'We just need time' - campaigners fighting to save Hexton JMI from closure plea for support from wider community
- Credit: Maya Derrick/Hexton JMI
A 175-year-old primary school on the outskirts of Hitchin is continuing its fight to remain open as Hertfordshire County Council's period of consultation gets under way.
Hexton JMI School, which has capacity for 70 pupils, had just 40 on the school roll at the last Ofsted inspection - leaving pupils and staff facing an uncertain future.
If the decision is taken to close Hexton JMI at the end of the five-week consultation period, it is proposed that this will take effect at the end of this academic year.
The ‘Save Hexton JMI’ group argues strongly against closure, with the belief that the school has a viable and sustainable future ahead.
As part of the consultation, a public meeting will be held at St Faith’s Church on October 12, where arguments to save the school will be heard by members of the county council.
Branding rural schools an "endangered species", campaign spokesperson Antony Wallace said: “At the time the decision was made to move to two classes - in November 2018 - the school boasted 55 pupils. Since the low point of 27 pupils, in the immediate aftermath of that decision, the school successfully grew back to 43 by December 2020.
"This proves it is possible to grow pupil numbers significantly, back to the numbers the school regularly had on roll just a few years ago - we just need time, and the removal of the threat of closure, to enact our plan."
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He added: "We will be compiling a robust response to the consultation, presenting a compelling argument for keeping Hexton JMI school open.
"With the strong support of Cllr David Barnard and Bim Afolami MP, we will continue to present our case to the councillors on the education, libraries and lifelong learning panel to ensure the arguments against closure are heard.”
Hexton's interim headteacher Colette Pigeon told the Comet: "I don't want to be the last headteacher of Hexton primary school. I want to hand that legacy on when the time is right.
"Caroline de Lautour set up this school as a benefactor, she wanted it for the community. She was very much about children and opportunities.
"I see my role this year, in terms of looking after the families, looking after the children.
"I can't control the outcome, but what I can do this year is bring the energy that is required.
"If I'm here for a year, I will do everything that it takes to give the children we have with us right now the very best chances in education that we can.
"I will support the families as long as they're with us, and I'll support them if they unfortunately have to move on."
Acknowledging the hard work of those working to prevent the school's closure, Miss Pidgeon added: "I feel excited, I feel humbled.
"I really believe that this school has a strong community that want the absolute best for the children that come to it, and I just think they deserve a chance to let that come to fruition - because I just think that they have incredible ideas, spirit and energy, and I'm proud to be a part of it."
Kylie Johnson heads up the Hexton Parents' Association and has two young boys at the school.
She said: "I haven't got a fault for this school. I started as a two-parent family, and now I'm a one-parent family, and the school has given me so much support - through lockdown as well, which I think is really important.
"They've encouraged myself and my children, and they're thriving. They're absolutely thriving. They do really well in this school."
Devastated when she found out about Hexton's threat of closure, Kylie added that not a single parent pulled their child out of the school.
"I'm standing strong. I'm not leaving this school. I'll be here until the end. I'll be chained to the gates outside!"
Kirstie Gran is one of Hexton's parent governors, and specifically moved her children from schools in Letchworth to the Ofsted rated-good school for a more rural approach to education.
She said that the county council has "a very short-term view."
"It's a busy area", she said. "You've got Hitchin and Letchworth where the schools are quite busy there, but there's also the needs of the children.
"Children with SEND need a smaller, nurturing school and don't integrate as well in the bigger classrooms as much as others.
"It's very sad to think that the council are thinking to close a school in this environment, which you're never going to get back.
"Such an amazing resource for this area would be lost, when there doesn't seem a need for that to happen yet."
Hexton JMI TA Melissa Webster, who is also a parent of two children who went through the school and an ex-governor, knows the school inside-out, and has thoroughly enjoyed learning about its rich history.
She said: "I'm really saddened at the thought of a school like this not being available to children.
"Both of my children thrived here," she added, noting that the school was pivotal in getting her daughter her autism diagnosis.
"Hexton School didn't give up the fight.
She added: "I think Hexton School offers something really unique to our children with social difficulties, anxiety. After a pandemic, we're already seeing children coming back to school, struggling. And these are children who would settle into a school routine quite easily. It's a massive change after all that time off.
"A school like this can offer that support, it really can. It's hard watching lots of children suffer, but it's why we're teachers and assistants - we want to help these kids. We want them to thrive."
Cllr Christopher Alley, who sits on the county council's education, libraries and lifelong learning cabinet panel said : "I don't think anybody's in the business of closing schools, and I wouldn't be a county councillor if I wanted to.
"I feel that there is a great opportunity for the school, for the governing body and for all the stakeholders here - and parents - to demonstrate that this fantastic school has done such a great job for 175 years, and will do a great job going forward.
"I'm confident that the consultation process will give them the opportunity to demonstrate that, and that an informed decision [will be made].
The consultation period on the fate of Hexton JMI closes on November 3. To submit your views, visit HCC's consultation portal.