Death of the middle way and makeover manna

29th November 2002 at 00:00
Northampton's schools are at a crossroads, as the old three-tier system is jettisoned and aprivate finance initiative is embraced, writes Nicholas Pyke

To say Colin Bromley has mixed feelings does not do them justice. In 2004 he will work in North-ampton's new city academy, a lavishly-funded, architect-designed school which promises to revitalise education and comm-unity in the east of the town.

But the fresh beginning comes at a price. He will have to give up his headteacher's office and, at the age of 50, become a classroom teacher again. He will say farewell to longstanding colleagues, and the children. Worst of all he has to see the school where he has worked for 17 years closed in the shake-up of the school system.

But at least he has a job to go to, unlike some fellow teachers at Ecton Brook middle school.

Colin and colleagues have had little choice. Under a pound;100m Private Finance Initiative deal 75 schools will be whittled down to 59. There will be a new Anglican secondary, a learning centre offering new technology and teaching support to staff and pupils. An upper school will become a city academy. A new school is also planned for a site near the M1.

It was Northamptonshire's decision to invest in middle schools that brought Mr Bromley to the area. He has watched their slow demise across the country with sadness. Middle schools are now largely confined to Norfolk and Suffolk despite what their advocates see as an ability to look after children in the difficult years of early adolescence. "We're continuing to do our job as well as we've always done at Ecton Brook," he says. "We're hoping that when the children leave they will be sad to see us go, but that they'll be confident going forward."

With the town's building stock crumbling, a pound;14m backlog of repairs and academic results not all they might be, the local authority had to act. Its answer was a two-tier system. It was felt that middle schools could not take best advantage of the national curriculum and that changing schools twice could put children at a disadvantage. More sceptical observers suggest the two-level structure was chosen because it suits PFI schemes better. PFI produces larger construction sites, hefty maintenance contracts and plenty of redundant plots and buildings to sell.

The modernisation scheme has also created a spirit of optimism in the town, among the beneficiaries at least. Lings upper, just down the road from Ecton Brook, is to be recreated as a city academy from 2004, with the help of Mr Bromley.

City academies were thought up by Number 10's policy unit to give headteachers additional cash and the freedom to vary the curriculum and popularise struggling inner-city schools. The move seems a little strange as Northampton is not a city and does not appear to be suffering in the manner of schools in Peckham and Thamesmead in south-east London.

But Northampton has had to aborb a great deal of London overspill since the war and, with its traditional manufacturing base declining, this has not been easy. The modern estates on the east of town look tidy enough, but aspirant families send their children to other parts of town.

It is hoped that with a new name and new investment the Lings site will shed its downbeat past. Martyn Baker, who has led the school for two years, says the plans are already generating interest, and expects to see a lecture hall full of prospective parents when he gives a presentation in the new year.

It looks likely that the academy will specialise in sport. Although the school has already made impressive progress since he took over, Mr Baker says the pound;20m makeover is like "manna from Heaven" as he tries to sustain the improvements.

If the potential advantages of the shake-up are clear, the upheaval is enormous.

Northampton School for girls for example, is looking forward to taking on younger pupils and becoming a standard 11-18 secondary. But headteacher Penny Westwood will have to spend every afternoon between now and Christmas interviewing new staff.

The unions are concerned. Despite assurances that new schools system would be staffed from the current teaching pool, Gordon White of the National Union of Teachers doubts there will be suitable jobs for everyone: "More than 430 teachers risk being displaced. There are only 363 posts for them to fill. Almost 50 teachers have had to accept posts at a lower level."

Mr White regrets that the authority has refused to consider early retirement or redundancy: "The authority has underfunded the staffing elements of this review."

Not that Colin Bromley wants to retire. "I'm fortunate in all this," he says."I'm going to somewhere totally new. There will be celebration in 2004. But also sadness as well."

Meanwhile his deputy Damian McGeehin is among those still looking for a job. And as all the new management posts have been taken up already, he may have to leave the county.


* Nearly pound;100 million will be spent through the Private Finance Initiative on repairing and reshaping the school system in the town. Most work to be completed by 2004.

* All middle schools to be abolished and replaced with a two-tier system of primary and secondary schools.

* Lings upper to be closed and replaced with a new pound;20m city academy.

* A new CofE secondary to be opened.

* A computer-based learning support centre will offer out-of-hours help to students and teachers.

* A school to open just south of Northampton in a pound;25m PFI scheme. The Wooldale Centre to serve new area of population near the M1 with a community library, sports facilities, secondary and primary schools.

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