Managed decline: the slow death of Sunnydale must be resisted

Sunnydale School has been the victim of
Sunnydale School has been the victim of "managed decline" argues Kelly Ambrosini and its possible closure must be resisted.

It is over seven months since Durham County Council announced there would be an inspection of the Sunnydale campus of Greenfield Community College, with strong hints that the building was no longer fit for purpose.

No promise was made of any financial investment should its report reflect negatively on the building’s condition.

Pupils were removed at a critical time in their studies and bussed daily from Shildon to temporary accommodation at the Aycliffe campus.

This week, in an essay for the Crier, primary school teacher and local Shildon Town Councillor, Kelly Ambrosini, investigates the decisions that have led to Sunnydale reaching the precipice of closure, with parents and children potentially denied a High School in a town hosting three thriving and successful primary schools.

It is a history of systemic failure and “managed decline” and, she argues, its closure must be resisted.


In little over a week, children will return to school to start the new academic year. Many children starting their secondary education will know something about their new schools, albeit without having had the usual transition arrangements.

But what about those children whose parents chose the Sunnydale site of Greenfield Community College?

They will now be facing the prospect of travelling to a school in a different town and dealing with children and staff they’ve never met. Undoubtedly, children are resilient and generally make new connections fairly easily but due to a total lack of clarity from the local authority on whether their school was safe to reopen, these children now face added anxiety in the most uncertain of times with the prevailing COVID-19 situation.

No Secret

It has been no secret that over the years the local authority have wanted to close the school on numerous occasions; the first being in 1978, a mere ten years after it opened. The building is a CLASP (Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme) design and was only intended to have a lifespan of around thirty years.

In 2010, the building was scheduled to be replaced as part of the Building Schools for the Future Programme, only for the then coalition government to axe the plans for Sunnydale.

In truth, years of ineffective leadership and management, an unusually high staff turnover, low levels of achievement, decaying buildings and a lack of investment coupled with ineffective monitoring from Durham County Council have contributed to what can only be described as a ‘managed decline’.

Timeline

Since January, a group of committed residents and former (as well as current) teachers have been trying to piece together a timeline of events that have led to the decisions that have been made, as well as asking questions of the local authority on what is happening in terms of the condition of the current building.

Disappointingly, Durham’s Head of Children’s Services declined an invitation to a meeting with Town Councillors to discuss concerns about decisions made and what the future holds for the site as he didn’t see it as being ‘appropriate’.

The children of this town deserve the best education on offer. Currently, there are three well-performing Primary Schools in the town – two are graded as Outstanding and the other as Good. The nearby Prince Bishops Primary in Coundon Grange is also graded Outstanding.

Results

Statistically, in the Bishop Auckland and Shildon areas, children are highly likely (around 65% likely) to be living in a household of low income and are therefore already at a disadvantage before they start school. The proportion of children receiving free school meals across all three primary schools is well above average and many children start these schools with poor language skills, poor social skills and require extra support in school from highly trained and dedicated staff.

The staff at our local schools should be highly commended for the work that they do to not only achieve these fantastic results, but to also make the children feel safe whilst at school and to help them and their families understand how valuable their education is.

Staff work relentlessly to help parents get their children to school on time, to help parents work with their children to complete homework and offer many clubs and out of school activities to enrich their lives.

It should therefore be the right of these children to progress their education in the town where they live in order to continue that excellent groundwork.
Close links should be formed with all of these schools so that they can work together to help children feel valued and safe. Surely there should be no need for children to have to travel to school on public transport when we’re trying to teach them about living healthier, greener lifestyles.

Levelling up

In the last General Election we heard the term ‘levelling up’ being used repeatedly to convince voters that left behind areas such as Shildon would benefit from more investment and opportunity. It remains to be seen as to when or if we will see such promises being upheld but last week’s farcical events surrounding A-Level results, along with other qualifications such as BTECs being downgraded from teacher assessments, proved that it is still a postcode lottery as to how well you will fare in life depending on where you live.

To see an algorithm decide the fates of our children which was unfairly weighted on previous results instead of personal achievement was despicable and shambolic. The U-turn was welcomed and now, thanks to campaigning students, teachers and parents, children receiving their GCSE results will not endure the same anguish.

Struggle

Shildon has endured its struggles over the years. The loss of its main employer 36 years ago was the start of a decline in the economy which still hangs over the town today.

A lack of basic amenities such a supermarket or a bank, as well as a worrying future for the leisure centre (one of the few in the county overlooked for an upgrade) which also relies heavily on the children from Sunnydale using its facilities.

Add to that, Shildon now shares a Police Sergeant with Sedgefield due to underfunding, the rise of anti-social behaviour, persistent fly-tipping in many areas of the town, issues with rogue landlords and problem tenants and a general lack of investment and you can understand why people feel their town has been neglected.

The impending permanent closure of Sunnydale Campus is just to be the latest death knell and will surely impact negatively on the local economy again. How many children have bought goods from shops on the way to and from school? How many parents will have made trips to shops when dropping off and collecting their children? The recent announcement that we are now in the worst recession for 300 hundred years is highly concerning and this situation will hamper our town further.

Opportunity

In five years’ time we have a wonderful opportunity to revive the fortunes of our town and make it prosperous and attractive once more. 2025 is the bicentenary year of the first passenger railway to leave Shildon and we should be looking forward to making it not only an attractive place to visit and learn about our rich heritage, but also a better place to live, work and learn.

We need that sense of pride back and it needs to start with the children of Shildon.

Instead of demolishing Sunnydale Campus for good and sending our children to Bishop Auckland, Newton Aycliffe or Woodham, where results-wise (Woodham excluded) they are not that much better than those achieved in Shildon, why not campaign for a brand new school to be built here that is fit for purpose, well-equipped, resourced, inclusive and inspiring?

Such a learning environment could help to produce the next generation of engineers like we had working for Timothy Hackworth or the next generation of writers like we had in Sid Chaplin. We could even see future composers coming from here, just like Brass Band composers Thomas Bulch and George Allan.

We have much to be proud of here in Shildon; we need to give our children the confidence and vitality that they need to do well in life. We need them to feel proud of themselves, the people they come from and the town they live in and should be going to school in.

We can often feel helpless at times like this, as if the decision has already been made. But if there’s one lesson we can learn from the A-Levels fiasco, it’s that when pupils, teachers and parents fight together for what they know is right, they can win.

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