The strength of feeling in north Northumberland communities when their school is under threat of closure was once again evident last night during a meeting at Branton Community First School.
At a packed and, at times, heated public meeting, Northumberland County Council officials were told in no uncertain terms that the community was opposed to the closure – as at Embleton last Thursday – but unlike there, the preferred option is to maintain the status quo. A petition of more than 20,000 names against the closure was also handed over.
Currently, although part of the Alnwick Partnership, pupils tend go to Glendale Middle School before coming back to the Duchess’s Community High School. A move to the Berwick Partnership would enable Branton to remain a first school and feed to Glendale as it does now.
However, as pointed out by the county council’s director of education, Andy Johnson, who was accompanied at the meeting by executive director for wellbeing and community health services, Daljit Lally, this would mean the students would join the Duchess’s two years later than the rest of their cohort, were the rest of the proposals to go ahead.
The current consultation, which closes on Thursday, October 22, is based on a preferred model of a majority of the first schools switching to primary schools, the middle schools closing and the new high school becoming a secondary school.
Mr Johnson said that the less-than-ideal concept of a first school remaining, but feeding into a primary-secondary system was one of the reasons why Branton was earmarked for closure. He referred to statistics which show that when pupils join a school separately to the rest of their cohort, it tends to have a detrimental impact on their progress. On a more practical note, he pointed out that there was a risk that there would be no places at the Duchess’s at 13, having all been filled at 11.
The first point sparked a lot of debate with many pointing out that children from Branton did very well and that the statistics may well apply to single children moving to a new school, rather than the situation which would take place in north Northumberland.
Coun Anthony Murray said that those were ‘very minor disadvantages’ compared to young children having to travel long distances to get to school and missing out on after-school activities.
One man said that he understood that Mr Johnson’s job was about raising educational standards across the county and if a switch to a two-tier structure in Alnwick would help, then fine, but ‘let us move to the Berwick Partnership; you can kill two birds with one stone’ by also keeping a good rural school open.
Another key area of discussion, as at Embleton, was the school’s role within the wider community and the disastrous effects of closure.
One person referred to the rural economy, saying: “A school is at the very centre of it. A lot of people don’t live within walking distance of a school and have to travel long distances.
“People tend to move when their children are at a young age so closing a school like this, you will just decimate the community. You need to back us, Andy Johnson, you should help us.”
Another added: “I know it makes your job more difficult, but Northumberland is a unique county.” While a third said: “You can’t compare other areas of England to this part of Northumberland; you can’t even compare it to Belford and Seahouses.”
After the meeting, Coun Kate Cairns said: “While I know that elected officers will do their best to consider all the material factors on this decision, the overriding emphasis presented by Andrew Johnson seemed to be on research which states that children moving ‘in-year’ ‘tend to be disadvantaged’.
“But I questioned the relevance of this research as we are asking not for single children to join a year in a completely new school with a peer group none of which they have ever met. By maintaining Branton as a first school (and Seahouses as a middle), the default would simply mean a double entry into the high school at 11 and at 13 with groups, perhaps large groups, of children staying within their peer group.
“So all those factors which might unnerve a child traditionally moving in-year, as experienced by Forces children, for whom it is obvious may struggle with multiple moves and facing a new school on their own, just do not apply to the situation we are proposing here.
“I would urge elected member to take great care on making decisions based on evidence of questionable relevance and instead focus on the swathes of pertinent evidence applicable to the school in question as well as the unarguable fact borne out in many of our other rural villages that closing schools destroys the viability and sustainability of our rural communities, which are so vital to making Northumberland more than simply a tourist destination.”