‘Someone dropped a bomb’ on schools in Ponteland

Ponteland parents protesting at County Hall prior to the close of the consultation earlier this month.
Picture by Jane Coltman
Ponteland parents protesting at County Hall prior to the close of the consultation earlier this month. Picture by Jane Coltman

Further changes to the Ponteland Partnership were suggested this morning after two more first schools declared a preference to convert to primaries in the light of last week’s proposed hybrid model.

The outcomes of the consultation on the future structure of education in the Ponteland area were discussed at today’s meeting of Northumberland County Council’s family and children’s services scrutiny committee. They will be discussed again at this afternoon’s cabinet meeting when it is expected that members will agree to launch a statutory consultation on final proposals for the schools.

As reported last week, councillors were being recommended to back a hybrid model, which would see Ponteland High School become a secondary school; and Ponteland, Darras Hall and Heddon on the Wall first schools become primary schools. Richard Coates CofE Middle School would follow suit and become a primary school, while Ponteland Middle School has been granted an academy order and has been removed from local-authority control.

In line with views from the governing bodies and parents, it had been suggested that Belsay, Stamfordham and Whalton first schools would stay as they are.

However, this morning’s meeting heard from the heads at both Belsay and Stamfordham that they had not anticipated the hybrid model and now wished to convert to primaries as well. Therefore, the committee agreed an amendment in light of this which will be pased onto the cabinet this afternoon for a decision.

The diocesan representative – Whalton is a Church of England school – also indicated that the governors at that school had already said that they were not opposed to becoming a primary school if that was the preferred route for the partnership.

Coun Richard Dodd, ward member for Ponteland North, said: “It was all going quite nicely then suddenly someone dropped a bomb on Ponteland. Whoever’s done it, the system wasn’t that broken.

“Do we now need to reconsult on a hybrid option as it wasn’t in the consultation? It has set school against school, head against head and governors against governors. Here we are with a process that has gone down very badly.

“I’m not against a hybrid model because everyone gets something, but there are a lot of elephants in this room.”

Coun Anthony Murray said: “We have had all sorts of national aspirations and over the past two months we have had national aspirations that have had to be U-turned on. I don’t care much about national aspirations, but about local aspirations. In the interests of local democracy, we should stick with the three-tier system.”

Andy Johnson, the council’s director of education, said: “Inevitably there will be a hybrid model because of the Ponteland Middle School academy order.”

Earlier in the meeting, he said: “The local authority remains neutral on whether two or three-tier is best. We would prefer to focus on teaching and learning rather than structures.”

Setting out the main benefits, he cited the £55million investement in new school and leisure facilities; no schools will close; parents will still have choices between the two and three-tier systems; and the governing bodies have been listened to in the main.

As well as the heads of Belsay and Stamfordham, the meeting also heard from three other headteachers – Dr Caroline Pryer, from Ponteland Middle School; Kieran McGrane, from Ponteland High School; and Lynn Blain, from Ponteland First School.

Dr Pryer was extremely critical of the whole process, saying that the county council ‘is proposing to disregard the weight of public feeling in Ponteland’ and that it has been ‘driven by the aspirations of a handful of first-school headteachers, not what parents want’.

The other two both set out what they perceived to be the benefits of a switch to a primary and secondary school set-up.

Ms Blain said it was not about which school in Ponteland is best as they are all good or outstanding – although she did also raise concerns about the progress of pupils at Key Stage 2 in the two middle schools – but having a three-tier system with a two-tier national curriculum is like ‘a square peg in a round hole’.

Mr McGrane explained that the ‘overwhelming view’ of him, his staff and the governors was that it’s better for students to be in one school for the five compulsory years of secondary education (Years 7 to 11), adding: “I’m absolutely confident that all the schools will flourish in the years ahead.”