Council promises to ‘draw a line in the sand’ over schools move

Interview with Deborah Cadman, Chief Executive of Suffolk County Council, about the school organisation review and closure of the middle schools.
Interview with Deborah Cadman, Chief Executive of Suffolk County Council, about the school organisation review and closure of the middle schools.

As the final chapter in Suffolk County Council’s switch to two tier education approaches Bury St Edmunds, bosses have pledged to ‘draw a line in the sand’ with a fresh approach to the controversial saga, the Bury Free Press can exclusively reveal.

A team is to be established at the town’s West Suffolk House to work with young people, communicate with parents and teachers as well as support headteachers and the affected schools.

The size and scope of this team is yet to be determined but will be in place soon.

The move was disclosed during a one to one interview with the council’s chief executive Deborah Cadman, who wants to redress the furore engulfing the ongoing closure of middle schools.

“I’m very conscious that lots of parents, teachers and young people don’t feel they’ve been communicated with properly. There’s almost been a communication void where we’ve assumed the statistics will talk for themselves. As a parent myself of two children I would want to know what’s going to happen to my kids. It’s about filling that void,” she admits.

“We don’t want a haemorrhaging out of our good teachers from the middle schools. We want them to stay.”

For months a debate has raged over the School Organisation Review, with the county council arguing the 40-year-old three tier model is creaking and no longer fit for purpose in an ever changing society.

Meanwhile, groups of concerned parents and teachers fear standards will suffer.

Each are grappling for control of the debate – wrangling over those aforementioned statistics to support their respective stance – as the message of the ultimate aim fades like school chalk dust caught in a wayward wind.

It is an issue Mrs Cadman is all too aware of.

“What I would like to do with this interview is to demonstrate my commitment to putting the children at the heart of everything we’re doing. I’m not saying the middle schools and the detractors from the two tier system aren’t doing that but I think we lose sight of the reason why we’re trying to develop a better educational system.

“The three tier system has served us really well but it was created in the 70s and at the time it was fit for 
purpose. If you look at how Suffolk has changed over the last 40 years it isn’t surprising we’re beginning to see cracks. The statistics do tell the story that the two tier system generally is more effective.”

Last year, the average percentage of pupils achieving level four or above in English and maths at Key Stage Two stood at 72 per cent for the three tier model compared to 76 per cent at two tier.

Meanwhile, the county is trailing behind its statistical neighbours with Devon and Gloucesteshire scoring 82 and 83 per cent respectively and is third from bottom for attainment nationally at Key Stage Two.

However, the Suffolk Action for Truth on SOR – a confederation of community action groups – claim the council is ‘too often selective in its use of information to support its drive to complete SOR’.

They also note that the majority of middle schools outperform the county at Key Stage Two. Ofsted has also rated many of these schools as ‘good’.

When quizzed about this, Mrs Cadman says: “There are some pockets of excellence in the middle schools but it’s the system that isn’t right. It’s a bigger picture than just ‘can you save this middle school from closure?’.

“We’re losing sight of the fact there are young people who need better. We need to deliver a better service for those young people.”

“Why wouldn’t I want the best for the people of West Suffolk? I spent six years of my career there taking St Edmundsbury Borough Council to excellent performing status. I invested a lot in Bury so I want the best.”

In total, £103.6 million has been spent in capital for phases one to three of the transition.

In addition, in the council’s capital programme 
there is £3.75 million for Thurston, £5.5 million 
for Stowmarket/Stowupland and £11 million for Bury.

In Bury, where middle schools are expected to close in summer 2016, the council is working with heads to outline options for schools before costs can be finalised.

A public consultation is due to be held this autumn followed by a statutory process next spring.

Parents fear though that there is not enough money to establish a quality two tier system.

Mrs Cadman says: “One of the things I’m doing now is working with our strategic head of finance to look at 
possibilities and options. 
We’re also looking at creative ways of using our resources.

“If I could say ‘here’s £20 million for a new high school in Bury’ everybody would be happy but we haven’t got it. It’s my job to work with staff, politicians and heads to see how we can work together to create a pot of money to create what’s going to be delivered.”

Already in the county, different educational systems are being set up with a planned Free School in Ixworth and the Bury St Edmunds Academy Trust favouring an all through model.

How does the council co-ordinate this to avert a potentially chaotic situation?

“I don’t have the power to unravel all of that,” Mrs Cadman says. “People would 
argue that having a plethora of models and systems is healthy because it drives up improvement. With our learning improvement service we have to support the young people with these systems as best we can.

“We don’t want it to be confusing. We don’t want parents to feel the choices are wrong or too difficult. It’s our job to disentangle that for them.”

The debate over the switch to two tier will no doubt continue. Is it frustrating when the council’s aims are obscured?

“People lose sight of what we’re trying to do. I’m not laying blame at anyone’s door. We’re doing this for the young people of Suffolk. I do find it a bit frustrating. There’s an opportunity here for us to draw a line in the sand and move forward proactively, productively and effectively together.”