Two-tier a step nearer in Ponteland

A design image for the Ponteland schools and leisure site preferred option.
A design image for the Ponteland schools and leisure site preferred option.

Major changes to education in the Ponteland Partnership, which include £57million of investment in new schools, moved a step closer this morning ahead of a final decision later today.

Following a consultation, Northumberland County Council’s cabinet voted in May to permit the publication of statutory proposals relating to a switch to a two-tier system of primary and secondary schools. This sparked a four-week statutory consultation and a final decision will be made by councillors this afternoon.

Members of the Parents of Ponteland Schools group outside County Hall in May.

Members of the Parents of Ponteland Schools group outside County Hall in May.

At this morning’s meeting of the council’s family and children’s services scrutiny committee, the issue was given a final airing before members voted unanimously to recommend that the decision-making cabinet back the proposals as they stand.

Andy Johnson, the council’s director of education, explained that there were three main drivers behind the proposals: The council’s wish to invest in school and leisure facilities in Ponteland; the fact that the schools had been in discussion about forming a multi-academy trust for some time without agreeing on a way forward; and a significant unease among educational professionals as to whether a three-tier structure was best for the long term given changes to funding and the inspection regime, among other aspects.

He added: “The council is not ideologically or educationally aligned with the two-tier or three-tier system. What matters is standards not structures, and that’s what matters to Ofsted.”

In summarising his report, he accepted that a large number of parents was opposed to the changes and conceded that it had quickly become clear during the process that a ‘unanimous decision from key stakeholders would be unlikely, if not impossible, to achieve’.

The meeting heard from two parents who were extremely critical of the proposals, although another parent spoke in favour of a switch to a two-tier system, pointing to the benefits for GCSE students as her main reason.

Hermina Ely, from the Parents of Ponteland Schools (POPS) protest group, questioned the wisdom of going through with this while so much in terms of education policy and developments in Ponteland was in a state of flux, adding: “The local authority has effectively fragmented what was once a successful schools partnership.”

Mike Russell said supporting the proposals would be ‘a huge blow for democracy’ due to the ‘sheer disregard for the overwhelming views of a vast majority of parents’.

Two of the Ponteland county councillors were also critical of the consultation process, with Coun Veronica Jones saying: “This was meant to be a consultation but the views of the vast majority of parents were ignored.”

Coun Richard Dodd said: “We just ask a question and then ignore the answer.”

However, committee members also heard representations from the headteachers at Belsay First School, Ponteland First School and Ponteland High School as well as the latter’s chairman of governors, who are all strongly in favour of the switch to two-tier, citing a range of educational benefits.

If approved, the changes will see Belsay, Stamfordham, Darras Hall, Ponteland, Heddon on the Wall St Andrew’s and Whalton CofE First Schools as well as Richard Coates CofE Middle School become primary schools.

Ponteland High School will become an 11-to-18 secondary school, while Ponteland Middle School has been granted an academy order and is no longer part of the proposals.