Excellence Cluster could close down

AN organisation dedicated to helping the poorest schoolchildren in Hastings could close although more money will be available to help schools support disadvantaged pupils.

The Hastings and St Leonards Excellence Cluster, which provides one-to-one tuition, special projects and parental support could shut after the East Sussex Schools Forum decided its funding should be distributed between every school in the county.

Local schools and political leaders were staggered by the decision, especially as the most recent figures show that the achievement gap between pupils who are eligible for free school meals and those who aren’t is set to narrow again this year.

Cllr Jeremy Birch, leader of Hastings Borough Council, said: “The Excellence Cluster has done a huge amount for Hastings but this puts its whole future in jeopardy. All the schools in Hastings are against these changes, because the Excellence Cluster provides the sort of dedicated, personalised support the schools and East Sussex County Council (ESCC) would not be in a position to deliver.

“That kind of intervention makes a big difference to children who are falling behind. There are swings and roundabouts in school budgets but Hastings schools will lose out.”

Of 11,122 school pupils in Hastings and St Leonards, 2,929 are eligible for free school meals - ie their family income is less than £16,000 per year. This represents 26 per cent of pupils, or just over one in four, but at some schools the figures are much higher, such as The Grove where 44 per cent of last year’s intake fell into this bracket.

Under the Government’s pupil premium scheme, there will be £430 for each pupil eligible for free school meals, and a spokesman for ESCC said that all in all Hastings schools would get more money to help poorer youngsters.

He said: “While the Excellence Cluster schools will no longer benefit from all of the specific Excellence Cluster grant from the Government, they will still continue to benefit from some of that funding together with other grants including the pupil premium.

“The net result will be that, in cash terms, the Hastings schools will actually be better off and changes to the Excellence Cluster funding should not, in themselves, lead to a widening of the attainment gap.”

And Fiona Calderbank, acting headteacher of The Grove, was also upbeat about the pupil premium. She said: “The free school meal percentage has risen as the economic climate has deteriorated but the pupil premium of £430 per student will support schools in raising attainment for learners who have free school meals.

“This will have a positive impact in addressing the inequality that currently exists in higher educational options and consequently the life choices available for these students.”

Cllr Birch said schools were also being hit by cuts in maintenance budgets which would affect them.

Both he and Amber Rudd MP have said they will be fighting the decision to reallocate the Excellence Cluster funding.