Assurances were made that there isn't 'a grand plan' for Ponteland's schools as the council launched a 'full, open consultation' today.
At this afternoon's meeting of Northumberland County Council's cabinet, councillors approved the consultation on whether Ponteland and the surrounding villages should convert to a primary/secondary set-up. It will run until May 11.
This came about following a request from the six first schools in the partnership, which was backed by the high school, but there is already considerable opposition, in particular to the possible closure of Ponteland Community Middle School.
Coun Robert Arckless, cabinet member for children’s services, said: "Every situation has to be looked at differently because every situation is different and every community is different. We don’t have a grand plan for the structure of education in Ponteland. It doesn’t have to be this model; it will be an open consultation."
Coun Peter Jackson, Conservative group leader and councillor for Ponteland South with Heddon, was the only cabinet member to vote against the consultation, worried about the 'unseemly haste'.
He warned: "We have been here before in this council. It's the understanding of what the implications of a consultation are. The public might think, 'oh, it’s just a consultation and nothing will change'. Let me tell you that's not the case. Once the train has left the station, it’s more or less impossible to stop that change, although what that change will be is probably up in the air. It might take six months, it might take nine months, but there will be fundamental change.
"The request may have come from the schools, but the decision to go right into this consultation process straight away is the decision of the county council in my view. The train has left the station and lots of people have been left behind."
He suggested that because the 'super-school' - the proposed relocation of Darras Hall First School, Ponteland Community Middle School and Ponteland Community High School onto a shared site to the south-west of the town - seems to be off the agenda, 'the county council is looking for a plan B'. Daljit Lally, the council's deputy chief executive, said that 'super-school' was a misleading term as the proposal had been for three schools in a three-tier structure on one site.
Ms Lally also pointed out that not one school in the Partnership has said that they do not wish to have a consultation. Council leader Grant Davey added: "We did not go out to instigate this."
Lib Dem group leader, Coun Jeff Reid, said: "We have done this lots of times before and every time it's a killer. You can't consult on more than one thing at a time. If people don't like this, enough people have to say what they do want and then we will change it and make it fit. You can't vote against this because you are voting against opening up the debate."
Coun Paul Kelly, head of the Independent group, congratulated Ms Lally and director of education Andy Johnson for pulling together, at short notice, a report 'with clarity' so that people can understand it and share their views during the consultation.
On Monday, the issue was discussed at the council’s family and children’s services scrutiny committee where it was clear that a number of other councillors are concerned that the process is moving too quickly, bearing in mind it was first mooted in discussions with the first schools only on February 23.
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 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.