Middle schools in fight for life

OPINIONS are divided over the prospect of Bedfordshire County Council scrapping the current three-tier education system and replacing it with a two-tier one. The council will decide on Thursday next week (July 13) whether to endorse the executive committe

OPINIONS are divided over the prospect of Bedfordshire County Council scrapping the current three-tier education system and replacing it with a two-tier one.

The council will decide on Thursday next week (July 13) whether to endorse the executive committee's decision to introduce the two-tier system, starting in 2008.

It would effectively mean the end of all middle schools with lower schools becoming primary schools and upper schools becoming secondary schools.

The report on the review of school structures in the county noted that 60 per cent of schools and parents were against the plans. Over 80 per cent of pupils were also against the plans.

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Despite this, the council's executive still adopted the recommendations, saying it would improve education in Bedfordshire.

The decision has ignited mixed emotions.

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The heads of both upper schools in Comet country - Stratton in Biggleswade and Sandy - are refusing to be drawn into the highly charged debate.

Marie Baker, head of Sandy Upper, said: "The schools have agreed not to make any public statement at the moment. No policy decision has been made at this time by the council and the priority is to think of the students and the parents."

But Ray Payne, head of Henlow Middle School, is vehemently against the changes and heads a campaign to try and persuade the council to do a U-turn.

"We, like most other middle schools, are absolutely devastated by the council's decision which has been made purely on the recommendations of a working document. The whole judgment has been made on these statements. It contains a lot of political spin and is nothing to do with getting the best out of educating children.

"In some cases Bedfordshire is higher than the national average when it comes to exams. I have been a teacher for 27 years and this decision really appals me and my staff.

"We are hoping this is not already a done deal and have got to believe we can persuade the council to keep the three-tier system in the county. We must do the best for the children and a two-tier system will not support them."

Mr Payne is now urging parents and staff to bombard county councillors with their protests.

"It is the only way. The parents are the voters so we must keep galvanising them saying they can make a difference.

"Often I get the feeling some of the lower schools have not fully grasped the implication of what the changes might mean."

One school governor believes fighting what looks inevitable could be a waste of time

Roy Arden, chairman of governors at Etonbury Middle School in Arlesey, believes the move to a two-tier system is inevitable: "We have got to be realistic. I think it will happen even though it hasn't been rubber stamped yet.

"I am not a defeatist and am still keeping an open mind but the reality is this plan has been developing in the council's mind for a long time and it is going to happen."

Mid Beds Tory MP Nadine Dorries has also stepped into the controversy.

In a letter to Henlow Middle School she writes: "I am personally concerned that if we change the three-tier system, many of our lower and middle schools, particularly in rural areas, will be forced to close.

"For many areas the local school is the heart of the community and should be protected. The disruption, upheaval and instability caused by a change in the education system, would actually undermine student performance as opposed to improving it.

"Mid Bedfordshire is a special place because we have such strong and vibrant communities in which our local schools play a major part."

The county council deny they are out to profit if schools close.

"It is not a case of the county council hoping to profit from selling land to property developers. We will still need middle school sites," said a council spokesman.

"It is true a two-tier system is more cost effective to run. But Government regulations mean that any savings must be fed back into our schools.

"We will not know which area would go first until the paper to executive in September. That paper will look at all our resources in each area and show how we think a change to two tiers would work.

"There must then be further consultation with schools, parents and local communities about how and where it happens."

Stotfold and Arlesey Conservative councillor John Street said it would be better to take the step and move towards a two tier system.

He said: "We're out on a limb when it comes to education. I think we are getting to a stage where it is difficult to attract teachers to middle schools and the three tier system doesn't fit with national curriculum."

Alistair Burt, MP for North East Bedfordshire, has come out in favour of a change in the Bedfordshire's school structure, before next weeks crucial county council vote. Mr Burt said "This is a difficult decision, but on balance I believe the Council's all party working group that looked at the issue has it right."

* Tell us your view. Write to The Comet at editorial@thecomet.net or log on to www.thecomet.net

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