Middle schools face axe in shake-up

FORTY middle schools in Suffolk look set to close after education chiefs revealed the biggest shake-up of the county's schooling system in decades.The axe could start to fall on the schools within three years if the county council agrees the move, which was outlined for the first time yesterday.

FORTY middle schools in Suffolk look set to close after education chiefs revealed the biggest shake-up of the county's schooling system in decades.

The axe could start to fall on the schools within three years if the county council agrees the move, which was outlined for the first time yesterday.

Pupils would grow up in a new school structure consisting solely of primary and secondary schools. Currently, many parts of Suffolk have a three-tier system which includes middle schools.

The change would save more than £4million a year - which would be reinvested in the schools, the panel leading the review said.

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It would also aim to improve education standards, as students in the county's two-tier system of primary and secondary education tend to outperform those in the three-tier.

If given the go-ahead, the next phase of the shake-up will see a major review of 14-to-19 education, which will include looking at sixth form centres.

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The viability of Suffolk's very small schools would also come under the spotlight - but the panel said it believes priority should be given to safeguarding village schools and, where there are particularly low pupil numbers, the option of a federation could be considered.

The Policy Development Panel recommended that, in exceptional circumstances, an “all through” option could be considered, which would see three to 19-year-old education provided at one school.

It also advised that the council reviews special schools, focussing on whether they can be moved onto mainstream sites.

Chair of the panel, Patricia O'Brien, portfolio holder for children, schools and young people, said: “We looked at five different models on the way our schools could be organised in future and assessed how effective each would be in the three key areas of pupil performance, cost and sustainability.

“We needed to identify a school system that the county could afford, which would serve Suffolk pupils well for several generations and which would help those pupils achieve their maximum potential.

“Our conclusion is that a single system of two-tier schools across Suffolk best meets those criteria and will best meet the needs of pupils, parents, teachers and the community in the future.”

The review was sparked after councillors heard a number of factors needed to be urgently addressed, including pupil performance, developments in 14 to 19 education, population change, Suffolk's two school structures and the fact some local authorities have been moving to a two-tier system since 1992.

The panel, which included representatives from Suffolk's Learning and Skills Council, the Roman Catholic Diocese of East Anglia and the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, was set up to look at five options for change, including keeping the structure as it is.

It drew up 17 detailed recommendations after receiving the consultation results, which showed that 45% of people wanted the system changed - 71% of whom wanted a two-tier system - while 43% pressed for no change.

Mrs O'Brien said yesterday: “We took into account every comment.”

The panel also reassured staff at middle schools, with Mrs O'Brien pledging that the council would “look after them all the way through”.

Asked if teachers' jobs were under threat, councillor Allyson Barron said: “We are going to need teachers whatever system we have. We will still have the same number of pupils.”

Martin Goold, of the National Union of Teachers, said: “There is an opportunity to improve the education of schoolchildren which could come from this.

“But our real concern is the next few years and the disruption and confusion that could result. There will be an inevitable affect on morale in middle schools.”

If the council adopts the plan, the second phase of the review would begin, involving further detailed consultation.

The panel confirmed that every school would know its fate within three years of the final go-ahead.

Bill Carson, headteacher at Harris Middle School, in Lowestoft, has worked in middle schools throughout his 31-year career.

He began at Hardwick, in Bury St Edmunds, before moving to Scaltback, in Newmarket. He also has experience of the system in Wiltshire and Somerset.

Speaking after yesterday's announcement, he said: “Middle schools are close to my heart and I believe in them and enjoy them.

“I believe that children who are 12 and 13 have far more in common with 10 and 11-year-old children than they do with 16 and 17-year-olds. With the two-tier system, they will start to associate with older children.

“Having said that, I know what the national agenda is for the future so it doesn't come as a complete surprise. Unfortunately, key stage testing has always been against us because the age at which the students come in (to our school).

“Change always causes some hiccups, not least for the children and the staff. Suffolk has always been a good authority in my view and I'm sure they will do everything they can to ensure the transition is smooth.”

Sue Hull, headteacher of Needham Market Middle School, said: “I'm very disappointed. We believe middle schools have a huge amount to offer in a broad and balanced curriculum. We can phase the change from primary to high school.

“I've got huge concerns about what happens now. Recruiting and retaining good staff is going to be extremely difficult.”

The panel found performance was “unsatisfactory” in both systems, particularly at ages 11, 16 and post-16.

But there was a “significant” difference in performance between the two and three-tier systems, with children in the three-tier structure lagging behind those who only go to primary and secondary schools.

Most concerning, it said, was the fact that 85% of schools in the three-tier system are below the national average between key stage one and key stage two, compared with only 12% in the two-tier structure.

Meanwhile there was not a single subject where the three-tier schools exceeded the performance of the two-tier at GCSE.

But the panel emphasised the difference was down to the structure rather than the quality of teaching or management in the schools .

If the two-tier option is given the go-ahead, additional facilities would be needed at primary or secondary schools. Alternatively, if the middle school is a more appropriate building, the primary school could be moved into it.

The panel said bringing in a two-tier system would be the cheapest in capital terms, with the total building costs at primary and secondary schools estimated at between £58m and £70m.

These costs would be offset by the receipts from the sale of sites, valued in the region of £50m to £55m, making a net cost of £8m to £15m.

A total of £4.4m would be saved on the revenue budgets - which would be reinvested - but £900,000 would be needed for the extra home to school transport costs, more than half of which would be needed in one “school pyramid”, Thurston.

The panel also found that the two-tier option was more “sustainable”.

Among the risks of a three-tier system was the affect it would have on the retention and recruitment of headteachers - nearly one third of whom are due to reach retirement age in the next five years - as Suffolk's pattern of school provision would not be matching the national norm.

The panel also believed a two-tier system would create a good platform for the future improvement of post-16 education provision.

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