Councillors vote to axe middle schools

SUFFOLK'S 40 middle schools are to be scrapped in a £23million reorganisation of education after county councillors ignored warnings of a judicial review and dismissed petitions signed by thousands of parents, teachers, governors, and pupils.

By Graham Dines

SUFFOLK'S 40 middle schools are to be scrapped in a £23million reorganisation of education after county councillors ignored warnings of a judicial review and dismissed petitions signed by thousands of parents, teachers, governors, and pupils.

By 42 votes to 28 with three abstentions, the authority accepted a report by the schools' reorganisation panel that in areas where there are primary, middle, and secondary schools, a switch should be made to a two-tier system.

The changes will be phased in over 10 years from 2010, paid for initially by a raid on existing schools' balances that are maintained at £15m annually. As the middle schools are replaced, there will be annual savings of £4.4m.

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The resulted was immediately welcomed by council leader Jeremy Pembroke, who said education in Suffolk would never improved while there were parallel two and three-tier school systems. The council would now work with teachers, governors, and parents to ensure the best possible education for the county.

Opposition members lambasted the public consultation process, which had resulted in less than 2% of responses and which had been seized on by the ruling Cabinet as an indication that the people of Suffolk were not interested in defending middle schools.

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Two petitions were presented to the meeting, one containing 17,000 signatures of pupils, parents and teachers organised by the Parents Against Change (PAC) group and the other 1,300 names from Bacton Middle School.

Presenting his petition, Steve Cowper, from PAC, told councillors: “We believe the educational arguments do not add up. We want to work with you to improve the current structure and not dismantle a system affecting the future education and lives of pupils.”

Andrew Stringer, on behalf of Bacton Middle School, said that 1,300 signatures from a small rural school demonstrated the opposition there was to the council's proposals.

“Education in rural middle schools is not failing. We are deeply suspicious of the findings of the panel's report to scrap middle schools,” he said.

Education portfolio holder Patricia O'Brien said she understood the concerns but believed the recommendation would “improve the prospects of children” in Suffolk.

“These proposed changes are to improve education for all children. Pupils have been held back by a system which is out of step with education nationally.”

The national curriculum had been introduced in 1988 for a two-tier system. “Middle schools are an impediment to attainment,” insisted Mrs O'Brien.

She said recruiting teachers for schools that were out of step with schools with the rest of England would become difficult. “The sustainability of middle schools is questionable. Raising standards for 14-18 year olds will be difficult if the present system is sustained.”

Labour leader Julian Swainson said the campaign against change “reflects the views of the voters of Suffolk. As councillors, we ignore them at our peril”.

For the Liberal Democrats, Kathy Pollard said: “The case for change has not been made. You throw out three-tier schools at your peril and will destroy education in Suffolk for a generation.”

Tory councillor Mark Bee moved an amendment, which was accepted, that in the shake-up, thought should be given to all-through schools, which would cater for all age groups.

Labour's Sue Thomas said Conservatives had no idea there would be such a massive groundswell of opinion against the proposals.

“The consultation and what has happened in public following the Cabinet decision to endorse a switch to two-tier schools has been mismanaged by the senior Conservative politicians to absolute shambles point.”

She sympathised with staff in middle schools that “feel so demoralised because of the apparent denigration of their schools' achievements”.

Richard Kemp (Independent) said the consultation had been a farce. The documentation was flawed and would force judicial reviews, he added.

Two Tory councillors spoke against the plans. Selwyn Pryor said: “We should be improving education and not throwing it into turmoil.”

Bill Bishop said: “Middle schools are not second rate schools, we have an above average education system in this county - let's stay as we are, improve, and not demolish it.”

Guy McGregor (Conservative) supported the motion, saying high Suffolk had some of the best performing schools in England. These were the benefits of two-tier education.

Because of middle schools “the money spent on education in Suffolk does not provide the results that the people of Suffolk are entitled to expect.”

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