School Funding: North Northumberland

Part of Petition - Warwick Road, Carlisle – in the House of Commons at 12:51 pm on 11th September 2017.

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Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Conservative, Berwick-upon-Tweed 12:51 pm, 11th September 2017

Indeed, we will look into that, and perhaps my hon. Friend will help us make progress.

I hope that the Minister will commit to driving forward—excuse the pun—this rural transport hub project by seeking grant funding to help pump-prime it. We can be so much smarter with the money we have if we do not have to spend it on a double-decker, one-size-fits-all offer. The current provision cannot solve the complex issues in our rural communities, and off-the-shelf approaches do not reflect the realities and problems facing my sparsely populated communities. The project would be an opportunity to show the art of common sense in action both for our school children and for others needing rural transport solutions, and also—I speak always as an accountant—for the taxpayer.

Secondly, I bring to the Minister another radical proposal to improve the educational and future life chances of Northumbrian children. I like to call it “academy plus”. He might recall that back in 2011, when I was a governor of Berwick High School, in the northernmost point of a county of more than 2,000 square miles, we decided that following years of neglect by Labour-run county hall, we should take advantage of the academies offer being driven forward by the new Conservative-led Government. And so we duly did. We had to do so, however, without a sponsor, because none of the world-class universities of the north-east would commit to becoming one—Berwick Academy seemed too remote; it was not big enough, having a school roll of only 800 pupils; it was too difficult to engage with the pupils because of the distance from Tyneside or Durham. It was depressing that we could not get them to take a strong lead and help us to build aspirations.

The county now has several academies, but it has continued to be an enormous challenge to find academy sponsors, or more recently academy chains, to take on those schools. There are a number of reasons for that, but key to the challenge is perhaps that it has proved difficult to make Northumberland a first-choice destination for teachers, given that they also have the option of Newcastle schools or of going over the border to Scottish schools. A primary school in town with a roll of 300 pupils will afford more personal development and career options than a—wonderful, in my opinion—tiny rural school of 50.

How might we find a radical way to provide an excellent education for our rural Northumbrian pupils now and for the long term? How can we create a dynamic offer for teachers to come to Northumberland? Now is the time for bold, challenging thinking. It is the very least our young people deserve. Is the Minister minded to consider how our Conservative council could become the lead partner in building an educational framework similar to that of a traditional academy trust? At the moment, all bar four of our county’s academies are failing to give our children the very best. Those good or outstanding schools are the Duchess’s High School in Alnwick, King Edward VI in Morpeth, Queen Elizabeth in Hexham and Cramlington Learning Village, which until recently was in special measures but is now making great progress. All the others, however, are in the “requiring improvement” category, and the overriding message from Ofsted is repeatedly that the challenges facing the leadership of each school are made more difficult because each teaching group is working in isolation. It means that no one is winning for our children’s future. Our primary, middle and secondary schools across the county will all need more support if they are to climb from their present situation to outstanding reports.

I am proposing a plan to develop in Northumberland a pilot programme for recruitment that can provide support and the right tools to generate educational leaders who can work together under a coherent and cohesive educational outcome framework. I would like to see our schools commissioner on board with this new plan, alongside Northumberland County Council, drawing in the best from university education leaders in the north-east and business leaders on our local enterprise partnership to create an umbrella of educational direction and drive results for all our schools.

I want to see our schools maintain their own heads and governing bodies. That would not be about forcing federations on different communities. What we need is an educational framework that overarches all of them so that, for instance, school readiness is tackled across the patch and parents cannot play schools off against each other. All our kids would be part of one Northumberland partnership, which would create an umbrella framework of higher achievement in all schools. We need to drive standards forward to meet the needs of our children’s future career choices. So this is my second request to the Minister: I ask him to find radical solutions to the unique challenge of providing the very best educational outcomes for Northumberland’s children, and to work with our schools commissioner and my passionate new Conservative county councillors to create the new partnership framework. We think of it as “academisation plus”.

There will be a need for some initial investment to make that happen—my county council will need to set up a back-office management support system, with a few co-ordinators and an educational lead—but for a small investment, long-term positive outcomes for the unique nature of Northumberland education can be driven forward. There can surely be few more positive and beneficial expenditures of taxpayers’ money than expenditure on the future workforce and leaders of our country. Our children deserve to be able to fulfil their dreams. They deserve to have an education that creates possibilities and opens doors, and—regardless of location, class or means—to be equipped with an education that can stand the test of any challenge presented by the world in which they will grow up.