Rural school to close in Northumberland education shake-up

Bellingham Middle School. Picture from Google Street View
Bellingham Middle School. Picture from Google Street View

Bellingham Middle School has been confirmed as the sole victim of the major educational overhaul in the west of Northumberland.

At today’s meeting of the county council’s decision-making cabinet, it was agreed that the rural school will close next summer.

It is part of a switch to a two-tier system in the Haydon Bridge Partnership which also saw councillors approve the extension of the age range to form primary schools at Bellingham, Greenhaugh, Kielder, Otterburn and Wark first schools from next September.

A change of age range at West Woodburn First School was not approved due to ‘issues that have arisen with respect to pupil numbers, staffing and finance’ and it will be looked into again and reported back in December.

Council officers will also now start working on a detailed business case for new school buildings for Hexham’s high and middle school, which would cost in the region of £36-£40million.

The initial consultation on this major shake-up of education in the Hexham and Haydon Bridge areas suggested that far more schools could face the axe, but that did not make the recommendation any more easy to swallow for those affected by the closure of Bellingham.

Parent Carl Hamilton said: “Surely it’s wrong to sacrifice one school to shore up others?”

He described the loss of the middle school and three-tier education as ‘disastrous’ for the area, not least due to its impact on ‘fragile rural communities’ as families move away or choose not to move there in the first place because of the distance from schools.

Coun John Riddle, ward member for Bellingham, did not vote on the proposals despite being a cabinet member as he had already indicated he could not support the closure of the middle school.

“Bellingham is quite a growing community and is a service centre for the North Tyne community and even the Upper Rede,” he said.

Coun Riddle recalled how his schooldays in Haydon Bridge, travelling from the Bellingham area, only left him time for homework and then bed upon returning home.

He said: “In one way, I felt that robbed me of my childhood and I wouldn’t want to impose that on anyone so I feel that transport is the major issue.”

It is accepted that travel times are a concern and a working group will be set up to oversee this. The numbers of pupils affected means it can he dealt with on an individual, case-by-case basis.

Summing up, Coun Wayne Daley, cabinet member for children’s services, said: “I’m absolutely proud of this report, it gives something that the west has never had and it’s called a plan.”

He emphasised that the council is investing millions in schools across the Haydon Bridge and Hexham areas, because ‘education is important to us’.

The Bellingham decision is not easy, he continued, but there will be £1.3million invested in converting the first school into a primary and moving the North Tynies Children’s Centre into the main school buildings.

In May, Northumberland County Council agreed to step in to save Haydon Bridge High School, which is in special measures, following the withdrawal of Bright Tribe Trust as academy sponsor.

The local authority provided a £1.54million rescue package as well as taking on the school’s £600,000 debts.

On top of this, around £5.1million is needed to sort out buildings in the partnership – £3.1million at the high school, £1.3million for Bellingham Primary School, £360,000 for Otterburn Primary, £366,000 for Greenhaugh Primary and £10,000 for Wark.

At the May meeting, it was also agreed that there would be no change to three-tier system in the Hexham Partnership, against the wishes of the Hadrian Learning Trust which runs Queen Elizabeth High School and Hexham Middle School.

But the council is now looking at making a significant investment – up to £40million – to bring these buildings up to scratch, with work also looking to establish a preferred site.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service