Angry meeting scorns the case for sixth form change

THEY set out seeking support - and ended up with their tails firmly between their legs.

Education chiefs took to the road on Wednesday in their first attempt to explain their plans to close school sixth forms in Hastings.

But before they could even begin to put across their message they were stopped in their tracks by one of the most passionate protests seen for a long time.

Over 150 people turned the heat up at Hillcrest School with the message ringing out loud and clear: "We do not want a sixth form college."

It was the first chance for parents and teachers to have their say about the controversial four college proposal and they told education bosses they regarded the new round of consultations as a bad joke.

And because of the bad feeling and deep mistrust the crowd did not allow the debate to move on one inch.

They sat with arms folded, not believing a word they were told by the panel of four from the county council and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), who have run the review of post-16 education and called the meeting.

When Henry Ball, executive director of the Sussex LSC, tried to start a presentation, he was told by a heckler: "Sit down and shut up. We don't want to hear any more of your lies and your arrogance."

Another said: "We've heard quite enough from you, Mr Ball."

The panel, which also consisted of Melanie Hunt, director of strategy at the LSC, Denise Stokoe, director of education at the county council, and Michael Nix, principal manager for development planning at the county council, were left in no doubt what the people who packed the hall felt of their proposals.

A banner at the back summed it: "We don't want your tertiary college."

Hundreds of people have signed petitions, written letters and turned up at several public meetings over the last 18 months to let the LSC, who have drafted the proposal with the county council and called the meeting, that they don't want sixth forms closed.

But despite these protests, a new sixth form college, as part of a family of four, could well become a reality.

Many parents and teachers think the LSC are going to create a college come hell and high water.

There was an atmosphere of gallows humour from the crowd who think the writing is on the wall for the sixth forms no matter how hard they fight.

Graham Delves, a parent, got straight to the point and said: "What do we have to do to stop you going through with this?"

Mr Ball replied that it would need a proposal that is likely to make a big improvement to attainment in Hastings which is what he hopes the college would do.

The proposal would see sixth forms replaced by a college which would be linked to Hastings College and institutions in Bexhill and Battle. The cost of creating the college is 53 million of government money.

Most of the debate centred around the William Parker / Helenswood federal sixth form which gets results close to the county and national averages. Hillcrest and The Grove / Filsham Valley sixth forms do less well.

Ian Scott, deputy head at William Parker, accused Denise Stokoe and Henry Ball of not having the duty of care that teachers have for their students. They both denied this.

Ellen Hannavy-Cousen, head of English at Helenswood and a teacher for 28 years and a parent, said: "This is an experiment and you are experimenting on our students."

Isla Dowds, a teacher, said the LSC had failed to provide a single shred of evidence that results would improve under a new college system.

Mr Ball said there was evidence nationally that suggested tertiary colleges do better than sixth forms and that more young people want to go to them.

Melanie Hunt said the meeting had not been helpful because of the constant interruptions which did not allow for proper responses.

She said: "Clearly there was a lot of strong feelings and I understand them and they need to make their voices known. I was a bit concerned there not being enough time for some people to ask questions because there was a bit of a stormy atmosphere.

"We really want this consultation to be productive and to move the debate forward and we didn't do that on Wednesday."

There is a full public meeting about the proposal at the White Rock Theatre on Monday at 7pm.