I write as a concerned resident of Belford and a former headteacher of 20 years standing.
The statement by governors of Belford Church of England Middle School that its budgetary difficulties may necessitate closure in July has come as a shock to parents and residents.
The timescale for consultation is too short. Should closure go ahead, this could not take place by July when the summer break commences, or even September. Pupil places in alternative schools must be found and redeployment procedures for staff must be followed. Both permit formal appeals, which can take months.
The first priority must be for any consultation to be allocated time for all parties to thoroughly investigate the options.
There is also concern that the plans have been sprung upon parents without prior mention. I am told that parents admitting children to the school only recently were assured that its future was secure. One wonders how the governors have communicated the content of their meetings, as required, to parents and the public.
The school is experiencing a fall in numbers as a direct consequence of the Local Education Authority’s (LEA) decision to allow school partnerships to consult on whether to become two-tier in isolation from others. As a result, the Alnwick Partnership has adopted a two-tier structure, while the Berwick Partnership, which includes Belford schools, remains three-tier.
Having taught in both types of school, I wholeheartedly support the two-tier model of primary and secondary, but this cannot operate fairly if carried out separately from adjoining partnerships.
The fact that many Belford parents choose to send their children to Alnwick is well-known so it should be no surprise that the situation has arisen. Anyone could have predicted that Belford would be seriously affected, yet it is half-way through the school year when we learn of these plans.
The situation of Belford is unique – equidistant from secondary schools in Alnwick and Belford, but not large enough to have a significant influence.
Northumberland is one county, a large and diverse one, but for its education department to allow different areas to operate different policies is nonsense. Surely it should aim for unity, consistency and continuity across the schools?
A longer timescale for consultation is a priority. If governors choose to ignore this then no effort should be spared to keep pupils within the village to complete their education until 11 or 13, in preference to the governors’ suggestion of bussing the children to Wooler for up to four years.
If the LEA, church and governors agree the priority is to keep children in the village until the start of their secondary education, they must work together to think creatively and come up with an acceptable solution. For example, they could move staff and pupils into spare accommodation within the first school, originally built as a secondary in 1940 for about 160 pupils.
Guidelines for the church set out that it is expected to investigate formal collaboration with a larger school in an effort to keep the school open. This might include sharing staff and resources. If the budget will not permit the appointment of a new headteacher, the possibility of amalgamation with the first school could be explored. A teacher in a senior post could be made responsible for Years 5 to 8.
If the governors have already pursued these options, we need to know the outcomes and whether they are viable or not, with full reasons.
This school is a special case – a rural church school, one of the smallest middle schools in the country, and one of only three C of E middles in Northumberland. It belongs to the Berwick Partnership, which is three-tier, yet has a long history of parental preference for secondary education in a neighbouring partnership, now two-tier.
It is deplorable that this situation has been allowed to develop. It would be interesting to know what efforts have been made by the LEA to safeguard the school’s future. One would expect that monitoring and intervention would have taken place much earlier than a few months before the end of the school year. Has this happened?
It may well be that the three-tier structure cannot survive long in our county. For the immediate future our school deserves the best possible treatment during this crisis, including additional temporary funding to help it manage through this uncertain period to a solution acceptable to the majority.