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Celebrating 30 Years of the Peaslake Schools Trust

This January marked the thirtieth anniversary of the formation of the Peaslake Schools Trust, a charity that was formed in 1994 to sustain early years education in the village after the closure of the original state-funded school was confirmed.  Over the ensuing years the commitment of the community to retain a school in the village that children can easily walk to and attend has remained incredibly strong.  For some 20 years the facility was funded entirely by voluntary donations and local fundraising and in 2013 returned to the state sector as Peaslake Free School.  As we mark this milestone, it feels appropriate for us to look back on what has been an amazing journey and look forward to the ongoing role of this unique small school at the heart of our community.

There has been a school in Peaslake for some 150 years and it was over a century ago that two local sisters, the Spottiswoodes, made a generous donation to fund the construction of the current school building at the top of Colmans Hill.  This was the start of a long and tight association of the provision of education close to the community which has endured ever since.  With the Education Act of 1944 the school became a full part of the state sector as a Church of England Infant School which was to be the basis of its operations for fifty years.

The early 1990’s, however, saw a demographic blip which appeared to signal over-capacity in schools across Surrey and a number of smaller schools, especially those serving village communities, were closed or marked for closure.  Peaslake was among those targeted, and the proposed loss of the school stimulated the people of the village into a robust campaign to keep this vital facility and avoid parents having to drive or bus their young children to neighbouring schools.  The campaign appeal included moving videos of children crying as they were herded onto coaches.  It also involved serious messages about the damage that would result to the vibrancy of the local community if younger families were not to have access to a local school where relationships could be developed among children and parents alike.

The community fought their campaign for several years and eventually the case ended up with a final appeal to the Secretary of State for Education who in July 1993 announced a decision to close the school a year later.   At the meeting in the school where this announcement was made, members of the community who had been leading the fight called for an urgent public meeting in the Village Hall the following Saturday to decide next steps.  At this point it was not clear what options the village had, but the resilience and commitment to find potential solutions was undimmed by the setback.

The well-attended meeting that followed homed in on the idea of seeing if the village could work out a way to run the school itself as a charity.  A rather naïve and unsuspecting management consultant who had only moved into the village a few months before (me) rashly volunteered to see what setting up a charity would involve and how to develop a constitution for such a body.  The charity was formally instituted on January 17th 1994.  Meanwhile, others got on with the far more vital work of considering fundraising approaches, location plans and identifying key supporters and stakeholders, and especially sounding out the views of the current parents.

The most important foundational step was the early commitment from a number of the existing parental cohort to continue to educate their children in the village and to stick with the organising group until a solution was found.  This was a quite remarkable signal of trust from parents, who of course had the interests of their young children at the forefront of their minds, but who also saw the importance and value of keeping them anchored as part of a special village and friendship community.

The second, and key commitment was the offer from Margaret and Leslie Jones to make part of their home at Ridgmount on Lawbrook Lane available to house the school while the access to the original school buildings was obtained.  The hope was that this would be achieved just a few months beyond the official closure of the C of E school at the end of the Summer term in 1994.  The procurement of the facilities sadly, proved more complex than anticipated.  The actual ownership of the buildings was eventually traced back to the McKenzie family living on a cattle farm in Zimbabwe.  Although they were very supportive of the intent of the village to sustain the school, the buildings were held in trust by the local Diocese.  They in turn, were reluctant to approve a sale to members of the community who could, in principle, have quickly failed to operate the school and looked to make a killing on the development of the site, and they were also mindful of the risk to the viability of other local schools if Peaslake remained open.

While negotiations started with the Diocese, the hard work of securing the funds to make a potential purchase began.  Richard Lawson and Margaret Jones led the process and soon a group of some 18 families came forward to make pledges.  It was though, to be some three years before the building was secured and over all this period the school operated in the Jones’ home.  What began in the games room moved on into other parts of the downstairs of the house and the patience, forbearance and flexibility of Margaret and Leslie as hordes of young children took over their beautiful home was as spectacular as it was vital.  It was clear from the start that should the school have ever ceased to operate, then getting it started from scratch again was going to be very hard.  The value, therefore, of being able to offer continuity of provision to parents and children was huge.

The final year of the school operating in its old form passed quickly and in July 1994 it closed its doors and all the equipment, furniture and fittings were removed to be sold or re-used.  The Peaslake Trust committee grabbed anything that might prove useful.  We were very lucky to have secured the services of Christine Doubleday, whose children attended the school, to become the new Head as it reopened at Ridgmount in September of that year.  Together with Alison Anscombe, another Peaslake villager, they formed the core of our teaching team for the fourteen children that formed the initial cohort, while Janette Weller, another parent, took on the office administration – a role that she has continued to perform wonderfully for all of the past thirty years!

The process of acquiring the school buildings did take three years during which period the they fell into considerable disrepair.  Finally, in January 1997 the funding group gained ownership of the site and was able to begin the huge task of refurbishment.  Once again, so many volunteers came forward from the community to help with clearance, painting and restoration of the heating systems, lighting and technology.

After herculean efforts the triumphant return to the school for the children was possible in June 1997.  On a gloriously sunny day we processed through the streets of the village from Ridgmount to the site at the top of Colmans Hill.  I can still vividly remember having my two-year-old son Alex on my shoulders as the group excitedly made its way in a babble of noise and colourful celebration to a playground ceremony of dance and music performed by the children.  And so began the full operation of the school back where it belonged with an associated nursery operated in the hall alongside the main school classes.

Of course, while we continued to benefit hugely from volunteers giving their time, we did wish to operate the school from the start as a fully fledged school with appropriate salaries for the staff.  This money had to be found, and so began the creation of the local fundraising engine which was to substantively power the operations for the next 19 years.  What began at a very low, but important, level with lines of pennies, cake baking and small parentally-run social events, grew over the years to a capability to raise more than £50,000 per year from the village.  Auctions of Promises, Peaslake Open Gardens, Candlelit Christmas Concerts, Teddy Bears Picnics at Abinger and the development of the School Field as part of the annual Peaslake Summer Fair were all created as part of this activity – we even had the Royal Shakespeare Company come to the village a couple of times to give performances as part of the fundraising, as well as support from the Coverwood Concerts.

All of this activity built a huge esprit de corps among the cohorts of parents involved over the years and created an even stronger bond between the school and the villagers, whose support for these events was as amazing as it was vital.  Much of the remainder of the funding for the school also came from the community in the form of generous direct financial donations to the charity. Door-to-door efforts by the trustees to engage the local householders were very successful in both communicating the vision and value of the school, but also stimulating meaningful additional funding.   

As we approached the twentieth year of running the school, by which time we had cumulatively raised more than £2m, it became clear, however, that the model for fundraising was not infinitely sustainable.  The pattern of families living in the village had changed with more situations where both parents were working and the amount of time available to support and run countless fundraising events was reduced.  It was also clear that the costs of operating the school – some £250,000-300,000 per year - were growing to a level which were unlikely to be matched by the resources of a small village.  Fortunately, this moment coincided with the launch of the Government Free school initiative, which looked to encourage communities to take over the running of schools.  As a living example of the policy in action over two decades, we decided to make an application to take part in this model and re-join the state-funded system.

This application required the mobilisation of another group of dedicated parents and volunteers to pull together all the materials and plans to make a credible proposal to the Department of Education and the next generation of parents and trustees came forward to lead this work.  After over a year of effort, we were delighted to be approved as one of a very small number of Single Academy Trusts to be set up under the new policy.  So it was that in September 2013 Peaslake Free School came into being back in the state system, receiving the majority of our funding for the main school from the Department.

This success did not mean the end of the charitable trust or the discontinuation of fundraising activities.  There was still a need to maintain the school building, which was bought out by the Trust from the original funders and leased to the Free School for a peppercorn rent.  There was also the need to operate the Nursery which is independent of the Free School while acting as a vital provider of the majority of children who come into Reception.  Finally, there was the opportunity for the Trust to provide additional incremental funding for the Free School to make up for gaps in government provision or invest in particular areas such as reading systems or technology upgrades.  These activities are all still supported by the fundraising behind the Open Gardens, Candlelit Concert and Teddy Bears Picnic among others and sustain a special relationship between the school, parents and the village.

Over the years the leadership of all this fundraising has fallen on the shoulders of generations of parents without whose hard work the story would have been much shorter.  So many parents and supporters have given freely of their time to organise, conduct and support countless activities, and those trustees who have led our efforts in this space over the years have carried some of the heaviest burdens.  We owe all involved a huge debt of gratitude – and we continue to benefit from the work of the current cohort of parents and members of the community as we seek to bolster the government funding in key areas.

There have been many heroes and heroines of the story of the school from the start.  The early pioneers who had the commitment and faith to get the project of the ground have been succeeded by new cohorts of trustees as the years have passed.  There have been generations of other parents and villagers who have stepped up to keep the flame alight and managed the school through good times and bad.  Deputy Chair David Newman and Moira Jones, have, alongside Janette, been at the heart of the financial management of both the School and the Trust for nearly a quarter of a century.  Funding for early years education continues to come under pressure and it is to the credit of the team at the school that they continue to curate the finances of both the Free School and the Trust in a manner which allows us to invest in the quality of our provision while also providing a safety net in the event of demographic blips or downturns. 

In 2018 a major donation enabled the substantive modernisation and expansion of much of the school estate.  A third classroom was developed and a dedicated space for the Nursery operation.  This freed-up the Hall fully to provide school meals and additional indoor activity space.  Since this move the Peaslake Nursery has gone from strength to strength and under its current manager Louise Collins is attracting young children from across the area with its warm welcome and great facilities.  Also, the option to provide three class teaching across Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 has been possible when the numbers have merited it.  In the main school the façade has gained a new extended porch and door which support the free flow of children and additional wet weather play areas.  The playground has been upgraded and the gardens are subject to regular renovation activities.  The school continues to embrace its unique position in the Surrey Hills with a vibrant Forest School and regular walks in the woods. 

Over its life, most importantly, the school has benefitted from great teaching teams and superb Heads.  Christine Doubleday, Jo George and for the past 14 years Sara Dangerfield have provided a continuity of child-centric leadership and deep understanding of the needs of the parents in the community.  They have adapted the provision of the school, stayed abreast of developments in early years education and worked tirelessly to deliver the excellent educational outcomes which have been the hallmark of the Peaslake throughout its existence.  The school has continued to thrive and as recently as last year reached record numbers of pupils with over 40 children across the three school years aged from 5-7 as well as up to 20 children in the Peaslake Nursery.

From the beginning of this story, though, there has been a recognition that numbers of children requiring this provision will rise and fall in line with movements of families into the village and wider demographic trends.  We are in the midst of one of these downward trends right now and this is bringing to the fore the value of what all this hard work over the years has created.  We have the flexibility to operate when the school numbers are lower, while at the same time the continued existence of the school only makes sense when the need for it remains strong in the community within which it sits.  

As we embark upon the next thirty years of the school, therefore, we are focused as a Trustee body on shaping a vision for its provision which matches the needs of parents now.  We recognise the challenges of dual working families and the desire to provide “wrap-around care” alongside the teaching of the core curriculum.  We are consulting with parents on the best way to balance the length of our days, the clubs we operate and the drop-off and pick-up times that make sense for the families in this area and the connectivity with other schools.  We will be continuing to work with the village as we develop this vision.

Since the formation of the Trust hundreds of children have benefitted from the start in education provided by Peaslake School.  They have gone on to thrive at their next schools with readiness and confidence and have looked back fondly on the foundations for their lives that began in the village.  Some of these children now have their own children who have come to the school.  Generations of parents have also come to know each other through their shared experience and support for the school and created a basis for important relationships and cohesion at the heart of the vibrant community that Peaslake remains today.  As Chair for all of these three decades it has been my distinct privilege to see the power of what has been achieved.

We look forward to future decades of the school playing its role at the heart of the village.  We thank all those who have made the past thirty years of success possible and look forward to your ongoing support and encouragement. 

Mark Foster

Chair of Trustees Peaslake Free School and Peaslake Schools Trust


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