Watchdog chiefs raises questions over Northumberland's three-tier education system

Nick Hudson, regional director for Ofsted, said the council must ask some "very, very hard questions" about the system.

Exterior of County Hall in Morpeth Northumberland
Exterior of County Hall in Morpeth Northumberland

Watchdogs last night urged council leaders to ask “significant questions” over Northumberland’s three-tier education system after an emergency review unearthed a “downward trend” among failing schools.

Council leaders in Northumberland were dealt fierce criticism after an emergency Ofsted review of 17 schools, chosen at random, found too many were failing teachers and pupils.

Now, the watchdog’s regional director Nick Hudson has claimed there is a lack of confidence of tracking and assessment in the county’s three-tier education system which could hinder pupils’ progress.

It comes less than 10 years after defiant parents reacted angrily to plans to switch to a two-tier system which put more than 45 middle schools under the threat of closure.

Mr Hudson stopped short of calling for an overhaul but claimed the three-tier system meant teachers were able to “inflate” pupil performance between schools while the two-tier system relied on standard Key Stage 2 national tests. He told The Journal: “What we have is a potential a lack of confidence between schools within the three-tier system. We are saying there some significant questions that need to be asked about the workings of the three-tier systems.

“We need to be really careful - we are not saying the three-tier system doesn’t work - the issue here is the assessment and confidence that schools have in their colleagues ability to assess and track pupils.”

A letter sent to schools yesterday following an emergency review of 17 schools said “the local authority has failed to ensure the accuracy of assessment information when pupils transfer to middle or high schools at ages nine and 13 years”.

It accused the council of a “paucity of knowledge about pupils’ attainment and progress across year groups”.

Mr Hudson said: “The local authority needs to ask themselves some very, very hard questions about tracking and assessment. If they have confidence then the children won’t lose out, but if they don’t have the confidence, the children will lose out.”

The Ofsted report found the council was failing to tackle declining standards and claimed an emergency review of schools did “not reflect well on the local authority’s capacity or influence to drive improvement.”

It comes after an emergency inspection of 17 schools found standards in three-quarters had failed to improve or declined, while four of those examined over a concentrated two-day period failed the inspection.

Robert Arckless, Northumberland County Council’s policy board member for children’s services, yesterday said the council’s school support network had suffered huge cuts in to meet the sweeping £100m deficit over the past four years.

Speaking about the three-tier system, he said: “I was part of the administration that supported the two-tier system in 2003.

“I was at the front end of that, but there were two problems. We didn’t carry the communities with us and we didn’t get the support we should have financially.

“But this is not 2003, it’s 2013 and we no longer have the strategic ability to impose a structure, we’ve not got the power to do that.

“I’m concerned about fragmentation of the system but I understand that’s not going to change any time soon. There are good schools in both systems but we can’t have everyone blaming one another. We have to make the system work.”

He added: “I’m relatively new to this post, but I think it’s fair to say that anyone who checks the record will see I consistently raised issues about the need to have a strategy to support schools that were in difficulties and I was saying that long before I was elected to this post.

“Since June we’ve published such a strategy and we are keen to work with schools.”

Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith said: “This is a very worrying report both in the number of schools identified as not having improved and its criticisms of Northumberland County council’s failure to reverse this trend.

“I will be consulting with schools minister David Laws about how both the local authority and the schools can best be helped to put things right. Urgent action is clearly needed when there is found to be under-performance in a relatively large number of schools.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer