Northumberland school expansions delayed

The Dales School at Blyth.
The Dales School at Blyth.

The expansion of two Northumberland special schools to provide much-needed new places has been delayed by several months.

In April, it was reported that an extra 50 places are to be created at Blyth’s The Dales School, through the creation of a satellite site in Ashington to be called Ashdale, while an additional 32 places are to be provided at Hexham Priory School by expanding the school building.

This is in the wake of a 32 per cent increase in the number of pupils at Northumberland’s eight maintained special schools between 2013 and 2017.

Funding had already been earmarked by Northumberland County Council, but statutory proposals were published so that the additional spaces were in place for the start of the next academic year in September.

However, a report to councillors has now revealed that ‘due to unforeseen circumstances’, the construction work will not be completed in time and the implementation dates will now be November 1 for Hexham Priory and December 1 for Ashdale.

Sue Aviston, the council’s head of school organisation and resources, said that contingency plans are being drawn up, so it is not anticipated that it will be a problem to accommodate the extra pupils in existing buildings until the projects are completed.

This update formed part of a report that went before last Thursday’s family and children’s services committee and goes before the cabinet on Thursday (June 14), and which also deals with the draft schools organisation plan.

This plan, due to be published next month following comments from schools and other partners, aims to monitor the availability of places and the need for additional spaces across Northumberland.

This has been made more difficult in recent years due to the Government’s drive for more and more schools to become academies, which are outside council control.

‘The overall impact of the reducing number of community and voluntary-controlled schools in Northumberland means that the local authority’s ability to influence where school places are created is diminishing,’ the report notes.

It adds: ‘There is a further challenge in Northumberland in that while as a county we have sufficient places, overall they are not necessarily in the areas of greatest demand.

‘So while we have a shortfall in places in our urban, more highly populated areas, we have significant surplus of places in other areas.’

The plan looks in detail at the various school partnerships, based on forecasts up to 2026.

In the main, there are sufficient school places in most parts of the county for the forecast period as despite there being pressure in the likes of Alnwick, Morpeth and Ponteland, it will simply mean that the number of out-of-catchment pupils accepted will have to reduce, in turn supporting partnerships which currently have a surplus of spaces.

However, additional spaces are likely to be required in the Cramlington and Seaton Valley areas, while there are projected to be ‘significantly increasing surplus places in the Berwick Partnership in the secondary phase’.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service