A troubled high school in the west of Northumberland will be brought back under council control and saved through a £1.54million rescue package.
At today’s (Tuesday, May 8) meeting of Northumberland County Council’s cabinet, members unanimously agreed the next steps in a major reorganisation of education in the Hexham and Haydon Bridge areas.
Following an informal consultation which put up to 16 schools at risk of closure or merger, proposals were unveiled a fortnight ago which would see just one close – Bellingham Middle School.
Councillors have agreed to launch a statutory consultation on the closure of this school as well as converting a number of first schools in the Haydon Bridge Partnership into primaries – Bellingham, Kielder, Otterburn, Greenhaugh, West Woodburn and Wark. A final decision will be taken on July 10.
But stepping in to save Haydon Bridge High School, which is in special measures, following the withdrawal of Bright Tribe Trust as academy sponsor, has been approved today.
At last Thursday’s family and children’s services scrutiny committee, there was optimism about its future, despite some concerns.
Coun Wayne Daley, cabinet member for children’s services, also revealed that the council is trying to reclaim Northumberland’s share of £230,000 from Bright Tribe: “I do not actually know what they have done with their £1million and we want it back because it’s public money.”
There are going to be no changes in the organisation of the Hexham Partnership, although councillors also agreed to ‘establish a resilience programme’ by encouraging schools to form a hard federation or federations so that small rural schools can work together.
It was also agreed that council officers will start looking, alongside the Hadrian Learning Trust which runs Queen Elizabeth High School, at proposals for redevelopment of the existing schools on one of the current sites or on a new site in Hexham. A report on this would also be presented on July 10.
Coun Daley added that ‘one of the little gems in the report’ is the creation of a multi-academy trust, in partnership with public-sector partners, ‘across the whole county to enable small rural schools to build sufficient capacity
to remain both financially and educationally viable’.
Coun Alan Sharp, who represents the Haydon Bridge area, said that it has been ‘a very stressful time’ but he is delighted with the proposals to save Haydon Bridge High School, adding that a choice of schools is really important in rural communities.
“This was a nettle that needed to be grasped,” said Coun John Riddle. “I do welcome this report, but as local member, I can’t welcome the closure of Bellingham Middle School.”
He added that travel times – currently an hour on the school bus – from Bellingham to Haydon Bridge should be looked at to see if better routes can be found.
Council leader Peter Jackson said: “We’re not afraid to take difficult decisions as long as we’re sure, absolutely sure, they’re going to take our county as a whole forward in a very positive manner.”
This process has shown that ‘we are a listening council’ and that it gives the whole are ‘a settled education system for the next 15 to 20 years’, he added.
On top of the £1.54million rescue package to run Haydon Bridge High School, £4.6million is needed to sort out buildings in the partnership – £2.5million to £3million at the high school, £912,000 for the proposed Bellingham Primary School, £335,000 for Otterburn Primary, £366,000 for Greenhaugh Primary and £10,000 for Wark.
This money would not be taken from the education budget, meaning other schools won’t lose out.
By Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service