Council rejected last-minute Neatherd compromise over plan to split Dereham Sixth Form College

Neatherd High School, Dereham. Picture: Ian Burt

Neatherd High School, Dereham. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

Neatherd High School proposed a last-minute compromise in an unsuccessful bid to save its controversial vision to set up its sixth form, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed.

The school's decision to end the partnership which has seen it run Dereham Sixth Form College with Northgate High since 1977 has split opinion in the town since it was announced in February.

The controversy came to a head last month when Norfolk County Council stopped the split by issuing Neatherd with a formal warning notice, stripped governors of control of the school's finances, and started a legal process to replace them with an interim executive board (IEB).

Following a Freedom of Information request, Neatherd has released documents including its official response to the warning notice, and the subsequent consultation on removing its governors.

They show governors proposed 'a new collaborative model of working' designed to meet the concerns in the warning notice, while still rejecting the council's demand to 'commit to high quality education provision exclusively and permanently through Dereham Sixth Form College'.

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The Neatherd proposal would have seen Northgate and Neatherd have separate sixth forms, each running their own 'viable courses', but with students from both schools jointly taught 'minority subjects' at whichever institution was strongest in that area.

In a resolution dated April 29, Neatherd governors said: 'In time there is the potential more fully to realise other aspects of collaborative working and to begin to establish a partnership brand, for example The Dereham Sixth Form Partnership. This would be a group structure where each institution preserves its individual identity.'

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Gordon Boyd, the council's assistant director for education, said: 'The requirements of the warning notice issued to the governing body were very clear. We recognised governors were willing to compromise on some aspects but this did not include the central requirement to retract plans to set up a separate sixth form.

'Overall non-compliance therefore led us to take the actions set out within the warning notice.'

The documents also show Neatherd first told the council of the possibility of it leaving Dereham Sixth Form College in November 2015. It announced its plans in February following the resignation of the college's director, and questioned why the council did not take action earlier.

Mr Boyd said that, in November, the council said it was the school's responsibility to come up with a 'solid, sustainable plan'.

He added: 'We worked alongside both schools throughout March to get a full sense of their plans. This led us to conclude in April that Neatherd's plans were not sustainable themselves and they would also inevitably undermine the work of Dereham Sixth Form College.'

The documents also show Neatherd has in recent weeks stuck to its argument that the standards at the college are not good enough.

However, a council briefing to Neatherd governors said 'the case has not been made that standards at the existing sixth form are weak to the extent the school would want to disassociate itself,' and said 'appropriate plans' were in place where 'pockets of weaker provision have been identified'.

Alan Jones, chair of governors at Northgate, said: 'We continue to focus on looking forward and enabling all current and prospective students at Dereham Sixth Form College to achieve the best outcomes.'

The Department for Education said regional schools commissioner Tim Coulson had received the council's application for an IEB, and would notify it of his decision 'in due course'.

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