Councillors vote to axe middle schools

Middle schools across Suffolk will be scrapped after county councillors voted for a radical overhaul of education in the county tonight.Members of the county council voted 42 for, 28 against and with three abstentions to push on with major changes to the way schooling is delivered.

Middle schools across Suffolk will be scrapped after county councillors voted for a radical overhaul of education in the county tonight.

Members of the county council voted 42 for, 28 against and with three abstentions to push on with major changes to the way schooling is delivered.

However, a last minute change to the proposals offered the county's 40 middle schools the possibility of a future role.

The plans put forward by three Waveney county councillors could allow schools for all ages to be federated under a single head teacher and governing body.

Opposition councillors had called on councillors to listen to the views of parents and other campaigners and postpone a decision.

The meeting of 73 county councillors ran on into the evening as about 60 of them stood up to give their own thoughts on the issue, with many adding that the response from residents was greater than any other they had known.

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Patricia O'Brien, portfolio holder for children and young people's services, told a packed council chamber that change was needed and would lead to an extensive period of local-level consultation and added that Ofsted and the Commission for Social Care Inspection had been repeatedly critical of the results at Key Stage 2 in Suffolk.

"For too long, children have been held back by a system that is out of step with national education policy," she said.

"I am confident that the recommendations are necessary to improve the prospects of children in the future," she added. "The present system will not provide for the future."

Mark Bee, who brought forward the late amendment - backed by Ken Sale and Wendy Mawer - said there was growing enthusiasm for all-through schools and that such a system, run as a local federation of schools, could suit local school pyramids.

"It would bring a hard federation of all schools from four to 16 or 19-year-olds," he said. "This federation would have a single headteacher or principal, a single governing body.

"I believe we should take a more flexible approach to the all through schools option," he added.

Wendy Mawer said that the greater flexibility that would allow all through schools should be considered and added that change should go ahead as swiftly as possible to avoid anxiety.

Despite concerns in the run up to today's debate, only two Tory councillors, Selwyn Hughes and Phil Bishop, spoke against the recommendations.

Julian Swainson said he had never had so much input on an issue in his political career, including the introduction of the Poll Tax, and criticised the way the administration handled the issue.

"We are familiar with their mean and heartless style of administration," he said.

"Amended or not, these proposals do not make sense," he added. "You need to vote with your conscience and heart today."

Kathy Pollard, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, compared the three-tier system to Beta-max video technology, which went out of fashion despite being a stronger system technically, and said that a vote for the recommendation would "destabilise education in Suffolk for the next decade".

Earlier, Steve Cowper, leader of the Parents Against Change protest group, presented a petition with 17,000 signatures and said the case for change had not been made.

"Our petition against change has been signed by 17,000 people," she said. "We do not support the dismantling of half the schools in Suffolk."

He added that the way to improve schooling in Suffolk was to enhance teaching.

Others suggested that good pastoral care, given as a key advantage of middle schools, was not unique to them, said the introduction of middle schools was a financial decision, rather than an educational one, called on councillors to represent the views of parents in how they vote or suggested that the £23m quoted cost of implementation was bound to rise.

One Tory member said some parents had told her they had been pushed into signing petitions against the proposals.

Earlier, more than 100 protestors had gathered outside Endeavour House in Ipswich where the meeting took place to wave placards and shout slogans calling for middle schools to be saved.

Some sat in the packed council chamber while about 60 of the 75 members stood to give their views on the changes.

And a larger group of campaigners gathered in a room where the debate was piped in, with many heckling the screen.

Jeremy Pembroke, leader of the council, said he was delighted with the outcome and added that the real job of running the second stage consultation, talking about implementation, would begin today.