Access to Education: South-East Northumberland

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck 2:30, 21 February 2024

What the hon. Gentleman says is so true: this is about proper, real and good education. In my constituency, we have seen a number of schools turn the corner—they are now rated good, rather than the unwelcome ratings from Ofsted. That has focused parents’ minds. Instead of thinking that their kids should go to another school, they now want them to go to the school that is now rated good or better and that hopefully will improve further in the coming years.

Everybody should want their children to be part of the best potential educational facilities where the best results are obtained, but also in a really welcoming environment. I mentioned before that as a schoolboy I was at Ashington High School, which is now Ashington Academy. Two large cohorts used to be bused into Ashington High School from Pegswood, which is about two miles away; when my two sons attended the school, they experienced exactly the same. As recently as 2018, 100% of the 19 children leaving Pegswood Primary School, just one and a half or two miles away, were admitted to Ashington Academy, and that was the way it had been for generations. Last year, however, 24 children left the school at the end of year 6, but only 14 were admitted to Ashington Academy. Nine found their way to a different town altogether, six or seven miles away, and one went to the Blyth Academy—even further afield. We can see what has happened there. In the years in between, the number going to Ashington Academy has steadily reduced, with the destination of those not able to get a place varying greatly.

Pegswood Primary School is marginally closer to the King Edward VI School in Morpeth, known as KEVI. [Interruption.] I can see the Minister looking at a map. However, the system there still includes middle schools and the school is regularly oversubscribed. That means that this very sought-after school simply does not provide an appropriate opportunity for those kids to access education.

The reality of the situation is year groups and friendships are split up as children travel further to attend a suitable school. The same issue is in play at Bedlington Academy. In my office, we have been dealing with cases involving children from North Blyth, Cambois, Choppington, Guide Post and Stakeford who all have been unable to obtain a place at the school. This was their natural school.

We have spent many hours seeking a solution for a girl living in North Blyth. For those unfamiliar with the geography of the area, North Blyth is a small community on the north shore of the River Blyth, looking on to the town that shares its name, with the river running in between. The girl has gone through a primary school that was formerly a feeder school to both Bedlington Academy and its predecessor Bedlingtonshire Community High School. By any reasonable measure, given that the girl cannot conceivably cross the river, her closest secondary school is Bedlington Academy, but she has not been able to gain a place there. Her parents do not wish her to attend her next nearest school, which is a faith school. As such, she is out of education, awaiting a place at the academy. These are the issues that are important to families and children in their early stages.

We have spent a lot of time trying to help a kid from Stakeford who, again, having gone through the academy’s former feeder schools, has been unable to obtain a place. He is an incredibly bright young fella, but he is six months out of any formal educational setting, and we cannot just continue. One of the reasons why the debate is happening is to ask the Minister for some sort of support in south-east Northumberland. The boy’s next nearest school is the oversubscribed Ashington Academy, so he is forced to choose from options that are, again, further afield. The two children are not alone; indeed, we are aware that Bedlington Academy is oversubscribed for the next academic year by more than 20 pupils.

I previously alluded to former feeder schools. In 2020, the schools admissions criteria of both Ashington and Bedlington academies, both run by the North East Learning Trust, were amended. Rather than using feeder schools in their over-subscription criteria, they changed to using the distance from the school as the determining factor. Under usual circumstances, that could be seen at first glance as a reasonable change and one that is entirely legal under the legislation. It should be noted, however, that it was against the then advice of the local educational authority—Northumberland County Council —as was North East Learning Trust’s decision to cut the number of places available each year in both their academies.

There are more issues at play in the local area that cause problems. Ashington and Bedlington are towns containing two secondary schools. In Ashington, there was traditionally a split down the middle of the town that decided which schoolchildren attended which school: one side was the Church of England, the other the Ashington Academy. Children from the surrounding villages were split between the two schools, with those from Newbiggin and Lynemouth attending one and those from Pegswood, Linton, Ellington and Ulgham the other. The change in oversubscription criteria alone would have made little difference, but combined with different outcomes for the children, there is a swell in the number of pupils seeking to attend Ashington Academy.

Ashington Academy is at the centre of the town. Its results, as I have mentioned twice already, are very much on the increase, and therefore more people want to go there from the semi-urban areas and from Ashington itself. Every child in Ashington, regardless of where they live, lives closer to Ashington Academy than a child from Pegswood or the other villages. Pupils who would have travelled to Ashington Academy from Pegswood, Linton and Ellington now have fewer options, because people in Ashington town who perhaps would have gone to the other school live closer, and that means the admission criteria is in their favour.

Again, though there are two schools in Bedlington, the traditional split between them is slightly more complex due to one of them being a Catholic academy, but parents from wider Bedlingtonshire increasingly find that parental choice is unavailable to them, too. Children in Stakeford, Choppington, Guide Post, East and West Sleekburn, Cambois and North Blyth are at a disadvantage in attending their closest secondary school because they live too far away. Perversely, though I am not aware of any cases yet, there will come a time when even children living in Bedlington could find attending their closest non-faith secondary school difficult, with parts of Blyth closer in distance to the school than parts of Bedlington.

There is some positive news for those wishing to attend the Ashington Academy next year, as the school has been able to increase admissions to ensure that all those who have chosen it as their first choice can get in. We have made a little bit of progress thanks to Lesley Powell and her team at the at the North East Learning Trust. It does not help those who have been forced out of the traditional school progression in previous years nor, unless something can be sorted, will it help anyone in the future.

Bedlington Academy, however, has not had such luxuries. The school operates in a purpose-built facility that is restricted due to size. There are simply very few options for it to take a similar approach without building work, and obviously building work means more investment into the academy, something that the North East Learning Trust has been seeking. However, that has not been agreed by the education authority.

The data from the local authority for children in the Bedlington schooling system shows that the problem is likely to subside in the coming years. People believe that in the coming years it might change for the better, but that does not take into account any other factors. The progress made in recent years by Ashington and Bedlington academies is absolutely remarkable—their reputations have been so transformed that parents are desperate to get their children into the schools. Regardless of any other factors, the schools are likely to continue to be oversubscribed and children from more distant villages, for whom previously these were the appropriate schools, being split up from their peers and pushed into secondary schools that are even further away than the Ashington and Bedlington academies.

As the MP for the area for more than a decade, I have deliberately sought not to interfere in planning issues and I have no formal role in the process. By and large, that has been a sensible decision, but I have been told on multiple occasions that the explosion of house building in the constituency will have no impact on local services. Specifically, I have been told that there is no issue with school places and I have been shown figure after figure that supposedly proves that. However, with the benefit of hindsight, that does not appear to have been correct.

There is no wonder that local people are angry with the failure of local services to keep up. It is they and their children who are forced to deal with the consequences. The role of the local authority in all this is severely weakened by the academisation of so many schools in the area. Where once it would have had the responsibility to act to ensure fairness, it is now left to pick up the pieces. The warning that Northumberland County Council officers made to NELT in 2020 were not heeded and they have no powers to do anything in response. That is a huge difficulty. Part of the academy chain, the North East Learning Trust, is setting the rules. It has been agreed that it is not doing anything illegal, and the county council advises it that that should not be the case. It is not listening to the evidence from the county council. We have kids falling through the cracks. Nobody has done anything wrong; it is just not working for a number of young people, and it is set to get worse. Where once a local authority would have the responsibility to act to ensure fairness, it is now left to pick up the pieces.

Council officers have concluded that the trust’s change in admission policy disrupted long-established educational pathways, causing much confusion. Students and their families are left upset and uncertain. They report that students are being forced to go to schools outside their communities and away from long-standing friends, often involving unacceptably long journeys. I understand that council officials have met with the North East Learning Trust on an annual basis to try to convince them that the distance criteria are unfair and causing hardship. They are sometimes able to, in their words, “wrestle” some additional places in order to assist some students, but the distance criteria continue to disadvantage many, especially those in the villages in the former catchment areas that are furthest away.

Since 2010, austerity has ravaged parts of my constituency. In some areas, child poverty has gone through the roof. Schools clearly have not escaped that, with funding cuts being patched up by staff commitment. They remain shining beacons of opportunity in our communities, but for too many they are now unable to be accessed. Opportunity must be there for everyone.

I want to end by posing a number of questions to the Minister. Does the Minister understand that the changes made by the stroke of a pen to decades of settled school progression is incredibly hard for a community to take? Does he agree that any system where parental choice is possible for people in Ashington, but less so for those in the villages around it, is unfair? Does he agree that it is unfair that parental choice for some parents in Bedlingtonshire now amounts to choosing a school devoted to a faith to which they do not belong, or a school in a community where they have no connections at all? Does the Minister agree that additional funding to Bedlington Academy to increase its capacity appears to be the only real option? Finally, does he agree that more rigorous checks on the impact of development are needed, and that they should be revisited year on year, so that the students—the kids—are first, second and third?