The county council’s head of children’s services has said that school support has not always been good enough and that past cuts were a mistake.
In an interview, Councillor Robert Arckless, admitted that standards and viability are the two key issues facing the county’s schools.
“The Ofsted inspections last October did show that there are significant problems in some schools,” said the ward member for Amble.
“Although there are outstanding schools, in Ofsted’s terminology, there are too many where the standards are not good enough, especially at secondary level. As a council, we have a responsibility to make sure that the support we give to schools is the right kind of support and is the right quality of support.
“The support we have given up to this point hasn’t always been good enough and the cuts to school support were a mistake.”
In the Labour administration’s first budget, passed last month, £200,000 was put back into school support.
Councillor Arckless said his department is looking at County Durham as well as trying to identify in-county support via shared good teaching practice, although raising standards is not the only concern.
“Demography is a massive problem for Northumberland. The further north you go, the sparser the population is and the older the population is. We have more schools than just about anywhere else in England, some of which are very small.
“We have lost a number of small schools in recent years, and I’m not saying we won’t lose small schools in the future, but we would like to develop a strategy where we can help to make schools more viable.”
More specifically, this means things like federations between schools and sharing teaching skills and good practice.
“We want to look at different solutions for different areas and not imposing solutions centrally from on high,” he added.
Whenever education is discussed, it must be remembered that the funding formula for all schools is set by government and the schools’ forum is the distribution network.
The county council does keep a proportion of the money for school support, but is strictly controlled in terms of what that is. Examples include advisory support and special needs.
Northumberland is in the F40 category – the 40 worst-funded local education authorities. Councillor Arckless said: “We are, and we have been for a long time, one of the worst-funded education authorities.”
This all comes in the face of dramatic cuts to the county’s budget, which Councillor Arckless says are ‘of a completely different order’ to anything he has seen in his career.
“We have been told if all things stay as they are we have to find a quarter of the council’s revenue budget in the next four years in cuts.
“In this year’s budget, I was asked to find £4.8 million out of a real budget that could be touched of £42 million.
“We have had year after year after year of cuts. Even when the Labour government was giving us a better grant settlement, we were always struggling in Northumberland.
“They have reached the stage now where they will affect and are affecting frontline services.
“I really don’t think the level of cuts we are being asked to produce is sustainable. Having said that, I’m convinced we can do things in children’s services and in education.”
As evidence, Councillor Arckless pointed to free parking and the council’s new house-building programme.
The consultation on potentially introducing transport charges for post-16 students has been a controversial one.
The administration’s plans to abolish free transport for 16-18 year olds have been met with fierce criticism, particularly in the north of the county.
The proposal to charge over 16s £450 per year to travel to sixth form or college has not gone down well in Berwick.
While school transport does not fall specifically under head of children’s services, Councillor Arckless’s remit, he does have concerns about how the current policy can impact on the viability of Northumberland’s schools.
“I understand that in an ideal world, every young person would be able to go wherever they want, but this isn’t an ideal world,” he said.
“There has been a huge rise in costs and it’s not sustainable, but it isn’t just about the money.
“I worry about young people travelling to colleges out of their communities.
“If you take a substantial number out of the cohort of a high school, it has an impact on the viability of the sixth form.
“We need to help schools to develop new courses that are more attractive to young people. Northumberland taxpayers are paying a substantial amount for transport.
“We are always going to have a bigger bill for getting kids from home to school, but the scale of what we are dealing with is enormous.
“The more money you spend on transport, the less there is to spend on other educational resources.”