We are facing a crisis in our village of Belford.
On January 25, parents received a letter from school governors announcing a consultation to examine a proposal to close St Mary’s C of E Middle School in August.
This came as a shock to parents who had been assured that the future of the school was safe as late as October. Some young families have moved into the area, taking out long-term mortgages on homes, because of this assurance.
The reason the governors are giving for the need to close the school is the anticipated fall in pupil numbers to only 67, caused by the Alnwick Partnership’s change to a two-tier system, making the school no longer financially viable.
Belford Middle is currently in the Berwick schools’ partnership, which is still three-tier. However, the majority of children who attend Belford choose to head south for the next stage of their education. Most of the parents of those children have to pay for school transport as they are outside the Alnwick catchment area.
The impact of losing these children in Belford will be huge.
Families do not want to put their nine-year-old child on a bus for a possible 45-minute commute to get to school. They will leave, and it will be almost impossible to attract new young families to the area.
We do not want to see Belford become a retirement home, it’s a vibrant community, with the school at its heart. To take the school away will remove the soul of the village.
We do not accept that the solution is immediate closure. Our aim is to keep children in Belford as long as possible.
Our solution is to delay or extend the consultation period. In the short term, first and middle schools would share resources and staff, reduce costs and remain open for the 2017/18 school year. The year could be used to consult properly, examine all the options, look long-term and secure the best possible option for education provision for Belford and the surrounding community.
Northumberland County Council, the Diocese of Newcastle, governors, staff and parents must all work together to achieve these aims.
The first school is still a local authority school and if the governors decide to recommend closure of the middle school, the final decision lies with the cabinet of Northumberland County Council.
For the council, the timing of the consultation could not be worse. The purdah period means the council is ineffective for a month before the election on May 4, and it may take some time to form a new administration.
We are looking for cross-party support to get all councillors singing from the same hymn sheet before we go into the election to ensure that on the day after May 4 we can make progress. We have written to the leaders of the three main parties at County Hall in a call for unity in the face of this adversity.
We urgently need parents of current and future children to confirm in writing that they want to keep their children in Belford and will do so if the consultation period is extended. If that is you, or if you have any ideas for support for schooling in Belford, please get in touch.
Together we can make a difference.
Co-chairman, Belford Schools Action Group (BSAG)