Two-tier education in Alnwick: 'The whole process is about a risk'

Latest news from the Northumberland Gazette.
Latest news from the Northumberland Gazette.

Northumberland's director of education reiterated that the aim was to avoid the education system fragmenting as a group of councillors voted to support the switch to primary and secondary schools this morning.

Members of the county council's family and children's services scrutiny committee today voted unanimously to support the recommendations to proceed with the transition to a two-tier system of primary and secondary schools, resulting in the closure of four middle schools, including Seahouses. The first schools in Embleton and Branton, which were earmarked for closure, look to have avoided the axe and will convert to primary schools as well.

Their endorsement - and comments - will go before the cabinet tomorrow morning, whose members will make the decision on whether to push on with the changes and launch a statutory consultation. The final sign-off would come in January 2016.

Presenting his report, director of education Andy Johnson described the whole process, which started a year ago, as about managing a risk, the risk of the entire set-up fragmenting through certain schools taking unilateral action on changing their age ranges and becoming primary schools. He wants to focus on educational standards, which come from the quality of teaching and the quality of leadership, but there needs to be a coherent system.

In terms of the changes to recommend that Branton and Embleton stay open, he explained that the schools had put forward compelling arguments that they can become successful primary schools. Referring to Seahouses, he added: "One single primary school would be more sustainable and would be better for the children and parents."

Laura Capper, chairman of governors at Branton, thanked all those involved in reversing the recommendation to close the school, which she described as 'good, financially sound and thriving', adding that the decision would safeguard education in Branton and the Breamish Valley for years to come.

Vickie Fyffe, a parent at Embleton, echoed the thanks and also reflected on how the campaign to keep the school open had 'galvanised' the community in line with the proverb: 'It takes a village to raise a child'.

Coun John Woodman, who is ward councillor for the Seahouses area, highlighted three main areas of concern that would come from the demise of Seahouses Middle School. The first was the impact on educational standards during the transition years, the second was transport and travel arrangements and the third was the unsatisfactory proposal to use the Lindisfarne Middle School site as a temporary accommodation for Years 7 and 8 should the new building not be ready on the Greensfield site. He called on the committee and council officers to ensure these were all monitored carefully.

Alnwick councillor Heather Cairns was also concerned about the readiness of the new building in time to ensure a single-site secondary school, but overall welcomed the report as 'a rational response to the two consultations', adding: "There was no done deal and it was a fair and open consultation."

Mr Johnson responded: "I can't guarantee that it will be up and running on September 1, 2017, but the team will do all in its power to make that happen. I believe that if there is a delay, we will be talking about weeks or months not longer."