‘The time’s right to do it’ – head’s view on two-tier school structure

Gavin Johnston.   headteacher at St Michael's C of E First School in Alnwick.
Gavin Johnston. headteacher at St Michael's C of E First School in Alnwick.

The decision has been made and now it’s a case of getting ready for the major shake-up in education in Alnwick and the surrounding areas.

The final approval for the switch from three-tier to two-tier education in the Alnwick Partnership was signed off last month.

St Michael’s in Alnwick is one of 13 first schools in north Northumberland – 14 now that Warkworth, from the neighbouring Coquet Partnership, has opted to change too – to convert to primary from September.

Headteacher Gavin Johnston said: “It’s a really exciting opportunity for our school and it’s a great thing to do because we are catching up with the rest of the country.

“The transition at Year 4 has often been a bit tricky because it’s midway through a Key Stage so it’s great we can keep the children to 11.

“We are in a fortunate position because we are the only Church of England school in the town and, with the church being here, we can continue that church ethos up to 11.

“We have kept the parents and children fully informed; both are really excited.

“A really big part of what we are doing is involving the children in the decision-making process.”

This has meant letting the pupils – particularly the Year 4s, who will become the first Year 5 in September, but also the Year 3s – have an input into the curriculum and other activities.

This has included books they want to read, a school trip to London in Year 6 and designing a new logo for the school.

The Year 4s will be the top year group for three years in a row, before then heading to the new secondary school on the Greensfield site, so Mr Johnston is aware of the need to keep things interesting for them.

Overall, it was a case of getting the children on board with the change, Mr Johnston explained, adding: “Most of the children had assumed they were going to middle school so there was some disappointment because that’s where they expected to go.

“Our belief is to create an inclusive primary school rather than adding a Year 5 and 6.”

Another side of the transition is reassuring the parents, because three-tier education system has been part and parcel of life in north Northumberland for so long.

Parents were asked to submit their top three questions to which the headteacher and governors provided answers and meetings are taking place to discuss things further.

“Teachers are fully qualified to teach to 11, even if they haven’t done so recently,” Mr Johnston said.

“We are more than happy and confident that we can achieve the full curriculum for the children.

“Our biggest challenge will be getting the transition right into secondary school because obviously it’s a bigger jump.”

The third prong is the shake-up of staffing and St Michael’s, like the other schools in the partnership, has signed up to the staffing protocol set out by the county council, because ‘we all want the best for the children’.

Mr Johnston said: “I’m very conscious that it’s been stressful for the staff (in the middle schools which are to close).

“All the local schools are working together about how it’s going to work and putting staff first in this difficult time, for example, some of the interviews are going to be in the schools rather than strange locations to ease the pressure.

“I hope as many people as possible can get jobs.”

One issue that St Michael’s doesn’t need to worry about is building work as the school was originally built as a primary school so it is large enough and has the facilities already.

In an effort to avoid other pitfalls, staff and governors have visited schools in Newcastle, which has always had a two-tier system, and Cramlington, which made the switch from three-tier in 2007.

Asked if he thought the abolition of first, middle and high schools in Alnwick was overdue, Mr Johnston said: “The time’s right to do it and it’s good that the decision has been made from within rather than imposed upon.”

The whole process started back in the autumn 2014 when Northumberland County Council’s new director of education, Andy Johnson, held meetings with all the school partnerships about the way forward.

All of the schools in the Alnwick Partnership wanted to have a consultation on whether a two-tier system or primary and secondary schools, as used by most of the rest of the country, should be introduced, although not all of the schools believed that the structure should change.

In November that year, we reported that Northumberland County Council had published proposals for the restructuring of schools ahead of the launch of a consultation on three options; no change, a switch to two-tier or the amalgamation of the Duke’s and Lindisfarne Middle Schools on the Lindisfarne site.

During the consultation process, more than 50 meetings were held, providing the opportunity for governors, headteachers, staff, parents, pupils and the wider community to give their views.

The governing bodies of 12 of the 18 schools in the partnership stated they were in favour of the implementation of a new two-tier model.

Come June, the switch to a two-tier system, resulting in the closure of four middle schools, became the preferred option, with the proviso that 11 to 18-year-olds would all be educated at the new school, rather than Years 7 and 8 being educated on the Lindisfarne site.

However, an unexpected outcome was the proposed closure of the first schools in Branton and Embleton, with the community campaigns to save them becoming a focus of the second period of consultation.

At the end of that, in November, it was full steam ahead for two-tier education with the only change being that Branton and Embleton were to convert to primary schools with the others.

Due to the closure of schools inherent in this recommendation, it triggered a statutory consultation period, which came to an end in January this year .

The first schools in Alnwick, Hipsburn, Shilbottle, Seahouses, Branton, Swarland, Longhoughton, Ellingham, Felton, Whittingham and Embleton will become primary schools from September, the middle schools in Alnwick and Seahouses will close in August 2017 just prior to the Duchess’s Community High School becoming a secondary school.

What the children say

During a visit to St Michael’s CofE First School, the Gazette spoke to Jack, Callum, Tamsin, Sophie, 
Jessica and Millie, all in Year 3, who were excited about a number of new opportunities they will have as pupils in a primary school.

The first thing mentioned, by Jack, was a new logo, which the children are helping to design.

Tamsin said: We won’t have to make as many sacrifices and changes.”

Sophie added: “We don’t have to move school so much.”

And Jessica pointed out: “We will get to stay with our friends for longer because sometimes they go to St Paul’s or the Duke’s (middle schools).”

School trips and residentials were mentioned and the prospect of a trip to London in Year 6 definitely went down well.

There will be more opportunities in sport and music – Mr Johnston said those are areas that middle schools provide lots of options – as well as in drama, eg school plays.

Jack was very excited at the prospect of those in Years 5 and 6 being able to bring their mobile phones into school – as they may be walking home on their own – but was disappointed to learn that once at schools, the phones would be kept locked away!