A school building in Mistley has had to close. Mistley Norman Church of England School is part of Vine Schools Trust, a multi-academy trust (MAT). Because of the school’s unsafe infrastructure, the current plan is for children to be transported by bus or car to a school in Ramsey, seven miles away.
This story has made the education sector’s ‘nationals’. You can read about it here in Schools Week. The residents of Mistley and nearby Manningtree have good reason to be concerned about the problem. I live very close to the school. I like to run up to Mistley from Manningtree. Along the walls and up to Mistley Station provides the perfect one mile ascent that gets my glutes going. I can then go on to Bradfield and run down to the shoreline where the Stour gently sweeps its way towards Wrabness and onwards to Harwich.
What is the problem?
The Schools Week article is centred around concrete. It is about how there does not seem to be much urgency on the part of the Department for Education to resolve the problem that is by no means limited to Mistley. It’s happening elsewhere too. Of course, it is very disappointing that little has been done sooner to save this school from its crumbling ceilings. However, the solution that has been selected reveals another issue that is endemic in our fragmented school system.
The CEO of Vine Schools Trust that has oversight of the school, Emma Wigmore, told Schools Week that ‘Mistley Norman pupils will continue to attend classes at Two Village, “until there is a further update on the school building.”’
But what is the real problem?
Two Village is in Ramsey. Ramsey is beyond Bradfield and it is beyond Wrabness. It is over 7 miles from Mistley Norman School. So that is at least 14 miles a day of travel for each pupil, whether in a bus or taken individually by a parent. It is, significantly, the next closest school that is part of the Vine Schools Trust.
Children start school in this country at the age of four. We also have a child obesity epidemic, and a climate crisis. It seems an ill-considered decision to opt for a school 7 miles away that can only be arrived at with children piling into cars and buses twice a day.
Might there be other solutions?
There are schools much closer to Mistley. Lawford Church of England Primary, three miles away, has been providing accommodation for the school already in the latter part of the summer term. Highfield and Manningtree High are even closer.
Not only this, there are a number of other, more community based solutions that occur to me. It did not require much thinking to be honest. There are new houses being built a stone’s throw from the school. I cannot imagine they have all been sold. What if two of these were temporarily converted for a number of months?
There is also a theatre in Manningtree which I suspect may be vacant for a fair part of the week. There is a library, there are empty shops, there is a church hall that is part of St Mary and St Michael’s Church which has a lovely kitchen, toilets, a garden and a playing field right next door that is rarely used in the day. I know this because we used the hall for a family birthday party recently, what with being local.
What we have here is an example of the silo-working that seems to be an inevitable feature of multi-academy trusts. Rather than there being the natural interconnectedness with a school’s locality, in the pursuit of building a ‘coherent’ trust, trust schools end up becoming insular and working only with themselves, regardless of whether the geography makes sense or not.
It is resonant of the ‘balkanisation’, the arbitrary dividing up of territories, that is observed in a study that was undertaken by researchers at the University of Nottingham and Glasgow when looking at the fragmented landscape of primary schools. They were looking in particular at equitable access to training and professional development for teachers. You can see the sharply drawn MAT boundaries at play here. For example, ‘Schools that have joined non-local MATs have been required to sever existing links with the Maths Hub.’
Children need their community
This territorialism has no place in primary schools. At best, it makes sure that children are all learning maths in the same way, with a few pennies being saved because the MAT purchased a learning platform for all its schools at a reduced rate. At worst it disenfranchises communities and reduces the chances of the children developing a strong sense of place and belonging.
Of course, not all MATs build their walls so high. In fact, I work regularly with some excellent MAT colleagues who see it, almost as their duty, to increase the cross sector links, to counteract this risk of balkanisation.
These leaders have got it right. MATs, if they are to exist, and it seems they must, should ensure that they build healthy, interconnected webs with their localities. This is not achieved by ignoring what the community might offer in times of crisis. It is certainly not achieved by ferrying five and six year olds to another school simply because it is in the same MAT. This makes no sense at all.