OPINION: ‘There are many challenges ahead’

Andy Johnson'Director of Education'Northumberland County Council.
Andy Johnson'Director of Education'Northumberland County Council.

Andy Johnson, director of education and skills at Northumberland County Council, shares his views in the aftermath of the publication of the report which proposes a major overhaul of schools in Alnwick and the surrounding area.

About eight out of every 10 children in Northumberland attend a good or better school. However, we have a long way to go to ensure every child has a good education and there are many challenges ahead.

There are still too many schools that aren’t good enough and there remains significant concern about who is reaching the basic standards in English and maths – cornerstones of our education system. This is particularly the case among some of our most disadvantaged youngsters.

Every day, in papers and the broadcast and social media, there are stories about Northumberland schools and academies – those doing well, those who need to improve and those doing innovative and trailblazing work. If we’re going to be in the media, I want it to be for the right reasons – to celebrate what hardworking headteachers and staff are achieving. Education is vital and the decisions we take affect people’s lives – not just the pupils and families, but staff as well.

The proposals put to the county council’s cabinet this week to change the education system within the Alnwick Partnership have attracted a lot of interest. This is an extremely challenging issue for us – local authorities don’t have all the decision-making powers over schools that they used to, schools have much more autonomy to do as they please, but we still need to support them and try to ensure that the system remains coherent. In the case of academies we have very limited powers.

So in the current situation, it is important to understand that in November 2014 it was the schools in the Alnwick Partnership that requested we carry out a consultation on the configuration of schools in the area on their behalf. At that time, the council had no plans to close schools, change structures or extend or reduce age ranges in the partnership.

However, many of the schools’ requests were based upon the belief that change was necessary to improve the quality of education and ensure that they were sustainable in the longer term. It is a crucial part of the council’s role to respond to schools and provide system leadership to ensure that school structures allow appropriate progression opportunities for pupils and the right number of places.

That’s why officers recommended to councillors that a consultation took place so the preferences and plans of individual schools could be shared with the wider community and the implications for long-term sustainability across the partnership could be analysed. Then we had the difficult task of coming up with a model based on sound educational principles that would keep the present system from breaking up.

I accept there were a mixed range of views, thousands of people responded and we held more than 50 meetings – and it was impossible for everyone to agree. There’s been some suggestions the council wants to phase out three-tier education. I’d like to put on record that this is not the case, but we cannot stand in the way of individual schools. However, equally we can’t take the risk that individual schools take unilateral action to change their own structures, which would have an unintended destabilising effect on other schools in the area. It’s important to remember that no final decisions have yet been taken and the next step is further consultation.

Ofsted tells us that what makes schools better is good leadership and teaching, that is clearly happening in many schools right the way across Northumberland. They also say the role of the authority is to provide system leadership and sometimes take difficult decisions.

We must provide effective challenge and support – and I believe that’s exactly what we’re doing in considering these proposals.