‘Missed opportunity’ in Northumberland schools overhaul

Haydon Bridge Community High School. Picture courtesy of Google Maps.
Haydon Bridge Community High School. Picture courtesy of Google Maps.

A two-year-old report highlighting issues which have reared their head during discussions on the future of education in the west of Northumberland has been described as ‘a missed opportunity’.

At Tuesday’s meeting of Northumberland County Council’s cabinet, members agreed the next steps in a major overhaul of the schools system in the Hexham and Haydon Bridge areas.

Among them was ‘establishing a resilience programme’ by encouraging schools to form a hard federation or federations so that small rural schools can work together.

The council will also create 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’.

But ideas very similar to these were included as recommendations in a council report written back in October 2016.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Coun Wayne Daley, the current cabinet member for children’s services, said that it was a missed opportunity that the suggestions in this report were not taken forward.

However, the previous administration did attempt to take action on the education system in Hexham and Haydon Bridge, albeit its plans were not universally popular.

Haydon Bridge High School has been in special measures since early in 2015, but proposals to close it, merge it with Queen Elizabeth High School and build a £46million ‘super-school’ on a new site in Hexham were halted by the Government in 2017.

In a letter to the council in January that year, the then Schools Minister Lord Nash said: ‘The council’s proposal to close Haydon Bridge High School cannot be reconciled with its legal duty to take all reasonable steps to facilitate the conversion of the school into an academy.’

This letter, which disappointed the council but brought an end to its proposals, also said: ‘Bright Tribe (the academy sponsor) has a strong record and is making progress in these difficult circumstances.

‘In Northumberland, it has made first-class leadership appointments and the resulting improved standards will ensure that families in the Haydon Bridge area have an excellent choice of schools.’

At the time, the council expressed its ‘grave concerns about Bright Tribe’s track record of school improvement’.

Fast-forward 10 months and the sponsor pulled out, due to the ‘financial position and long-term viability of the school presenting a significant financial risk to the trust and its portfolio of other schools’.

This, alongside other factors, sparked the consultation which resulted in this week’s agreed next steps.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service