Blow to Suffolk middle school campaign

Campaigners in Waveney and west Suffolk are just one step away from losing their fight to keep middle schools after a county council vote last night.

Campaigners in Waveney and west Suffolk are just one step away from losing their fight to keep middle schools after a county council vote last night.

Just one obstacle now stands between Suffolk County Hall and its plan to abandon three-tier education.

Noisy protests from teachers and parents were not enough to persuade county cabinet members to change their mind about the move.

And the campaigners' hopes now rest councillors who will debate the idea and vote on it at a full council meeting in March.

Yesterday about 75 people turned out in front of Endeavour House in Ipswich to chant slogans and wave placards, urging the authority's top committee to change its mind and keep middle schools open.

But the recommendation to put a major overhaul of Suffolk schools before full council on March 22 was backed unanimously by the six voting members of the committee.

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If the Tory majority council follows the lead of its cabinet, the school system in Waveney and west Suffolk will lose its nine to 13-year-old middle tier and revert to primary schools for reception to 11-year-olds and secondary schools from age upwards.

Patricia O'Brien, portfolio holder for children and young people's services, dismissed claims that middle schools offered a better social education.

Campaigners have argued that children in middle schools have a social advantage as they have opportunities to take responsibility and are learning in a smaller school.

“I don't believe that bears out,” said Mrs O'Brien. “I think they [pupils] do equally well in the two tier system.

“And I have not had anyone saying that children in two tier schools suffer in that respect.”

She that areas where a three-tier system was running had failed to match the academic achievements of two-tier schools.

“Over the last 10 years, a lot of money has been put in to help three-tier areas improve their Key Stage 2 performance but it has not worked,” she said.

Jeremy Pembroke, leader of the council, said the problem was not down to the people involved, but to the system.

“It's structural and it is systemic,” he said. “There is no criticism of teachers, governors, headteachers or anyone else.

“We are in a unique position to see this because we are the only county in England to have a mixture of two and three tier schools.”

Cabinet members also defended the consultation process, which drew just 4,744 responses after more than 500,000 copies of a questionnaire were sent out, saying that the number of replies matched similar consultations in other counties.

Keith Suffling, who was among the protestors outside the meeting, said: “Middle schools give a sense of wellbeing.

“Going to high school ruined my life and going to high school has really helped my daughter do well. You can't just say one system is better for the other for everyone,” he added. “It can't be that cut and dried.”

Jane Storey, portfolio holder for finance and resources, said she believed a two-tier system was the right move, regardless of whether it was a vote-winner or not and Ben Redsell disputed claims that reorganisation would be disruptive, arguing that despite having been a pupil in the 1980s during a change from three-tier to two-tier, his education had not suffered.

But Julian Swainson, leader of the opposition Labour group, said the authority should spend more time listening to people.

“The real experts in education are the teachers, the parents and, most of all, the children and we need to listen,” he said. “I wonder why we are in such a hurry.”

If the move to two-tier schools is supported on March 22, implementing the plan will cost £23m.

Changing to primary and secondary schools will bring about savings of £4.4m a year from the schools budget, which will be invested in education.

More children will have to be taken to school after the change, costing the county council just under £1m a year.

Forthcoming government investment secondary school buildings could be worth as much as £600m to Suffolk.

About 100 headteachers will retire in Suffolk over the next five years.

Recruiting staff will be easier if the school system in Suffolk matches the one in use across the rest of England.