Row as Oxford tries to scrap middle schools

The new school closures adjudicator faces its first big decision, reports Clare Dean

THE new national adjudicator for school closures faces its first major test after a local committee failed to agree over plans to close Oxford's 10 middle schools.

Councillors in Oxfordshire want to scrap the three-tier system in Oxford city - where middle schools take pupils from the ages of nine to 13 - by September 2003 to bring it in line with the rest of the county.

Any proposal to close a school requires the unanimous backing of the local schools organisation committee, 150 of which were set up throughout England last year under the Standards and Framework Act. If the committee fails to agree the decision is referred to the central Office of the Schools Adjudicator.

However the Catholic Church, which is represented on Oxfordshire's committee, has objected to the plans, because te closure of the Catholic Cardinal Newman middle will leave it without a school for secondary-aged pupils in the city. It is negotiating for an 11-18 Catholic school, citing overwhelming public support. Father Marcus Stock, executive secretary and director of schools for the archdiocese of Birmingham, said: "We will take whatever action is necessary to achieve that."

Last week the schools organisation committee deferred its decision and demanded more financial details after concerns over a pound;10 million budget shortfall for the re-organisation.

Columb Waters, head of Cardinal Newman, said: "We are not against the two-tier system but are against losing an 11-18 Catholic secondary, which city people want."

Peter Newsam, chief adjudicator, confirmed that if the Oxford proposals were referred to him it would be the first major reorganisation his office had considered.

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