Major changes to the schools system in Bedfordshire have taken a step closer. County looks set to vote for change to a two-tier system.....
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Decision day on schools' future

Major changes to the schools system in Bedfordshire have taken a step closer. County looks set to vote for change to a two-tier system.

Parents and youngsters at Pulford School supporting the middle school system

Beds County Council's executive committee gave its backing to the idea of ditching the county's three-tier schools structure of lower, middle and upper schools in favour of a two-tier schools system of primary and secondary schools instead.

Now the controversial matter has to go before the full county council for the final decision about whether to make that move. The full council will discuss it on July 13 at County Hall in Bedford, and parents are urged to attend.

County council leader Madeline Russell, who described the schools shake-up as one of the biggest decisions Bedfordshire will make for the next 30 years, said: "Standards of education in Bedfordshire are not as high as they should be, particularly for older children. We have some excellent teachers in our schools and we owe it to them to bring in a system that helps them do the best possible job.

"Our children's exam results are not good enough when compared with the results of children in areas that operate a two-tier system. We believe even our best schools would get better results in that system.

"If the county council agrees to change, then our top priority will be the children currently in the system. We will work with the school communities, parents and the public to ensure change is handled carefully and gradually and their progress is not disrupted.

"There will be further public consultation with the individual school groups, and we will want to be sensitive to the needs of the children."

A working group of county councillors, parent governors, and representatives from the church diocese and the Learning and Skills Council recommended the move as they believed it would help to improve pupils' results.

They concluded that pupils' performance is linked to the system of schools, and that pupils in the two-tier system get better results overall than those in the three-tier system.

If the county does move to a two-tier schools system, any change can only happen after further consultation with individual schools and local communities.

Education bosses have a five-year plan to pull off the huge task and no changes would occur in schools before September 2008.

Under arrangements which have yet to be finalised, it is likely Bedfordshire, will be divided into two or three parts to manage the transformation.

If two parts get the nod, it would take three years to then complete the change, beginning with consultation with individual schools and ending with the winding up of middle schools.

If Beds is instead split into three, with one part of the county starting first and the others following in successive years, the switch would take five years to complete.

The council's own figures suggest the transformation will cost up to £473 million over the next 16 years, including redundancy payments, new school buildings, and temporary accommodation.

Nearly half of that is expected to come from the government, but a handy chunk - about £104 million - is hoped for from the sale of middle school sites to developers. The county council has already begun sizing up what school land would be attractive to builders.

But Councillor Rita Drinkwater, cabinet member for education, said: "I have been contacted by a number of people who have heard that we are planning to close lower schools. That is completely wrong.

"The proposals state very clearly that we plan to upgrade all of our lower schools to become primary schools, unless there are exceptional circumstances.

"We recognise the importance to parents of their local schools and their staff. Becoming primary schools will allow them to provide an even better education and continue to meet the needs of their local community. A primary school system also means the children will spend another two years in their local school, with teaching staff that they already know."

However, parent Trudi Barnes from - Leighton disagrees with the county council's plans. She says it is not true that standards will rise if the school structure is changed.

"There is no evidence" she said. "The council know this and say so in their documentation. The fact is that standards are rising faster in Leighton than in most of the country.

"The council has said that it expects and accepts the risk that standards will actually fall for your child because of the changes.

"Our children are not failing in Middle Schools - this is misinformation. It is being suggested that Bedfordshire is at the bottom of the education league nationally. This is not the case. Bedfordshire is in the middle and improving.

"Our children's education will be seriously and irrevocably compromised by the uncertainty and confusion of change and expansion.

"I ask the people of Leighton Buzzard - do you want your 11-year-old child transferring to a secondary school that could have over 1,500 pupils, has year groups of 300, acid will be a major building site for at least three to five years?"

She continued: "The anticipated cost includes £104 million from the sale of middle schools, plus £217 million BSF government funding that will be available for education regardless of the change. Surely this could be better spent improving our already good schools. The consultation results said that 65% wanted to retain the three-tier system. The consultation cost £141,000 yet the results are being ignored!"

She went on: "The report talks about a perceived recruitment and retention issue from not having the same structure as most of the country but people move here for it. There has been no research into the loss of experienced teaching staff who will leave or take redundancy rather than face the reorganisation - these are the people that have made Leighton-Linslade schools as successful as they are."

Mrs Barnes urges parents to contact their local councillors over the issue or even Andrew Selous MP at the House of Commons. "Apathy will cost our children dear" she added.

Fours, the council's independent researchers, published its report this week. A presentation was given at County Hall on Tuesday morning.

A full copy of the report can be found on the Bedfordshire website, www.bedfordshire.gov.uk. Out of the 9,500 written responses received, only 5,000 were from parents - which amounted to a response rate of a mere 10 per cent.

Fours summarised its findings: "A significant majority of those who responded favoured retention of the current three-tier system overall. This however masks variation between stakeholder groups and geographic areas.

"There is no consensus throughout the county or service about the appropriate school system, in Bedfordshire."

Source: Leighton Buzzard Observer, 4 July 2006

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