CONCERNS have been raised about the impact that plans by an independent school to become a state-funded academy could have on other schools in North Tyneside.
The Department for Education has endorsed plans for the King’s School, in Huntington Place in Tynemouth, and council-run Priory Primary School, in nearby Percy Park Road, to merge to create a new academy.
Parents currently pay more than £9,000 a year for their children to attend the King’s School, but those fees would be scrapped if the academy – to be called Kings Priory School – opens as planned in a year’s time.
The new school would take more than 1,400 pupils aged from four up to 18.
The merger, the first of its kind under the new academy programme, would see the state-funded independent school sponsored and operated by the London-based Woodard Academies Trust.
A series of consultation events is set to take place over the coming weeks, but Tynemouth MP Alan Campbell has accused the two schools of keeping parents and other interested parties in the dark.
Mr Campbell has asked why the plans were revealed the day before the new term and not earlier in the summer, and why some key players – including North Tyneside Council – were not informed.
He said: “The important thing is how do we ensure the best education for local children.
“I’m not necessarily against academies, but this plan has come out of the blue.
“It’s very innovative – there isn’t a similar scheme across the country – but it needs very close scrutiny.
“We know King’s has had difficulties in recruiting new pupils. Its school roll is down around 30 per cent.
“One factor is the effect of the recession on families, but another factor is there are very good state schools in the area.
“We need all the evidence about standards. How would this academy improve standards, not just maintain them.
“This is a big change. Let’s get all the information out there in a proper consultation so that local people, and not just the parents at the two schools, can have their say and if it’s the right thing to do, then make a decision.”
The new school is expected to eventually have 1,425 places for pupils – 600 in its primary, classes 625 of secondary age and a sixth form of 200 – with class sizes expected to be a maximum of 25.
King’s School already takes pupils as young as four, and Priory Primary School is one of the feeder schools for Marden High School and John Spence High in North Shields, so the merger, because it would see the Percy Park Road primary’s children staying at the academy, would lead to a fall in pupils numbers at the two state high schools.
Mr Campbell said: “If this plan goes ahead, what will be the effect on local schools?
“If this academy is allowed to expand, there could be fewer pupils and secondary schools in the borough.
“I’m concerned about the effect it could have on Marden High and John Spence High.”
The MP described the announcement by the government as bizarre because a letter he received about it on Monday was dated Thursday, July 12, over a week before North Tyneside’s schools broke up for their summer holidays, prompting him to question why it had taken so long to become public knowledge.
“If the local authority and mayor were kept out of the loop by government ministers, then that is astonishing,” he said.
A council spokesperson said the authority was seeking a meeting with Priory Primary governors’ chairman Geoff Ogle and headteacher Sue Melbourne, as well as representatives of Woodard Academies Trust, to try to get a better idea of what the proposals would mean for other schools in the borough.
Borough mayor Linda Arkley said: “This was a decision taken by Priory Primary School, and we recognise and respect their legal right to do so.
“We understand that the school will now consult with parents and staff about the changes, and we will support the outcome of that consultation.”
The new school will be co-educational, and while it will have a Church of England faith designation, it will be open to pupils of any faith or none.
Mr Ogle said: “The merger and move to independent academy status is the culmination of intensive and in-depth discussions over the last nine months.
“Both schools’ governing bodies and headteachers are working together with the Woodard Academies Trust to develop a new school that responds to the needs and aspirations of the local community, providing a rich and diverse education for children from across Tynemouth.”
John Evans, chairman of governors at the King’s School, added: “King’s is currently a fee-paying independent school.
“However, its governors have recognised that the payment of school fees represents a growing issue for many parents.
“In a region where average incomes are under significant pressure, by assuming academy status and ceasing to charge fees, we will enhance and strengthen our ties with the community we serve.”
Some parents of pupils at Priory Primary also believe they have not been consulted fully and fear that the proposed merger is a done deal.
Kyle Grayson, of St George’s Road in Cullercoats, said he was concerned that the school’s governors had agreed to the proposals without consulting parents, students or the local community.
“Parents at Priory are already being given marketing materials that present a very one-sided picture of what this transition will mean,” he said.
“It is a shame that a private trust backed by a sponsor with a mixed record is being given the opportunity to cherry-pick one of the best of the region’s primary schools.
“The new academy status for Kings Priory will affect funds available to other state schools in North Tyneside.
“The new Kings Priory academy will siphon away scarce public money to a privately-administered school for children who already enjoy more privileges than many of their peers.
“This is deeply unjust and unfair.”
The King’s School, founded in 1860, is already part of the Woodard Corporation.
n Alan Campbell’s fortnightly column is on Page 41.