Head teachers divided over future of middle schools

Wednesday, 16 September, 2009

THE uncertainty surrounding the future of some of Suffolk's middle schools yesterday divided opinions among head teachers.

One head teacher described the situation as 'utterly ridiculous'' claiming staff and pupils were being left in the dark over the future of their schools.

However, another applauded Suffolk County Council for its action, claiming it had been left with no choice due to the uncertainty over funding for its restructuring of the county's educational system.

The county council announced it would be freezing funds to overhaul the county's schools from a three tier to a two tier system due to the lack of guaranteed funding from the government - despite promises the money would be provided.

With some of the £20 million already received, middle schools are still facing the axe in Lowestoft, Haverhill, Beccles, Bungay, Leiston, Halesworth and Newmarket.

But until the government gives financial assurances Suffolk education chiefs have put on hold plans to scrap middle schools earmarked for closure after 2011 - including those in Bury St Edmunds, Stowmarket, Needham Market, Bacton, Stanton and Thurston.

Andy Nicholson, headteacher at Beyton Middle School, described the latest development as a blow to staff moral.

'It was a daft idea in the first place to change the system but if it's going to be done, do it properly or don't do it at all,' he said. 'This is a process we have had little control over. We feel decisions have been made to us rather than with us and now the parameters are changed when it suits them.

'Changes in education have always been driven by financial rather than educational imperatives and money is clearly the driving force behind this.'

He said it left him, his staff and all teachers in the middle school system wondering what the future held for them.

'There is a sense of relief that we won't be closing in 2013 but how can we make long term plans when the future is so uncertain. Will it be another five, ten or even 20 years now? We need clarity and a timetable as soon as possible as the current situation is utterly ridiculous,' he added.

Despite opposition from councillors, parents and teachers, the county council voted in favour of the proposals in 2007. At the time the government made funding promises to enlarge secondary and primary schools to accommodate the extra pupils.

Anne Mansfield, headteacher at St Louis Catholic Middle School in Bury St Edmunds, said she heard Gordon Brown's speech yesterday morning and was not surprised to hear that funding could be cut.

She said: 'It's a very complex situation and we are reviewing what this actually means for us. What is and always has been clear to us is that middle schools are greatly supported by parents. The council are quite right to say the changes could be delayed, they have no choice until they know whether the money will be in place.'

Graham Newman, portfolio holder for children schools and young people's services, announced the funding freeze on Monday night. He said the government could not give any certainty on funding for future years and it made sense to reconsider the timeline for the remainder of the review.

Paul Farmer, a St Edmundsbury Borough and county councillor, said: 'I am very disappointed that the council has been forced to delay consultation in Bury, due to the public spending crisis, but encouraged that there is still 100% commitment to the review. I remain convinced that the two-tier system is best for Bury, and I look forward to local people being given the chance to have their say whenever the consultation resumes.'

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School, said the financial setback must not stop Suffolk's transition from a three to a two tier system.

He said: 'We have been through very difficult economical times but we must not allow this to continue our isolation in an outdated school system. Clearly prudent decisions have to be made and this could delay our transition. As far as we are concerned it is business as usual and we will be working with primary and middle schools in the area to ensure a smooth transition take place.'

Mr Barton said Suffolk had not kept pace with the rest of the country by clinging to a three tier system which was damaging education in the county.

'There are hardly any middle school systems left in the country which means the pool of trained middle school teachers is diminishing. It will be frustrating if the changes are delayed but I'm quite sure Suffolk County Council will still go ahead and I'm 100% behind the changes that need to be made,' he added.

Vicky Neale, headteacher at Bury St Edmunds County Upper School, said Suffolk County Council needed to be applauded for putting the decision on hold due to the uncertain economic and political climate and insisted the delay should be established for ten years.

She said: 'Suffolk County Council is clearly aware that money from the government could be cut and they have made a bold decision which I fully respect. With an election taking place next year there are no political parties that can make any firm commitments on this. For the sake of the middle school teachers who are on tender hooks over this issue a bold step needs be taken to say the three tier system should stay in place for up to 10 years.

'There is a move across the country to create academies with smaller numbers of pupils at the moment. Our tertiary system ensures that, it's working here in Bury, why change it?'

David Ruffley, MP for Bury, Stowmarket and Needham Market, said: 'Whether people are for or against the changes none of us want pupils staff or governors in a long running position of limbo and I'm sure the county council will want to address this problem as soon as it possibly can.'