Two-tier in Alnwick: Green light for major changes

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Northumberland County Council’s decision-making body has today given the go-ahead to a switch to a two-tier system of primary and secondary schools in the Alnwick Partnership.

At this morning’s meeting of the council’s cabinet, there was rare consensus with the Conservative, Lib Dem and Independent group leaders all voting with the Labour administration to support the recommendations, which will see 13 first schools become primary schools, the four middle schools (three in Alnwick and one in Seahouses) close and the Duchess’s Community High School become an 11-to-18 secondary school at its new Greensfield site.

It follows yesterday’s meeting of the family and children’s services scrutiny committee where a number of issues were aired, but members ultimately gave their backing to the proposed changes.

Presenting the minutes from that meeting today, chairman Coun Bernard Pidcock said: “Without the special relationship between the local authority and our schools, education in Northumberland would be totally fragmented and unable to act together for the good of the whole.”

Coun Robert Arckless, cabinet member for children’s services, said that this process, which saw the first consultation launched a year ago, has ‘certainly been a long, hard journey’ and ‘one of the most difficult issues I have had to deal with since I was appointed to this role’.

“It has been a huge exercise,” he added. “I’m glad that it’s been acknowledged that this was a genuine and open consultation.”

Referring to Branton and Embleton first schools, which were earmarked for closure but will now convert to primaries, he welcomed the response from those communities. He said that there is a risk in terms of very small schools delivering a primary curriculum, but described it as a ‘worthwhile risk’.

“We are demonstrating a continued commitment to rural schools and I would ask parents to work with us,” he said.

On the closure of Seahouses Middle School – probably the biggest ‘loser’ in this process – he accepted the officers’ view that this was best for the education of the children and the longer-term sustainability by having one school in the village, concluding that the overall recommendations were a ‘pragmatic and fair response to the consultation process’.

Tory group leader, Coun Peter Jackson, offered broad support, but said: “My one regret is that we didn’t consider a mixed system, but we are where we are.”

Independent Coun Paul Kelly said: “The outcome is the best for the children of the Alnwick Partnership. It’s going to allow for more accountability, allow for children to have fewer traumatic changes from school to school and there are numerous benefits from it.”

Coun Jeff Reid, leader of the Lib Dem group, welcomed the process, saying: “It’s turned out better than I expected because we have actually listened. We started with a blank piece of paper and we were given a vision.”

The county council’s deputy chief executive, Daljit Lally, assured councillors that following the approval, there were several main areas of continued work; the delivery of the new building for Years 7 and 8 at the new-build Duchess’s school, transport arrangements and extra-curricular activities.

Of the 18 schools, 10 are community schools while the other eight are church schools, which will carry out their own process. A statutory consultation regarding the 10 community schools will now be launched on changing the age range of the first schools and the high school as well as closing the middle schools, which will be signed off in January.