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Parents defend the middle ground

Northumberland is considering moving to a two-tier system. Helen Ward reports

One of the few remaining authorities to have an entirely three-tier system is planning to get rid of its middle schools.

Northumberland is considering returning to primary and secondary schools from 2006.

The move has split the county, with many parents and teachers opposed to the change. But others, including heads of first and high schools, have supported the move.

Deb Harm was one of the first pupils at 389-pupil Highfield middle when it opened in Northumberland more than 20 years ago - her daughter Caitlin may now be one of the last.

Caitlin, 10, met Tony Blair at the launch of the Northern Grid of Learning four years ago and has sent the Prime Minister a letter asking him to intervene and save Highfield.

She wrote: "It (middle school) gets us ready for high school because we get used to changing lessons, bringing the right books to school and having more subjects to learn.

"I would be rather scared to go from a moderately small school to a huge secondary school at eleven, where I would be mixing with older teenagers."

Mrs Harm, 37, remembers walking into Highfield when it first opened. "It was fabulous," she said. "We were all excited and it was nice because a lot of staff from the first school moved up with us.

"I'm appalled that the council wants to change these successful schools which give children a chance to finish their childhood before going into a big school."

Northumberland has 45 middle schools and is the largest three-tier system left in England. But the Labour-run council estimates that in five years'

time it will have 6,000 surplus places.

It said the change to two tiers will raise standards and that money from the sale of school sites can be used to tackle a pound;100 million backlog in maintenance and repairs.

Middle schools were introduced in parts of the country in the late 1960s and were based on the idea that eight, nine or even 10 was a more appropriate age for children to change school.

Inspectors say pupils' attitudes are very good or excellent in two-thirds of middle schools. But in the past five years, the number of middle schools nationwide has dropped from 564 to 413.

Authorities to have scrapped the three-tier system include Bradford, Leeds and the west London borough of Merton.

David Ward, Liberal Democrat portfolio holder for education in Bradford, said: "There is a sound rationale for the three-tier system, but that has been overtaken by the national curriculum."

The London borough of Harrow has retained a three-tier system, with middle schools catering for Year 4 to Year 7.

Adrian Parker, principal adviser, said: "There is pressure to move to an 11 to 16 system but there is also a bit of a feeling that if it ain't broke don't fix it."

AREAS THAT STILL HAVE MIDDLE SCHOOLS:

* Newcastle Upon Tyne 7

* North Tyneside 4

* Northumberland 45

* Kirklees 7

* North Yorkshire 2

* Leicestershire 9

* Northants 21

* Staffordshire 14

* Worcestershire 33

* Bedfordshire 40

* Cambridgeshire 1

* Hertfordshire 6

* Norfolk 52

* Suffolk 40

* London borough of Harrow 19

* Isle of Wight 16

* Kent 3

* Milton Keynes 16

* West Sussex 25

* Windsor and Maidenhead 4

* Devon 8

* Dorset 17

* Poole 10

* Somerset 9

* Wiltshire 5

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