DAVID RUFFLEY: There’s no magic bullet to solve Bury’s schools headache

Column by David Ruffley MP
Column by David Ruffley MP
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Every child in Suffolk must have the right to a great education so that they have the very best chance of fulfilling their potential. I was the beneficiary of the old 11-plus system so that my parents never had to pay a penny for my secondary education. I want to see Suffolk children have the kind of opportunities I had – free at the point of use.

Could schools in Suffolk be better? Recent Ofsted inspections say ‘Yes’.

That brings me to school reorganisation.

The democratically elected Suffolk County Council, seeing that Suffolk schools were underperforming, decided to review this in 2006. The policy of abolishing middle schools and moving from a three-tier to two-tier system for the whole of Suffolk has been confirmed at two elections, in 2009 and 2013.

There are some enthusiastic supporters of the middle schools remaining. But, looking at the big picture, it is questionable whether middle schools are sustainable in the long-term in Suffolk.

Teacher training institutions are no longer providing explicit middle school training. There are just six middle schools remaining in Suffolk and only 171 remaining in England out of 20,000 schools. And, of course, the overwhelming majority of primary and secondary school heads in the ‘Bury Pyramid’ wish to go two-tier. They have the belief (which I share) that two changes in a pupil’s education at nine and 13, rather than just one at the age of 11, proves over the long-term disruptive and a drag on standards. Norfolk and Oxfordshire councils, for instance, have come to the same conclusion as Suffolk.

Schools in the Academy Trust umbrella – County Upper, Westley Middle, Horringer Court Middle, Barrow Primary and, potentially, Tollgate Primary are going it alone because, as Academies, Suffolk County Council has no control over them. As a direct result, we face two different educational structures existing side by side in our town – the ‘all-through’ model of the Academies on the one hand; and the two-tier system for the majority of the town on the other hand.

This will give parents a choice – but not necessarily a choice many parents will want to have. Some, perhaps desiring a place at County Upper, have been worried that places in the two Academy middles could be limited and may very well be filled by pupils who transferred at the age of nine from towns and villages outside Bury St Edmunds.The undesirable consequence would be that pupils on the Howard and the Mildenhall Road estates may not be able to obtain a place at their local upper school. That’s not the only problem. Headteachers and governors staunchly in favour of the move to two-tier point out that transfers of children between the two opposing systems might destabilise expanding primary and secondary schools. Planning staff requirements will get very much more complicated.

If there were a neat solution to this headache it would have been discovered by now. I have met Michael Gove (pictured) more than once but there is no magic bullet that he can provide. No-one in Whitehall can solve the issue that will confront parents – that of pure choice.

Parents will have to vote with their feet: to go middle or not to go middle. What I am doing in the meantime is to ensure that the majority of schools that want to increase their size to become primaries up to the age of 11 and high schools after the age of 11 can do so. That means ensuring County Hall provides the cash for new building in good time.