23 November 2018

Bellingham must stay three-tier

Northumberland County Council initially consulted on changing the whole of west Northumberland to a two-tier school system. At the same time, Hadrian Learning Trust consulted on converting their Hexham schools to two-tier. After overwhelmingly negative responses on both issues, both decided against this change in the Hexham partnership.

However, the Council decided to go ahead in the Haydon Bridge partnership by closing Bellingham Middle School and changing the remaining Haydon Bridge partnership first schools into primaries.

Bellingham Middle School appealed against closure, and the Schools Adjudicator overruled the Council’s decision. Bellingham Middle will stay open.

Since the Adjudicator’s decision was announced, the Council have stated that they will still convert the first schools to primaries.

Head in the sand
I can’t see you… by tropical.pete (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Why is this wrong?

First schools have years 1–4, while middle schools have years 5–8. Pupils attend a first school and then a middle.

Primary schools have years 1–6. If the firsts become primaries, our area will have both primaries and a middle school offering years 5 and 6. Bellingham First and Middle Schools are federated (ie they are run by a single board of governors), and operate on the same site.

The Council’s plans will mean a single board of governors will be in charge of duplicate years 5 and 6, on the same site. This is unworkable and profoundly inefficient. The other primary schools will also be in competition with Bellingham Middle for year 5–6 pupils.

What should happen next?

The Adjudicator was clear from the start that he was investigating only the closure of Bellingham Middle School, not the firsts’ conversion to primaries. However, his arguments were based on two statutory guidance documents: Opening and closing maintained schools and Making significant changes (‘prescribed alterations’) to maintained schools.

These two documents contain four passages which dictate what the Council must do next:

The purpose of this guidance is to ensure […] that local authorities and governing bodies do not take decisions that will have a negative impact on other schools in the area

Adding duplication of year 5 and 6 places by converting firsts to primaries will have a negative impact on Bellingham Middle. The Council must therefore revoke their decision to convert the firsts to primaries.

The department expects [Local Authorities] to manage the school estate efficiently […] to avoid detriment to schools’ educational offer or financial position.

Duplicating year 5 and 6 places by converting firsts to primaries will harm Bellingham Middle’s financial position by reducing its pupil numbers. The Council must therefore revoke their decision to convert the firsts to primaries.

The department expects that in making these changes, [Local Authorities and governing bodies] will work together and will […] not create additional places in a local planning area where there is already surplus capacity in schools.

Converting firsts to primaries while Bellingham Middle stays open is by definition creating additional places, and the Council themselves tell us that “there is already surplus capacity in schools”. The Council must therefore revoke their decision to convert the firsts to primaries.

If the proposer cannot implement an approved proposal because circumstances have changed (so that implementation would be inappropriate or unreasonably difficult) the proposer must publish a revocation proposal, to be relieved of the duty to implement.

Circumstances have changed: the Adjudicator has revoked the closure of Bellingham Middle. It is “inappropriate” for Bellingham governors to have to oversee duplicate years 5 and 6 on a single site as part of a single federation. The Council “must” therefore revoke the decision to convert the firsts to primaries.

Remember that, while these documents are called “guidance”, they are statutory. They must legally be followed.

The Adjudicator said more than he had to

In many places throughout his decision, despite only judging the closure of Bellingham Middle, the Adjudicator nevertheless steps beyond his remit and questions the validity of the conversion of the first schools to primaries. Here is a summary of some of the things he says:

The Council report

  • The report doesn’t explain the reasons for the proposals
  • No evidence in the report of the “quantitative and qualitative” analysis the Council said they did
  • Council officers only recommended Haydon Bridge High School stay open, not that the Haydon Bridge partnership go fully two-tier
  • Not made clear how the proposals support and improve the schools
  • Inherent superiority of two-tier not explained


  • Consultation responses did not support two-tier in Haydon Bridge partnership
  • Consultation responses did not support a mixture of two- and three-tier across the two partnerships
  • Council report does not explain how consultation responses led to proposals
  • Adjudicator believes consultation responses do not support proposals

Two-tier versus three-tier

  • The Council cannot make the Haydon Bridge partnership fully two-tier, because Haltwhistle is an academy
  • No evidence given of how success of resilience programme depends on the Haydon Bridge partnership becoming two-tier
  • Two-tier alongside three-tier makes transfer between partnerships difficult
  • Keeping Bellingham Middle School open while converting the remaining Haydon Bridge partnership firsts into primaries is “anomalous”
  • Risk of reduction of Bellingham Middle School intake and funding because of competing Haydon Bridge partnership primaries

Other Haydon Bridge schools

  • Any support for change to two-tier from Haydon Bridge partnership first schools was more in the context of their own viability than any positive support for two-tier
  • Primaries will have more pupils than firsts, but not bigger cohorts

National Funding Formula

  • National Funding Formula rejected as irrelevant re: migration to two-tier, since Hexham remains three-tier

Surplus places

  • Insufficient surplus places removed, and with Bellingham Middle School saved from closure, the number of places actually increases

What do we do now?

Although the four pieces of guidance dictate that the Council must revoke its decision to convert the firsts to primaries, they have already reaffirmed their intention to continue with the conversion.

It’s now up to us.

The first schools have had the most appalling time through all of this. They’ve been threatened with closure, they’ve been asked to fight against one another, and they’ve then been told they have to change. The last of those three is by far the least unpleasant and catastrophic.

The first schools have therefore begun planning in earnest how to convert to primaries. Those plans continue right now, despite the chaos which the Adjudicator’s decision and the resulting relevant statutory guidance wreaks on the two-tier plan.

If the first schools themselves do not object to the proposals, they are very unlikely to be overturned.

The schools need to know what we want. They need to hear us. We must all contact our governors and tell them what we want. We must tell them that they can remain first schools, that we want them to remain first schools, and that the law now dictates that they must remain first schools.

The governors must now raise their heads above the parapets, and require the Council to act in accordance with the law.