Reprieve for under-threat middle school in Northumberland

Locals protesting against the closure of St Mary's CE Middle School in Belford.
 Picture by Jane Coltman
Locals protesting against the closure of St Mary's CE Middle School in Belford. Picture by Jane Coltman

The middle school in Belford, which was facing the axe later this year, will now stay open while options for the future are considered.

In January, governors at St Mary’s CE Middle School informed parents of a move to close at the end of the summer term due to a predicted fall in pupils numbers affecting financial viability.

But today, a letter from governors went out to parents and the community to say that ‘in light of the strong opposition to the closure proposal and the many requests for more time’, the school will remain open, at least until other options, such as establishing a primary school in the village, can be considered properly.

The letter accepts the strength of feeling in Belford, saying: ‘There was clear opposition to the proposed closure and concern was expressed about children having to travel significant distances to other schools, particularly those children in Years 5 and 6.

‘There was also concern expressed about the impact on the local community of any decision to close and the consequent viability of Belford as a village as a whole.’

However, it warns: ‘Our priority as governors is always to consider the educational experience we are able to offer to the children and we continue to have significant concerns that in light of the projected pupil numbers for September 2017, it is going to be extremely challenging to provide an adequate standard of education for children beyond that date.

‘It is going to be particularly difficult to ensure the appropriate levels of specialist staffing to deliver the necessary curriculum for children in Years 7 and 8 and we fully appreciate this is going to be especially challenging for existing staff, even given their commitment to the children.’

The letter adds: ‘We will review this situation in the near future. Sadly, it is likely to be necessary to undertake a further period of consultation to update parents and consider again viability and educational standards.’

Guy Renner-Thompson, co-chairman of the Belford Schools Action Group, said: “I want to thank everyone at Belford Schools Action Group and the 500-plus people who signed our support forms, without them we would have had a very different outcome. This shows just what people power can achieve.

“Some very difficult decisions will be made over the next year, but this time will give all the stakeholders enough time to give proper thought and consideration into the future of schooling in Belford, and give staff and parents time to plan for the future.

“The end game is still a viable primary school in Belford able to give the best quality of education to our children and free transport to Alnwick to give parents real parental choice. Ninety-five per cent of the current Belford Year 8 are going to the Duchess’s Community High School, it’s time for the council to look again at transport arrangements.”

Full text of the letter:

The consultation process has now concluded and the governors have considered responses from all stakeholders in detail, the school will remain open.

There was clear opposition to the proposed closure and concern was expressed about children having to travel significant distances to other schools, particularly those children in Years 5 and 6.

There was also concern expressed about the impact on the local community of any decision to close and the consequent viability of Belford as a village as a whole.

Our priority as governors is always to consider the educational experience we are able to offer to the children and we continue to have significant concerns that in light of the projected pupil numbers for September 2017 it is going to be extremely challenging to provide an adequate standard of education for children beyond that date.

It is going to be particularly difficult to ensure the appropriate levels of specialist staffing to deliver the necessary curriculum for children in years 7 and 8 and we fully appreciate this is going to be especially challenging for existing staff, even given their commitment to the children.

However, in light of the strong opposition to the closure proposal and the many requests for more time to consider alternative possibilities we have decided to cease the consultation at this stage to enable us to have more time to investigate alternative options.

One option suggested by many parents in response to the consultation was that a primary school should be established in the village and we want to allow some more time for the Northumberland County Council to consider this. We as a governing body support this wholeheartedly.

This is not something that could now be achieved by September 2017 due to statutory timescales and would ultimately be a decision for the cabinet of NCC.

However, in light of the strength of feeling from our parents and the wider community and despite reservations, we want to ensure there is time for them to fully to explore this possibility.

We will review this situation in the near future. Sadly, it is likely to be necessary to undertake a further period of consultation to update parents and consider again viability and educational standards.

We as a governing body are fully committed to supporting our staff in raising standards.

We will be supported by the Diocese and the Council as we move forwards and would like to thank you all for your full engagement with the consultation process.