County's Tory MPs caught in the middle

WHEN white rural middle England is in uproar, you can normally bet your mortgage that the Conservative Party will be in the vanguard, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in opposition to the latest dastardly acts of infamy being imposed from on high.

By Graham Dines

WHEN white rural middle England is in uproar, you can normally bet your mortgage that the Conservative Party will be in the vanguard, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in opposition to the latest dastardly acts of infamy being imposed from on high.

But when the policy which has brought out the protesters has been produced by the Tories, then you know that all is not as it should be in our chocolate box villages and market towns.

And the prospect exists of Tory MPs coming out against the plans of their own councillors.


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This week, plans to scrap Suffolk's 40 middle schools were given the go-ahead by the all-Conservative cabinet of the county council, against a background of serried ranks of angry mums and dads standing outside council headquarters and the receipt of hundreds of emails and letters from headteachers, school governors, and pupils.

Cabinet members asserted the unquestionable right of county residents to show their disapproval at what was being proposed. But that was where the sympathy ended.

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Suffolk's Tory county councillors were unmoved - middle schools have to be sacrificed to improve educational standards and, more importantly in these days of never ending league tables, to rectify the miserable exam results of pupils. A final decision rests with a full meeting of the authority on March 22.

Although the facts speak for themselves - 85% of middle schools are significantly below the national average for progress made by pupils between ages 7 and 11 and Ofsted is concerned at Suffolk's poor Key Stage 2 results in middle schools - Suffolk parents are conservative and don't want the local education authority imposing any upheaval.

So where does this leave the county's five Tory MPs, who would have undoubtedly manned the barricades had the plans been produced by the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat administration and who now find themselves in the middle of a stand-off between their electorate and Tory county councillors?

Do they alienate their own county council, which the Tories took back in 2005 after 12 years in opposition, by siding with the parents or do they risk the wrath of their voters?

In public at least, they are treading deftly a path between the factions. But with March 22 looming, it will soon it time to make up their minds.

Bury St Edmunds MP David Ruffley, who called a meeting at the House of Commons last week between the MPs and Patricia O'Brien, the county councillor in charge of policy for children and young people, was not satisfied with some of the answers he was given.

“If it can be shown that the standard of education right across Suffolk will improve, then it may be sensible to reorganise the structure into primary and secondary schools,” said Mr Ruffley.

“But it seems little thought has been given to primary schools, particularly small rural ones, which will suddenly find themselves having to educate children who until now would have been sent to middle schools.

“Does this mean a wholesale amalgamation of the village schools into bigger units? I got no proper answer. And at the other end of the age range, will secondary schools - forced to educate children now at middle school - lose their sixth forms to accommodate extra pupils?

“Is Suffolk about to embark on a massive building programme of centres for 17 and 18 year-olds? Again, I want answers.”

He hopes they will be forthcoming at a further meeting of the MPs with Mrs O'Brien, due to take place at Shire Hall in Bury St Edmunds within the next few weeks.

West Suffolk MP Richard Spring, who says parents have been contacting him in unprecedented numbers, said: “There is no basis to this reorganisation unless there is clear and demonstrable proof that standards will go up.

“And if the reorganisation does go ahead, there must be no attempt to rationalise education by closing small primary schools, which will lead to even greater anger among parents.”

Scrapping middle schools will be one of the most unpopular decisions the county council has taken in its 33 years' existence, second only to the 18.5% rise in council tax in 2002. But even that did not produce the demonstrations and protests which have greeted the middle school plans.

And it's particularly baffling that Tory county councillors should be so politically naive, making the final decision in seeming disregard to the critically important quadrennial elections to Suffolk's shire district councils which take place on May 3.

If the parents are still seething, they might well take it out on Tory district council candidates who, although they have nothing to do with the plans, will be guilty by association.

Don't be surprised if voters - who don't care which council makes which decision - turn out to give the Conservatives a good thumping in their rural heartlands.

MIDDLE ENGLAND IN REVOLT: Suffolk county council plans to scrap middle schools could lead to parents venting their anger in May's local elections, even though district authorities have nothing to do with the decision.

PHOTO: Andy Abbott

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