Campaigners plot judicial review over closure of abandoned church school

Staff and parents at a Church school rejected by the local diocese will seek a judicial review of a decision to close it down.

Surrey County Council has ruled that Ripley Church of England Primary School must close, after local CofE academy chain The Good Shepherd Trust, established by the Guildford Diocesan Board of Education, refused to take it on and the diocese blocked another trust from doing so.

Ripley, a voluntary controlled school in rural Surrey, was earmarked to become an academy last year after it was placed in special measures by Ofsted, prompting a campaign by staff and parents to keep the school open.

The circumstances leading to the closure have been nothing short of a farce

Now the Friends of Ripley CofE Primary School Surrey group has announced it will seek a judicial review of the council’s decision, which it claims was not fair or lawful.

“Surrey County Council didn’t explore all the options before proposing to close the school – they could have looked for support for through a federation,” said Catherine Bremford, from the group.

“We also don’t believe that stakeholders were fully consulted and we don’t believe that they have fully considered the cost of closing the school. We don’t accept their decision and we will be going to judicial review to challenge it.”

In May, Schools Week reported that The South Farnham Educational Trust (SFET), which runs three ‘outstanding’ primary schools, was rejected by the diocese of Guildford to take over at Ripley.

It has since emerged that two other academy trusts were also rejected by the area’s regional schools commissioner (RSC) Dominic Herrington and the diocese, on the basis they did not meet the conditions for sponsorship – which include a need to “safeguard” the religious character of the school.

An offer of help by the nearby Shere Church of England Infant School was also rejected by Herrington because the school is not an academy.

Without a sponsor, pupil numbers at Ripley steadily fell from 140 at the time of the Ofsted inspection in 2017 to just 41 this year.

Surrey County Council voted to close the school at a meeting on July 17 this year, acknowledging that problems at the “highly valued” school “could not be overcome”. Pupil progress at the school was said to be “significantly below average”, and the number of pupils on-roll was deemed untenable.

Sir Andrew Carter, chief executive of SFET, which was blocked from taking on the school, said seeing the it finally flounder was “a great shame”, and said he might look at buying the site.

“Ripley is a thriving community and there were lots of options,” he said.

Sir Andrew Carter

“What we hope now is that it may be not over. There is a school there that the church has made it absolutely abundantly clear it doesn’t want to run, so are they willing to sell the site?

“There are many interested parties including ourselves who might look at that.”

Mark Hammond, regional schools lead for the south east branch of Unison, which has been supporting Ripley staff, said the process had been “nothing short of a farce”.

Staff members have told the union they feel “forgotten about” and believe that the situation has been “ineptly managed”, with “a distinct lack of information, respect or empathy”, he said.

Alex Tear, the diocese of Guildford’s director of education, said the decision to close the school “is not a reflection on the work of the children or staff at the school who have worked hard despite the challenging circumstances the school has experienced”.

“The diocesan board of education remains committed to small and rural schools and is increasing its capacity to support our Church schools.”

A DfE spokesperson added that any decision to close a school “is never taken lightly”.

“In the case of Ripley Church of England Primary School, a poor Ofsted rating and low pupil numbers meant the local authority made the decision to close the school following a consultation on its future.”