10 July 2018

Surplus places in west Northumberland schools

In responding to the Northumberland Council stage-two consultation on education in west Northumberland, I asked why surplus places were bad. Surplus places were cited as a reason for the proposals to close successful schools in the region. My argument was that if a school’s budget is balanced or in surplus, why do surplus places matter? On raising this in person with Council staff, we were simply told again that the Council had been required to reduce surplus places.

With the assistance of whoever operates the official Northumberland Council Twitter account (huge thanks!), we determined the following sequence of events: first, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) wrote to the Council to challenge surplus places. Let’s dig into that letter a little.

We are working with local authorities to address high levels of spare places, particularly those in weaker schools.

Greenhaugh First School was recently inspected by Ofsted, and rated “good”. It cannot possibly be described as a “weaker school”.

The effective management of the supply of school places has implications for school performance and financial health, and for maximising the efficiency of capital investment.

Again, Greenhaugh is performing well, and manages its places efficiently. It has never run a deficit under its current head. Its buildings are in a good state of repair, and no capital investment has been sought.

Northumberland might have particular opportunities to manage down, or make better use of, spare places.

Putting aside the disgusting language “manage down” and everything it does not have the courage to say, it is important to note that cutting places is not the only suggestion: “make better use of” is given equal importance.

We are aware that the LA currently has an informal consultation underway, which considers, among other issues, surplus places in the West of Northumberland.

This is critical: the ESFA letter was sent after the consultation began. This can only mean one of two things: either there was other unrecorded communication prior to this letter which required the Council to address the issue of surplus places; or external scrutiny of surplus places was not, in fact, a factor in proposing school closures, and the Council subsequently used it post facto to strengthen their case.

We would like to gain an understanding of the particular challenges that your local authority may be facing in managing the school estate effectively.

Aye, there’s the rub. This was an invitation to the Council to make the case that the intensely rural geography and sparse population of west Northumberland requires more flexibility in managing school places than the ESFA’s other clients in more densely populated areas.

Note that the ESFA absolutely did not limit their enquiries to west Northumberland. Their letter asked about the whole of Northumberland. Why are the Council proposing to close schools in the west because of surplus places, but nowhere else in the county?

The ESFA requested a meeting with the Council, and this meeting took place around 30 April. The meeting was not minuted. We can therefore only infer what happened, based on Council actions.

It seems that the Council utterly failed to make a case for rural Northumberland. It seems that they wrung their hands and cried “mea culpa”. It seems that they rolled right over, accepting that there were too many surplus places.

Remember the four issues the Council cited as necessitating destructive change in west Northumberland schools:

  1. Bright Tribe’s withdrawal from Haydon Bridge High
  2. Hadrian Learning Trust’s proposal to become two-tier
  3. the imminent implementation of the National Funding Formula
  4. the need to reduce surplus places

While point 1 remains an issue, point 2 is no longer a factor, with HLT abandoning their two-tier proposal. Point 3 seems impossible to investigate, with the Council claiming funding will decrease, and our MP Guy Opperman claiming it will increase.

That leaves surplus places as a huge factor in this issue. That the under-fire ESFA held an undocumented, behind-closed-doors meeting with the Council is simply unacceptable.

The Northumberland Council Cabinet meeting which will decide whether Bellingham Middle School will close starts in ten minutes time.

We say no.