There have been a variety of responses from councillors and politicians, but all agree that there is work to do ahead of the switch to two-tier in the Alnwick Partnership.
As previously reported, the change will see 13 first schools become primary schools, the four middle schools (three in Alnwick and one in Seahouses) close and the Duchess’s Community High School become a secondary school at its new Greensfield site.
It follows two meetings on Monday and Tuesday, of the family and children’s services scrutiny committee and the decision-making cabinet.
Coun John Woodman, ward councillor for the Seahouses area, said: “The closure of the middle school is not seen as the right result for the village or the children, but was inevitable given the other changes within the partnership.
“We now have to make the new primary school the best it can be and I am pleased it will be on the middle school site. We also have to think about what happens to the first-school site, although any change is a couple of years off.
“The council needs to focus on schools maintaining educational standards during a period of upheaval in the partnership as well as ensuring that the new single-site secondary school is actually delivered on time.
“And, of course, making sure there are decent travel arrangements for children, especially for after-school activities.”
Alnwick councillor Heather Cairns was also concerned about the new high-school building, but welcomed the report as ‘a rational response to the two consultations’.
Alnwick’s other councillor, Gordon Castle, said: “I congratulate the cabinet and officers for getting us to this point through an extremely difficult and controversial process. I think it was the correct decision and enables us now to proceed with the new schedule of works and transfer arrangements.
“I respect the views of those who opposed the decision, but, the status quo not being a realistic option, I think the council has acknowledged the problem for some rural schools and made changes where possible. However, I know that not all parents will or could be satisfied.
“I will do all within my power to help resolve the many problems and issues that need to be dealt with and I very much recognise that sticking to the timetable will be difficult, but not unachievable.
“I am sure everyone will want the best outcome possible for children, which has been and remains the key consideration in my mind throughout. A great deal of work on this has now to be done and I also recognise that the situation of all staff potentially affected must be humanely managed.”
Lib Dem campaigner Julie Pörksen said: “The relief felt by the Embleton and Branton school communities is clear, as is sadness felt by those supporting Seahouses Middle School. I am disappointed the council did not look to find a solution which would have responded more to the transport issues for the rural areas.
“It is vital that the building works are on time and that pupils are disrupted as little as possible – a focus on quality of education is vital. I urge the council to plan the transport logistics as soon as possible and communicate with parents to allow families to plan their future.”
Council chief offers assurances on key areas of concern
The county council’s deputy chief executive, Daljit Lally, assured councillors that there are several main areas of continued work now the changes have been approved.
These include the delivery of the new building for Years 7 and 8 at the new-build Duchess’s Community High School in Alnwick, transport arrangements and extra-curricular activities, in particular, for pupils from the outlying rural areas.
There is around £9.6million earmarked for alterations to the schools whose age ranges are changing, of which £6million is for the Duchess’s school, but these figures will be checked and all the schools affected surveyed to find out what work is needed.
Of the 18 schools affected, 10 are community schools while the other eight are church schools, which will carry out their own process to convert to primary schools or close.
As required by law, a statutory consultation regarding the 10 community schools will now be launched on changing the age range of the first schools and the high school as well as closing the middle schools, which is set to be signed off in January.
Ripple effect could travel far and wide
During Monday’s meeting, director of education, Andy Johnson, reported that Berwick Academy, which is outside local-authority control, has commissioned a piece of research on changing the structures in the Berwick Partnership.
Indeed, during the Alnwick consultation, the governing body at Belford First School has ‘expressed the hope that similar changes can be brought about’.
Elsewhere, Warkworth First School, part of the Coquet Partnership, is also consulting on becoming a primary school. This consultation ends next week.