A Derbyshire secondary school has been evacuated and closed over safety concerns related to the building. Mercia Academy, formerly William Allitt, in Sunnyside, Newhall, was evacuated and closed on Friday, November 17, due to the issues.
Parents and carers claim the school, which has 588 students, has been short on detail about the situation. It has told parents and carers that it aims to have some “supervised study space” from tomorrow (Tuesday, November 21), but remains closed today (Monday, November 20) and will remain closed “until further notice”.
A letter sent to parents and carers, sent on Saturday, written by principal Jackie Cooper and Falcon Education chief executive Angela Barry, says: “After discussion and in consultation with the Department for Education, the decision was taken yesterday afternoon to close Mercia Academy with immediate effect, and until further notice. This is because of safety concerns related to the building. While we know this is extremely inconvenient, the health and safety of our students, staff and all those who use the buildings is of paramount importance to us and we will not compromise on that.
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“We know you understand this but we of course apologise for the disruption we know the closure will cause. We will undertake further tests and surveys and the education of all students will be via remote learning.”
The school has been a high priority for a complete demolition and rebuild for the best part of a decade but funding for a wholesale refurbishment has not been forthcoming, despite appeals to central Government, and there have been funding cutbacks at Derbyshire County Council. In early 2022, the first £7 million phase of £20 million works to demolish and rebuild the school made it into the county council budget and work is said to be progressing behind the scenes but action on-site has not started.
When it included the school rebuild in its budget, the council had detailed it was “housed in a building that is close to the end of its economic life and requires replacement” with its “poor condition” impacting its popularity and ability to be rated at least “good” by Ofsted. Photos shared online appear to show significant mould in an area of the school, exposed by deteriorating wall panels.
A Mercia Academy parent talking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service says there is widespread mould and damp in the school, with numerous buckets in place to catch water from leaking ceilings, and there are allegedly mushrooms growing in one area due to the disrepair and exposed asbestos. When the LDRS visited the 1960s school in late 2018 there were also many leaking ceilings, patches of damp and widespread disrepair, to the extent that the roof was propped up with beams encased in panels within classrooms.
The disrepair of the school was the stumbling block for an academy chain to take over the complex, but this was finally settled last year when the Falcon Education Academies Trust took over last summer – renaming the school for the start of this new term. A spokesperson for the academy trust repeated the statement it had issued to parents. It did not respond to allegations of widespread mould, damp, leaking ceilings and mushrooms growing.
It would not say what the specific safety concerns were or how they were identified or why such serious safety concerns were only now discovered. A county council spokesperson said: “We are aware of the situation at Mercia Academy and while we are not directly responsible for its operation and maintenance due to its academy status we are offering whatever support we can at this challenging time.
“We understand parents and carers are being kept informed as students are taught remotely while further tests take place today and we will continue to offer support as the hard work continues to get the academy back open as quickly as possible.” South Derbyshire MP Heather Wheeler has long been involved with plans to replace the current buildings, including lobbying the Government for support.
She told the LDRS: “I was contacted on Friday to let me know about the closure of the school due to health and safety reasons. I was sent a copy of the letter given to parents explaining that work would be undertaken over the weekend to see which areas of the school could be opened, safely, as quickly as possible.
“The immediate aim is to make sure those coming up to their GCSEs will be able to come back within hours rather than learning remotely. It was a huge moment when the school was included in the budget for the next tranche of schools to be re-built.
“I know the head Jackie Cooper and Derbyshire County Council have been working incredibly hard moving forward with the planning of the new school. I am grateful to all involved in making this very difficult decision to close the school but also to the hard work going in to open it as quickly as possible.”
Steve Frost, then chair of governors, told the LDRS in 2018 that attempting to repair the school would be like “putting lipstick on a pig”. It had been referred to as “reaching the end of its useful life” as early as 2004 but still remains nearly 20 years later.
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