THE debate over the future of a closure-threatened North East school has descended into a playground spat between an MP and a council leader.
Hexham’s Conservative MP Guy Opperman has accused the controlling Lib Dem group on Northumberland County Council of “taking local people for fools” over moves to close Allendale Middle School.
But the blazing row between two of Northumberland’s most senior politicians has seen council leader Jeff Reid hit back and tell Mr Opperman “to read his own Government’s education policy before he goes slagging us off”.
The war of words sprang up after the council announced the possibility of closing the middle school, which is set to fail its Ofsted. That move has also raised the spectre of a return to the row over two-tier education which dogged Northumberland in 2004 and 2005.
On Monday, the council said it would try the unlikely move of asking Education Secretary Michael Gove to make Allendale an exception to his normal rules which see failing schools either closed down or having to become an academy.
Councillors tried to enlist Mr Opperman to that fight and asked him to lobby his Conservative colleague Mr Gove.
But yesterday the Hexham MP said they were guilty of “a shameless sleight of hand” and “unforgivable betrayal” of people fighting to save the 137-pupil school.
The MP told Coun Reid: “Your request for me to lobby the Department of Education shows that you are taking local people for fools.
“Your council administration has already made it clear that your preferred course is to close Allendale Middle School and turn Haydon Bridge High into a secondary school. A rush towards closure could see the end of the three-tier system, which would be an unforgivable betrayal of local people.
“You have dispatched senior council officers to evangelise about the two-tier system to local governing bodies. A senior Lib Dem county councillor is the chairman of governors of a local first school federation and is pushing the area towards two tiers. No one will be fooled by your shameless sleight of hand.”
A 12-week consultation with parents and other bodies is under way to seek the best way forward, and two major public meetings in Allendale have led to the formation of a special opposition working group.
Coun Reid responded angrily to Mr Opperman’s accusations, saying: “This just beggars belief. I’m astonished that Guy Opperman can slag us off when we are offering the parents every help and assistance to get the solution that is acceptable to them.
“Mr Opperman is the one that is taking his electorate for fools. His Government is the one that is not giving the people what they want. He needs to read his own Government’s education policy before he goes slagging us off.
“This is political manoeuvring of the worst kind. What absolutely matters in this is the education of the children of his constituents.
“We are asking Mr Opperman to get on board. He should be fighting to get the school saved, but he has come up against a brick wall and now says he cannot do anything. This is nothing to do with two-tier. This is about a school that has failed the children it is educating.”
Coun Reid was joined in his attack by Haydon and Hadrian councillor Alan Sharp, chairman of governors of the region’s First School federation, who was criticised in Mr Opperman’s statement.
He said: “I resent Guy Opperman’s cheap political move, and his attitude to my views.”