And councillors also heard that there is real optimism about the future of Haydon Bridge High School, despite the cloud which has been hanging over it in recent years.
Last week, it was revealed that following an informal consultation on a major shake-up of schools in the Hexham and Haydon Bridge areas, just one – Bellingham Middle School – is now likely to close with the first schools in the Haydon Bridge Partnership set to become primaries from September 2019.
Northumberland County Council is to step in to save Haydon Bridge High School following the withdrawal of the Bright Tribe Trust as academy sponsor, with a rescue package of £1.54million to support it for at least three years.
There are no proposed changes in the Hexham Partnership, meaning the council did not support Hadrian Learning Trust’s bid to create an 11-to-18 school at Queen Elizabeth High School due to the knock-on effects on the wider education system.
These proposals were discussed at today’s (Thursday, May 3) meeting of the authority’s family and children’s services scrutiny committee, where Alan Hodgson, a co-opted member who is not a councillor, raised concerns about the number of pupils needed at the two high schools in order to make them both viable.
“You might be solving one problem, addressing parental choice, but you are actually creating another,” he said, adding that the ‘mixed economy’ of a two-tier system in Haydon Bridge and three-tier in Hexham would cause issues too.
Andy Johnson, the council’s departing director of education who is leading on this project, responded: “Is it sustainable to have two secondary schools in the west of Northumberland? It is, if they work together in partnership.
“There were problems before the consultation and there are problems now, but the difference is we have a plan now. Before I think there were 32 different plans (from all of the schools involved) and now I’m asking them all to work together.
“I don’t want to put a damper on Haydon Bridge because I’m very optimistic, but it is in special measures (following a 2014 Ofsted inspection). The alternative, bluntly, is to close some schools.”
Coun Wayne Daley, the cabinet member for children’s services, added: “We have listened and this report recognises the belief we have of Haydon Bridge being a viable, vibrant school in the west of Northumberland. I want the message to go out (to parents) that there are now choices on your doorstep.”
Later in the meeting, Coun Colin Horncastle, a former Haydon Bridge pupil who represents South Tynedale, said: “There are real plans behind the scenes to make that school work and I’m really confident that it can work.
“Parents are crying out for a school offering something different to Hexham. They are wanting a different choice for their children.
“It’s not perfect, but if cabinet want to listen to parents, this is about the best we can come up with. I’m very, very optimistic about the future of the Haydon Bridge Partnership.”
The proposals will now go before Tuesday’s (May 3) cabinet meeting, although there will be no final decision as school closures and changes to age ranges require a statutory consultation. The matter would be back before cabinet to be signed off on July 10.
Coun Daley thanked all those who have been involved in the consultation process, saying: “The last eight weeks have been a very difficult time for some of our communities. What we have here is a real partnership opportunity.”
Mr Johnson added: “99.9 per cent of the people I have spoken to have had the education of the children at the heart of their very strong feelings.
“Our job as a local authority is to provide system leadership and we have always felt that if we don’t do it, no one else will.
“During this process, we have stepped on a number of toes, but we wanted to bring them together. We may have pushed them apart, but now we need to bring them together again.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service