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Ten closures planned in bid to save cash

Ten first schools with surplus places may be closed in two years by Northumberland County Council in a desperate attempt to save money.

Headteachers in the affected schools, almost all in rural areas, were first told late last week by education director Chris Tipple of the radical plans to rationalise places, starting in September 1996.

He stressed the move was a result of poor Government funding for education and the drive to cut surplus places, and not a reflection on standards within the schools.

The cash-starved authority has suffered from low Standard Spending Assessments in the past four years, while its largely rural geography has led to a large number of first schools with empty desks - 21 per cent of the county's school places are unfilled.

In the past few years, it has axed approximately Pounds 14 million from its education budget and this year it agreed to use half of its Pounds 6m reserves - the Treasury's recommended minimum - to avoid redundancies among teaching staff.

"We have cut something like Pounds 14m from our education budget in the past few years and the figures are virtually the same today as they were in 1992-93," said Chris Tipple. "Our cut last year was Pounds 1m because of the council's decision to halve its balances, and the administration has vowed to do the same thing again this year if necessary.

"We are now spending approximately 5 per cent above our SSA and up to our Government spending limit, so teacher redundancies are not a big factor here," he said. There was "a very good chance" that the teaching staff in the schools identified for closure would be found jobs elsewhere.

As The TES went to press, the council was meeting to discuss the proposals. If all 10 schools were to close, it would produce immediate savings of Pounds 420,000, but the additional savings in maintenance and repairs would bring the figure up to nearly Pounds 1m.

If approved, 32 teachers, 441 pupils, and some non-teaching staff would be affected. The pupils would be transferred to nearby schools.

Parents, governors, staff and pupils, were devastated by the news and united to fight for their schools' survival.

Isobel Robinson, teaching head at Thropton first primary school, near Rothbury, which has 40 children, said: "The brief put out by the authority claims our children would have a 10-minute journey to another school, but our catchment area is very wide and some would have an incredibly long journey for their age."

The school had one other full-time teacher, who was at the top of her pay scale, and four non-teaching staff. "I am faced with redeployment and possibly working again as a teacher, but again I am top of the scale," she said.

Charles Ellis, teaching head of Hipsburn county first school, which has one full and two part-time teachers for 5l pupils, said the news had caused "total uproar" locally. He said: "Forty-nine per cent of the schools in the county have classes with more than 30 pupils, and parents are concerned that their children will be going into classes which are already too large."

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