Council apology over claim Education Funding Agency shared its concerns about Dereham Sixth Form College split

The plan to split Dereham Sixth Form College provoked protests from students. Picture: Ian Burt

The plan to split Dereham Sixth Form College provoked protests from students. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

Norfolk County Council apologised to a government funding body for telling Neatherd parents the organisation shared the council's concerns about the school's plans to set up its own sixth form, according to documents obtained by this paper.

In April, the council gave the school a warning notice in order to halt its controversial proposal to break up Dereham Sixth Form College.

In a message to parents and students explaining its thinking, the council had said: 'This is not our view alone... the Education Funding Authority (EFA) – which controls funding of education – have similar concerns.'

However, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show the council apologised for this claim in an email to the EFA on April 22, and said the letter 'should have had its wording amended in exactly the way other statutory communications were – i.e. not suggest anything but neutrality in the EFA's work'.

Neatherd's leaders had previously disputed the claim the EFA opposed its plan.

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A council spokesman said: 'It was not our intention to overstate the EFA's position in our letter to parents.'

The same email also revealed the EFA had made what the council described as an 'exceptional and unusual offer' to change the way the two high schools received funding for sixth form students, had the split gone ahead.

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Usually, part of a college's annual grant is based on student numbers for the previous year. However, the EFA had agreed to instead use 2016-17 student numbers when calculating their 2016-17 funding.

In an April 15 letter to Gill Spillman, Neatherd's chair of governors, Gordon Boyd, the council's assistant director of education, said that, despite this, 'best estimates would strongly suggest neither DSFC nor Dereham Neatherd are likely to be viable, with anything like the current extensive range of provision'.

The same letter included a claim by the council that regional schools commissioner (RSC) Tim Coulson, who oversees academies, had delayed Neatherd's application to convert.

Mr Boyd wrote: 'It is also noted the lack of strategic and financial plans has caused the RSC to delay your application for academy trust and sponsor status.'

The Department for Education, on behalf of the RSC, declined to comment, as did Neatherd.

The documents also show how supporters and opponents of Neatherd's plan have sought Mr Coulson's support.

One parent alleged on March 10 that leaders at Neatherd 'act divisively and have encouraged an acrimonious atmosphere in the town sadly', and urged the RSC not to allow Neatherd to sponsor other schools.

Another wrote to Mr Coulson on May 13, saying the council's plan to remove replace Neatherd's governors with an interim executive board risked 'taking a good school and turning it into a school that requires improvement'.

The council and Neatherd declined to comment on the emails.

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