£160m closing of middle schools 'has not raised standards', report says

A report said Suffolk County Council's reorganisation of the county's middle schools "has not raised standards".

A report said Suffolk County Council's reorganisation of the county's middle schools "has not raised standards". - Credit: ARCHANT/SUFFOLK COUNTY COUNCIL

A report has found that the £160million reorganisation of Suffolk's education system to eliminate middle schools "has not raised standards".

The report, penned by a pro-middle school group called The National Middle Schools' Forum, found Suffolk pupils' progress in reading, writing and maths between the ages of five and 11 was in the bottom 25% nationally – as it was before the 2007 reorganisation.

Suffolk also ranks in the bottom quarter for pupils' achieving the expected levels at the age of 11. 

The report goes on to note: "In 2019 Suffolk was placed 115th out of 150 for the percentage of pupils achieving the expected standard in Maths at KS2 – Suffolk’s position remains as it was in 2006 when it was ranked 119th."

But Rachel Hood, cabinet member for education, SEND and skills at Suffolk County Council, said: “It is written in black and white in the report by the National Middle Schools’ Forum that education attainment for pupils aged 11 in Suffolk has risen.

Conservative cabinet member for education at Suffolk County Council, Rachel Hood

Cabinet member for education at Suffolk County Council, Rachel Hood. Picture: - Credit: SUFFOLK COUNTY COUNCIL

“That was one of the purposes of the reorganisation of our education system 16 years ago, which included amongst other things a move from a three-tier to a two-tier system.

"By the report’s own admission, we achieved what we set out to do and to this day we continue to focus on raising standards of education across Suffolk.  

“I am also not entirely convinced that this report is not motivated by middle-school campaigners elsewhere in the country, who have no connection with Suffolk and the way we educate our children and young people.”

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A Freedom of Information request submitted by this newspaper uncovered the closure of 38 of the county's 40 middle schools had cost Suffolk County Council nearly £163million.

It also revealed the council had received just £5.2million from the sale of six of the former middle school sites.

Nigel Wyatt, executive officer of the National Middle Schools' Forum, said: "It's an awful lot of money to spend, for no improvement in the results that they were hoping to achieve.

Nigel Wyatt, executive officer of the National Middle Schools Forum, in 2013.

Nigel Wyatt, executive officer of the National Middle Schools Forum, in 2013. - Credit: Andy Abbott

"If you think about it, this is 38 middle schools, all of which would have had three or four hundred pupils – all have had their education disrupted along the way and the staff who have lost their jobs.

"That's something that is forgotten in all this. People think this is a difficulty to be got through, but it ignores the fact that people are caught up in this along the way."

In 2007 Suffolk County Council decided to close its 40 middle schools – which had educated children aged nine to 13 in the county since the 1970s – after a review found children in a three-tier system made less progress than youngsters who went straight from primary school to high school.

Jeremy Pembroke, council leader at the time, outlined the reasons behind the decision. He said: "The body of evidence presented to us was clear and unambiguous. We cannot allow this opportunity to improve the education prospects for all our children to pass us by. 

Bacton Middle School's final few days before its permanent closure.

Bacton Middle School's final few days before its permanent closure. - Credit: Gregg Brown

"Quite apart from the fact that standards, expectations and aspirations need to be raised in all our schools, there is a clear and worrying difference between the two and three-tier systems.

"The difference is particularly worrying at age 11 where attainment is substantially lower in the three-tier system. 

Jeremy Pembroke, former leader of Suffolk County Council, in 2010.

Jeremy Pembroke, former leader of Suffolk County Council, pictured in 2010. - Credit: WENDY TURNER

"This gap is never completely made good and those in the three-tier system lag behind throughout their school life, and come out with lower grades at GCSE. 

"The difference continues after GCSEs, with fewer students continuing with their education and lower results in the three-tier system for those who do. 

"This is the result of structural weaknesses in the three-tier system and is despite the very best efforts of three-tier school staff over many years. We cannot accept this any longer."

Proposals to close the county's final two middle schools in Bury St Edmunds have been submitted to the Department of Education by Unity Schools Partnership.

The council has not budgeted any funds for this change.

What do the people there at the time think?

Graham Newman was on the council in 2006 when the review got underway.

Graham Newman chairman of Suffolk County Council.

Graham Newman chairman of the Education and Children's Service Scrutiny Committee - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

In 2009 he became cabinet member for children, responsible for overseeing the restructure across the county until 2013.

Councillor Newman is now chairman of the education and children's service scrutiny committee.

He said: "I think it's absolutely unquestionable we are in a much, much better place now than we were when we started the school organisation review.

"In my view, we have convincingly moved the goalposts. I can't tell you exactly where we are at the moment, because of course, we've not had formal KS2 for the last couple of years."

Mr Newman said school results were "a very variable beast" adding that a cohort of students or a new headteacher could improve a school's results.