster Mark Duce at lunchtime on Tuesday 22 November that he’d had a call from Cllr Pryor telling him the school would not be closing, Aireborough erupted in joy as the news spread from smart phones to school gate to pub. The elation at the school itself was palpable as they painted We Saved Our School! on their outside banner, and mothers and teachers hugged each other in the playground. Mr Duce said: “We had all the children and the staff in the hall together and it was such a joyous moment. It’s what dreams are made of.”
One of the lead campaigners ,Vikki Lancaster, took to social media to thank everyone who has helped, from Governors to “the businesses that put up our poster’s & donated to our fundraising cause…THANKYOU. The people who wrote in to appeal to the council, the people who signed our petition, came to our consultation evenings, our Protests THANKYOU. The supportive councillor whom have given their time, continued support & whom spoke up for us when it really mattered! Thankyou we will forever be grateful! Queensway Primary School ” She especially thanked the people at the centre of all this “our little people of Queensway the amazing children for standing strong & going to school day in day out with the uncertainty resting on their little shoulders!”
And, what a valuable lesson for all those children who have taken part in the protests, from Yeadon street marches to protests outside Leeds Civic Hall at last Wednesday’s Full Council meeting. They have learnt a precious lesson about resilience and standing up for what you believe is right. What is more, the ‘Inadequate’ Ofsted report has been shown to be only the marker for a school renaissance; there can be few who do not thoroughly hope with all their hearts that the school now flourishes in the community it was designed to serve, and that more parents now choose to send their children there.
What of that ‘U-turn’ though? At the previous Wednesday’s Full Council White Paper debate led by ward councillors Ryk Downs and Paul Wadsworth, the issue of halting the Queensway closure for a rethink, had been totally deflected by a Labour amendment; whilst the Executive Board paper recommending the statutory closure process begin was published. ( Copy of minutes and how councillors voted here. ) Well Cllr Pryor was right, ‘strength of feeling’ had been demonstrated, not just during the consultation, but subsequent to that debate; social media, emails and telephones had been on fire for days with angry people, whilst legal action was contemplated by more than one supportive group.
In addition, the Executive Board discussion revealed that the Queensway Governors had sent in an ‘Alternative Report’ to the Leeds Officer Report to all Leeds councillors.
the save Queensway team remains concerned that key information has either been overlooked or mis represented and therefore please see attached an alternative report containing information that we believe you need to have and take into account before you make a decision this Wednesday.Governors of Queensway School
At the Executive Board, both Cllr Carter and Cllr Stewart Golton, Leader of the Lib Deb Group, referred to this as being sensible, concise and “very, very persuasive”. Cllr Carter adding that it had been perfectly obvious the week before at Full Council that “mistakes had been made”. Something that had also been picked up in the original letter written by Leeds North West MP Alex Sobel.
One mistake was not to consult with ward councillors before the decision to consult on closure was made; they all relate receiving emails “out of the blue” on the matter. They also received a late ‘after thought’ invitation to a meeting with Aireborough schools convened by Alex Sobel MP on 31st October, resulting in some being unable to attend. Meanwhile, there is vociferous criticism from the Executive that ward councillors did not ‘go to them’: however, that is not normal practice, ward councillors discuss matters with Officers responsible, as they did on this occasion. Subsequently they then requested a special meeting of the Outer North West Community Committee to discuss Queensway on 19th October which Cllr Pryor did attended. Throughout this whole process there appears to have been miscommunication; a situation that needs rectifying if the public is to be properly represented by ALL the councillors they elect. Discriminatory involvement based on party politics is not an acceptable way to run democracy.
Local knowledge from Aireborough schools was also lacking, as discussion on alternative approaches seem to be have been inadequate; the consultation actually asked the public for ideas. Discussions can be more difficult when all Aireborough schools, except Queensway, are now either faith schools or academies in control of their own pupil numbers – Queensway is still in LCC control unless it becomes an academy following the Ofsted report. But the issue of surplus school places in Aireborough is still there and if it does grow (time will tell if calculations are correct) needs an holistic cross-schools approach as Cllr Downes’ White Paper proposed. This will now have to happen as the issue highlighted by LCC has not gone away. Hopefully this whole episode will have alerted people to the problem and the need to work together. Council officers will be contacting Aireborough schools about next steps.
The bottom line however, is that this was a community effort, and a community victory to save a purpose built community school. Everyone is thankful that minds were changed and that the right action was eventually taken by Leeds City Council. Most of all we are more than happy for Mr Duce, his staff and the children and families of Queensway School – may they now go from strength to strength.