A councillor described the outcome of the long process of consultation on school structures in the Alnwick Partnership as being ‘as satisfactory as we could ever hope’.
That was the view of Alnwick’s Coun Gordon Castle at this morning’s meeting of Northumberland County Council’s family and children’s services scrutiny committee, which unanimously backed changes that will lead to the closure of four middle schools, including Seahouses, and the extension of the age range at Alnwick’s high school as well as at 13 first schools.
It follows the third – and final – period of consultation and all that remains now is for the authority’s cabinet to sign off the switch to primary and secondary schools on Tuesday.
Coun Castle accepted that not everyone would be happy though, saying: “I know there are problems in rural areas, there’s nothing without a downside,” Nonetheless, he described himself as ‘agreeably surprised’ at ending up in this position after 10 to 12 years dealing with the issue of two-tier versus three-tier.
The committee chairman, Coun Bernard Pidcock, described the process as ‘long, tortuous and, in many ways, painful’, but also said that the outcome was satisfactory, although not supported by everyone. Coun Eileen Burt said: “I’m pleased to see an end to the consultation and pleased to end up at a point where everyone is content.”
However, union representative Richard Woolhouse said it was ‘misleading’ to say everyone was content as ‘staff in all the middle schools are extremely worried at the moment’. As well as teachers concerned about redundancy, he said that middle schools which are running down to closure with staff looking for new jobs could have an impact on educational standards. “I’m reasonably optimistic that the staffing protocol is there, but I’m reflecting the views of our members,” he added.
Coun Robert Arckless, cabinet member for children’s services, said: “Staff in the middle schools will be feeling under threat potentially, but we do have a staffing protocol in place that does work, although it requires the help of the governing bodies.”
The council’s director of education, Andy Johnson, summarised the overall situation by saying: “There will be some people who will be disappointed by some aspects of these proposals and some people that will be very, very happy. We have to improve outcomes for young people across Northumberland. This will be one piece in a jigsaw in making that improvement happen and there are many other things that need to happen.”
The recommendations will close the middle schools at Seahouses and the three in Alnwick (The Duke’s, Lindisfarne and St Paul’s RCVA) from August 31, 2017; extend the age ranges at Swansfield Park, Hipsburn, Seahouses, Shilbottle, Swarland and Branton first schools up to 11 from September this year; and extend the age range at Alnwick’s Duchess’s Community High School to 11 to 18 from September 2017.
The governing bodies at the church first schools – St Paul’s RCVA, Ellingham CE, St Michael’s CE, Whittingham CE, Felton CE, Longhoughton CE and Embleton Vincent Edwards CE – have already agreed to extend the age range to 11 and become primary schools as long as the council approves the changes for the other schools.
A further recommendation is that the council agrees to allocate £4.5million from its medium-term plan and £10.1million from its schools capital investment programme to make necessary changes to school buildings. The bulk of this relates to modifying the new-build high school in Alnwick so Year 7 and 8 pupils will be educated on the same site; the estimates range from £7.8million to £11.2million.
However, all of the above is conditional on planning permission being granted by the end of August this year for building works at the Duchess’s Community High School as well as Swansfield Park, Shilbottle, Hipsburn, Swarland and Ellingham CE First Schools.
Planning applications have already been submitted for classroom extensions at Swansfield Park, a multi-use hall facility including welfare facilities at Ellingham, stand-alone classroom block with welfare facilities at Hipsburn and Whittingham, and two external canopies and external ramps to reception and nursery at Seahouses.