There was considerable unease about the consultation process as the future of the schools in the Ponteland Partnership was discussed today.
A report, which proposes a consultation on a switch to a two-tier structure of primary and secondary schools in the Ponteland Partnership following a request from the six first schools, was discussed at this afternoon's meeting of Northumberland County Council's family and children's services scrutiny committee. The committee endorsed the report by five votes to three and its comments and decision will be reported to Wednesday's meeting of the decision-making cabinet when it is likely that the consultation will be approved.
But it was clear from today's meeting that a number of councillors, both committee members and ward members for the areas affected by the changes, are concerned that the consultation is limited by its scope and that the process is moving too quickly, bearing in mind it was first mooted in discussions with the first schools only on February 23.
A letter from the headteacher and governors at Ponteland Community Middle School, which would close under the two-tier proposals as set out in the document, was tabled at the meeting, explaining that they will be presenting a detailed alternative model, based on the provision of education from age three to 18 in conjunction with the high school, before May 12. The letter added: 'Ponteland Community Middle School supports an open consultation with the community over what they believe would be the best option for their children's education. We also believe that there should be an alternative option which would not involve the closure of Ponteland's only twice-outstanding school."
Coun Cath Homer questioned why it was necessary to rush into a consultation on one option when there were alternatives, such as the one from the middle school, being discussed. "I'm a little bit, not panicked, but uneasy," she added.
Daljit Lally, the council's deputy chief executive, explained that as with all previous consultations, all views would be heard and all alternative options would be considered. It was pointed out that a second period of consultation took place during the corresponding process in the Alnwick Partnership when an alternative option came to light.
But Coun Homer responded, saying: "I'm just saying that, as a parent, you might think it's flawed. You see the time-scales in the report and you may think it's been prejudged." It was made clear that this was not the case by Ms Lally and the council's director of education, Andy Johnson.
Coun Anthony Murray was also concerned by consulting on the one option, but Coun Eileen Burt said: "I don't think we have any other option than to run with the consultation as requested and wait to see what other options come forward. We can only do what's requested and six schools have requested we consult on this."
The meeting also heard from two of the local ward councillors. Coun Richard Dodd, member for Ponteland North, raised concerns about the speed at which the process had been started with the local councillors only informed at a meeting last Wednesday. "You can't sail the ship until you have got everything all lined up and ready to go, because otherwise the consultation will be flawed," he said. "There seems to be a dark art going on that says, we want to railroad this through."
Coun Veronica Jones, who represents Ponteland West, questioned the merits of closing Ponteland Community Middle School. "It's acknowledged as the best school in the partnership, sorry high school, and is one of the best in the county." She also raised doubts over the consensus behind the consultation, stating that Stamfordham First School wanted to consult but on all possible options, not just becoming a primary school, while she had received an email from governors at one of the first schools who felt that given the speed and lack of options, the consultation should be scrapped or delayed.
Introducing the report, Mr Johnson was keen to emphasise that 'the council does not have a policy regarding two-tier/three-tier'. He explained the three interlinked processes that had been taking place in relation to the organisation of the Ponteland Partnership. The first was the consultation on the proposals to move the high school, middle school and Darras Hall First School onto a new shared site, which received an 'overwhelming response' that this was not supported. The second, in which the local authority was not involved, was a discussion about the creation of a multi-academy trust. And it was on this issue that Mr Johnson was invited to a meeting last month with the first schools at which the two-tier proposals were then raised.
The proposals as they stand would see the age ranges of Belsay, Darras Hall, Ponteland and Stamfordham first schools be extended from ages three or four to age 11, up from age nine at present, from September next year and Ponteland High School would cover ages 11 to 18 (currently 13 to 18) from September 2019. Ponteland Community Middle School would close in August 2019.
The Church of England Diocese would run its own consultation on proposals which would see Richard Coates Middle School change its age range to a three-to-11 primary school and Heddon-on-the Wall St Andrew’s and Whalton First Schools would consult on extending to ages three or four-to-11 years primary schools.