Last week Nigel Huddleston MP led a debate in Parliament on middle schools and three-tier education, in which the Minister for Schools clarified that there were no plans to remove the three-tier education system. The minister clarified that organisation of schools is an issue for local authorities, schools and parents, and that statutory processes were in place for any moves from three-tier to two-tier systems.
The Minister for Schools also offered to meet with middle schools in the Worcestershire to clarify legislation and the Government’s position.
Mr Huddleston called for the debate because he had been contacted by parents asking for advice and guidance on the advantages and disadvantages of middle schools and some local schools have also been considering changing their age ranges which could impact the long term viability of some middle schools in Worcestershire.
During the past two decades, there has been a clear move away from middle schools towards a two-tier system across the country and the number of middle schools has fallen from more than 1,800 in 1981 to under 200 in recent years. Today there are 17 education authorities that have middle schools. There are still, however, over 68,000 children currently being educated in middle schools in England.
The first middle schools in Worcestershire opened in 1969, and there are still 20 in the county - the third highest number of middle schools of any local education authority in the country. There are 14 local authority maintained middle schools and six middle school academies in Worcestershire.
Responding to the debate, the Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb, stated that “The Department’s role is to hold schools accountable for the quality of education they provide and not to mandate any particular configuration of tiers.”
When a local authority decides to move from a three-tier to a two-tier structure, it is important that careful plans are in place to minimise any negative impact on the performance and viability of other schools in the area. Local authorities proposing such a change must follow four separate stages of the statutory process.
First, local authorities are required to publish their proposals in a local newspaper and at the school site. Secondly, a period of formal consultation has to take place for at least four weeks. Thirdly, a decision is usually made by the local authority. Only after those three steps have been taken can the proposal be implemented.
The consultation stage gives people who may be affected by the proposed change, including children, parents and teachers, a chance to express their views. The local authority is under a statutory duty to take into account all objections raised when reaching its final decision.
Where an individual academy seeks to change its age range, the process is different, but it still maintains the requirement for effective consultation and adherence to the principles of public law. The relevant regional schools commissioner is the decision maker for applications from academy trusts. They will ensure that any local issues are identified and addressed before a decision can be made and will draw on the advice and knowledge of their headteacher board. The guidance to support that process requires academy trusts to discuss their proposals with the local authority to ensure that the proposed change is aligned with local pupil place plans and will not have a negative impact on education standards at the academy or at other local schools or colleges. If objections are raised locally about a proposed change, the regional schools commissioner will require the trust to provide a full business case, including details of the steps it has taken to address objections raised through consultation.
“There is a lot of confusion about the value and long-term viability of the three-tier system., I have met many raving fans of both the two-tier and the three-tier systems in Worcestershire, and many parents express great affection for the middle schools in my constituency.
The issue of whether a two or three-tier system is best has come up again recently in my constituency, specifically because of moves by some first schools to add a year 6. The first schools have perfectly rational reasons for wishing to expand, but an inevitable, if unintended, consequence of such moves is to undermine the long-term viability of the middle schools, as their pupil head count will inevitably fall.
In Worcestershire, we need to have a full and open debate on the long-term viability of the three-tier system versus the two-tier system because I fear that more and more piecemeal changes may lead to some middle schools closing without us having a proper debate about whether that was intended. We all want to work together to ensure that all our children achieve the great education that they deserve and that parents rightly expect.”
For more information contact Nigel Huddleston on 07789983719 or his Parliamentary office on 0207 219 5814.