Sleepy Suffolk is turning out to be a shocking example of what happens when you take away the ability of a local authority to plan school provision.
Suffolk has suffered low educational achievement for decades. It is largely affluent, although has pockets of true poverty and it should be doing a lot better than it is. There are two main reasons for this, in my view. The first is low aspirations among too many of its residents. Until recently, Suffolk had not a single university. Higher education was not something that parents expected their children to achieve. Slowly, this culture is being turned round – but the new University Campus Suffolk may end up as one of the early casualties of the market in higher education that the new fees regime will introduce.
The second issue reason for underachievement is a structural issue with school provision. Large parts of the county have operated a three-tier education system since the mid-1970s. Under this system, children change schools at the end of Y4 and again at the end of Y8. The middle schools straddle Key Stage 2 and 3, without having overall responsibility for either stage. This causes two difficulties: that children suffer two “dips” in performance as a result of disruptive school transitions; and there is no clear accountability for performance at either KS2 or KS3. These issues mean that, despite huge efforts on the part of teachers and the local authority, there remains a gap in performance between the two-tier and three-tier systems of nearly 9% at KS2 and 7% at KS4.
To address this issue, the Tory-dominated authority embarked upon an ambitious plan to convert the whole county to a two-tier system. There was local resistance to the proposed closure of middle schools that parents liked, but the logic for the change was accepted by most school leaders, particularly in first and high schools. The first two phases of the reorganisation are well underway. The funding crisis and cancelling of BSF has delayed the final phase or reorganisation, affecting schools in Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket, but we were assured that the reorganisation would be completed.
But Gove’s new freedoms could mean an end to the reorganisation before it is finished. We already have the problem that Free Schools are being allowed to open on closing middle school sites, completely wrecking the carefully planned provision that was agreed in the course of the review – Stour Valley Community School is the first Free School to get permission to open. It will be a small 11-16 school unable to offer a broad range of provision. It will take children from other local secondaries, threatening their viability and creating surplus places that cannot be afforded.
And now, entirely predictably, two middle schools are to take academy status in conjunction with an outstanding high school to avoid closure. This throws the whole reorganisation in the Bury and Stowmarket area into doubt. A plan we have worked on for years to improve the education of every child will be wrecked because of the local authority cannot stop this happening. Here we are faced with the problem that the local views of some parents are allowed to override the accepted view that reorganisation is the best solution overall.
School provision has to be planned. The decisions of each individual school ripple outwards to affect every other and, without central coordination of school places and admissions, education for the children of Suffolk will remain poor.