Fourteen schools are under threat of closure in Northumberland despite warnings that it would devastate local communities, after the council released a consultation into the future of the county’s schools.
The situation arose after the troubled Bright Tribe academy trust pulled out of sponsoring the ‘inadequate’-rated Haydon Bridge High School, but the council says many other schools in the west of the county are also undersubscribed and running at a deficit, often in buildings needing “significant capital investment”.
Bright Tribe announced it was walking away from Haydon Bridge last November, blaming a “significant and increasing financial deficit” at the 11-to-18 secondary school, which is currently run by a DfE-appointed interim executive board.
The regional schools commissioner for the north, Janet Renou, asked the council to assess the viability of the school, leading to fuller plans to reorganise education in the area.
Northumberland is one of three counties still running a three-tier system of education, where some pupils move between “first”, middle and high schools at ages eight and 13 respectively, while others go to primary and secondary schools.
We have to accept there are a lot of schools which need a lot of capital investment but we’ve got to consider the future life of these communities as well
The council plans to close and merge many of the three-tier schools to create more of a two-tier system in the county. The consultation includes three options which involve closing between nine and 14 lower and middle schools. Only one option keeps Haydon Bridge open.
However, independent Northumberland councillor Anne Dale pointed to a population scattered over vast areas of land in the west of the county, which means the three-tier system is more suitable, and warned that some children would be facing over an hour’s journey each way to school if the changes go ahead.
She also criticised the decision to hold the consultation before the government has made a decision on whether the council will be allowed to take over Haydon Bridge and before the autonomous Hadrian Trust, which runs two schools in the area, has made its own decision about whether to become two-tier.
Local parent Helen Yates, who has two children in the three-tier system, set up a petition against the proposed closures on February 22 which attracted 1,000 signatures in less than 24 hours, and which currently has more than 3,000.
She said its success was “testament” to the frustration and concern of parents at the council’s plans, and said the three-tier system makes “logistical sense” in a largely rural county which often faces inclement weather.
She added losing first schools in remote villages would be “devastating not just for the kids but for the community” and would result in young families moving away from some areas.
The council has warned that the west of the county has a 30-per-cent surplus of places across local authority schools, with roughly 5,000 pupils in space for around 7,000.
Of the 26 mainstream schools under local-authority control in the area, seven have a predicted deficit by the end of this academic year, 10 are predicting one by 2019, and 12 by 2020.
However, the National Education Union’s regional official for Northumberland, Russell Greig, is concerned that the proposed closures target schools in outlying areas, and said a full review of education provision should have included academy-run schools too.
“We have to accept there are a lot of schools which need a lot of capital investment but we’ve got to consider the future life of these communities as well,” he said.
Greig was also highly critical of the way the council, Bright Tribe and the government have handled the situation at Haydon Bridge, claiming that none of them had “showered themselves in any kind of glory”.
The consultation closes on April 9.