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Big changes on the horizon for Frome schools as council steps up consultation – By local democracy reporter Daniel Mumby

BIG changes to the schooling system in Frome could be on the horizon if it is deemed to be in the best interests of local pupils.

Somerset County Council (now Somerset Council) implemented widespread reforms to the schooling system in Crewkerne and Ilminster in September 2022, converting the existing three-tier structure (comprising infant or junior, middle and upper schools) into the more widespread two-tier system (primary and secondary). 

These reforms – which proceeded in spite of a judicial review by local parents – were intended to address low pupil numbers in the local area and concerns about the standards of teaching in some individual schools. 

No final decision

Somerset Council has now confirmed discussions are ongoing about similar reforms in Frome and the neighbouring villages – though no final decisions have yet been taken. The Frome education area covers the town of Frome and numerous surrounding villages, including several near Shepton Mallet and several near the border with Wiltshire. 

The area has 18 state-maintained schools operating on a three-tier system – namely: 11 first schools (Beckington, Berkley, Christ Church, Hayesdown, Mells, Norton St. Philip, Nunney, Rode, St. John’s, Trinity and Vallis), two middle schools (Oakfield Academy and Selwood Academy), two primary schools (Leigh-on-Mendip and St Louis), one upper school (Frome Community College), one combined primary and middle school (Avanti Park School) and one all-through special school (Critchill). 

Of these 18 schools, ten are directly maintained by the council and eight are academies, organised into six different multi-academy trust. To complicate matters further, ten of the schools have religious articles – seven being Anglican, two Methodist and one Catholic. 

Phil Curd, the council’s head of education places, laid out the current situation when the council’s children and families scrutiny committee met in Taunton last month. 

The county council opened initial discussions with the schools in the Frome education area in January, surveying school leaders on the potential impact of changing from a three-tier to two-tier system. 

Following a feedback report in March, a meeting was held at Selwood Academy attended by representatives from all 18 affected schools, the Diocese of Bath and Wells and the regional director’s office (which reports to the education secretary). 

By May, officers at the new Somerset Council (which replaced the county council in April) had prepared models for a two-tier system in Frome and met with each of the 18 schools again, with a further meeting being held at Selwood Academy in late-May. 

Appetite to progress

Phil Curd said in his presentation to the committee, “While there was not a general consensus to adopt a two-tier model in Frome, there was an appetite to progress discussions further, over an extended period of time, introduce other elements and invite other stakeholders to engage in the process. 

“After individual visits at all Frome schools to hear the views of school leadership teams, the shared conclusion is that this conversation needs to involve a broader representation from Frome’s communities in order to ensure that any future proposals best serve the needs of Frome and its children and families.” 

The council has stressed no final decisions have yet been taken on the potential reorganisation of Frome’s schools. 

Phil Curd said in his presentation, “We are looking to establish a steering group made up of a wider group of stakeholders in the autumn of 2023 to continue these discussions further. No decisions have been taken and no changes will be made unless there is support from within the school system and community for change. 

“While we have no immediate intention to propose any changes to the education system in Frome, local schools and academy trusts may exercise their statutory right to explore changes to individual settings. 

“Where they choose to do so, they will be working with us and the regional 

 director’s office to ensure that any proposals are in the best interest of Frome’s children and families.” 

The steering group (which will include representatives from Frome Town Council) will ensure numerous issues are considered relating to the potential changes, including post-16 education, early years provision and the impact on children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). 

Several of the relevant schools have already taken steps to change their status, either seeking academy status or reviewing their age ranges. Selwood Academy has been formally consulted on its age range, and six first schools (Beckington, Berkley, Mells, Norton St Phillip, Rode and Trinity) have begun the academisation process, which could be completed by late-2024. 

Frome Community College and St. Louis’ Catholic Primary School have also applied to become academies by late-2024, with a view to joining the Midsomer Norton Schools Partnership Trust and the Dunstan Education Partnership respectively. 

Cllr Frances Nicholson, shadow portfolio holder for children, families and education, said it was essential that local division members were involved at every step of the process. 

Cllr Nicholson represents the Dulverton and Exmoor division on the council and served as cabinet member for children and families until the Conservatives lost the local elections in 2022.

She said, “I think it’s really important to involve local members quite closely, otherwise it’s highly likely that hares will go off in all sorts of directions.” 

Ruth Hobbs, the committee’s school governors’ representative, questioned how the best interests of Frome’s children and parents could be served when they had not already been consulted. 

She said, “If we’re having these conversation and children, young people and families are not involved in them already, how can we say that it’s ‘going to involve the community’? I think we need to start having those wider conversations sooner rather than later.  

“Having gone through the Crewkerne and Ilminster experience and knowing how upset some families were at not being involved in the process earlier, I think that’s a lesson that we really need to learn.” 

Amelia Walker, the council’s service director for education partnerships and skills, said that parents and children would be widely consulted once there was any formal proposal for reform, describing the approach as “a widening circle”. 

She added that there was a, “Clear intent to avoid the challenge we had in Crewkerne and Ilminster for everyone involved. Our hopes are high that this will remain a collaborative process with everyone around the table. Nothing will be imposed at all – that is incontrovertible.” 

Cllr Adam Boyden, whose Frome North division includes several of the affected schools, said that the newly formed Frome Local Community Network (LCN) would also be looking into this issue. 

He said, “The community will start to hear what’s happening in this sort of presentation and discussion.” 

Further updates are expected to come before the committee in the coming months at the steering group meetings.