Neatherd head rejects claim his position is “untenable” after council issues warning notice

Neatherd High School, Dereham. Picture: Ian Burt

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

The head of Neathered High School has rejected claims his position is untenable after Norfolk County Council issued an unprecedented warning notice that could stop controversial plans to set up its own sixth form.

Peter Devonish, headteacher of Dereham Neatherd High School

Peter Devonish, headteacher of Dereham Neatherd High School - Credit: Archant

Neatherd announced in February it was pulling out of Dereham Sixth Form College, which it has run in partnership with Northgate High School since 1977.

At the time, Neatherd headteacher Peter Devonish said progress at the college had not been as good as he had hoped in recent years, but the county council said it 'generally provides a good education', with a few subjects needing specific improvement.

On Monday, the council handed Neatherd a formal warning notice - its first for a school judged 'good' by Ofsted - to prevent it setting up its own sixth form. If the school does not comply within 10 working days, the council could take control of its finances and replace its governors.

The news came as it emerged a number of staff who work at Dereham Sixth Form College, but are employed by Neatherd, have been told they could be made redundant if the college splits, and Northgate or the college did not offer them jobs.

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They met with NUT and ALT union representatives, and Scott Lyons, of the NUT, said they were focused on their pupils, but facing 'huge uncertainty'.

James Joyce, chairman of the council's children's services committee, said two smaller sixth forms were unlikely to be able to offer the same variety of subjects as the current joint institution, because of funding and staffing issues.

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He added: 'In considering the various reviews of existing provision and the lack of detailed planning for the proposal by Dereham Neatherd for its own sixth form, we do not believe that this case for a significant change is made.'

Mr Devonish strongly defended his position in a letter to parents and students, writing: 'We do have robust and fully conceived plans based on successful student outcomes and careful financial management.'

Following a governors meeting on Tuesday, he said the school remained committed to its plan, although the warning notice meant work currently underway would be delayed.

An extraordinary meeting of governors early next week is due to consider which points in the warning notice they would agree to, and which they would not.

He said he was also seeking independent legal advice.

Lucy Spinks, 17, of the Student Voice campaign, said: 'If the county council is saying they are concerned to the extent they are issuing a formal warning, that should be good enough reason to stand back and say 'this is not going to work'.'

Howard Turner, spokesman for the Parent Action for Dereham Sixth Form College group, which opposes the split, said he was 'cautiously optimistic' after the warning notice was issued, and Mr Devonish's position was now 'untenable'.

He said: 'Once a warning like this has been issued, one must feel the management team at Neatherd need to look to their futures. The bridges are burned. That management team is not going to be able to cooperate with the sixth form. I can't see that happening in a month of Sundays.'

Mr Devonish said the call for him to resign was 'laughable', and added: 'We have considered our position and we all know we run a very good school and what we are doing is absolutely the right thing for our students.'

Both Neatherd and Norfolk County Council are under pressure to release emails and other documents from the period before the February announcement.

Neatherd rejected a freedom of information request from Mr Turner, and the council rejected one from this newspaper, saying it could prejudice the conduct of public affairs. Both decisions are being appealed.

Glyn Hambling, headteacher of Northgate High School, said: 'Our focus continues to be our students and working closely with all partners, including the leadership team at the sixth form college, to ensure we continue to maintain standards, provide stability and deliver a good education for all our students now and in the future so they are well prepared and feel confident about their impending examinations, and have every opportunity to do well in life.'

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