THE woman at the heart of plans to merge Hurworth and Eastbourne schools has insisted the move will bring much-needed cash into Darlington.

Since 2001, £104m has been spent on new school buildings in Darlington.

Margaret Asquith, director of children's services at Darlington Borough Council, says this is a huge sum for a town with a population of 100,000, but it will rise to £130m if the academy is approved.

She said: "There isn't another local authority which has spent more per head. If we get the academy, a quarter of schools in the borough will be virtually brand new."

Since Mrs Asquith took the helm in April, she has rocked a few boats in the education department.

But the most controversial idea has been to merge top-performing Hurworth with struggling Eastbourne in a new academy off Yarm Road.

Parents at Hurworth are furious because they want to keep the school in its village location.

Mrs Asquith said the academy was just a proposal, but it would bring many benefits.

"We didn't originally plan to have an academy, but we are really clear that we need some investment in our schools," she said. "We would be wrong if we said no,we don't want to bring £25m to £30m of investment into the town."

Mrs Asquith said Hurworth and Eastbourne, along with Longfield and Branksome secondary schools, needed significant building work.

The academy would help secure the future of Longfield and Branksome, she said, because the council's money could then be poured into two schools, rather than four.

Mrs Asquith outlined her vision for the Darlington academy. She said: "We want to physically locate a school improvement service in the centre of the academy.

"We want adequate-sized classrooms, wide corridors, sports facilities and up-to-date technology, so lessons are exciting and stimulating and children want to go to school."

She said she understood the concerns of Hurworth parents, but it was not feasible to build a new school in the village as, out of 650 pupils, only 200 lived in Hurworth.

"I understand completely, but you have to put it in the context of all the children in the borough. It is not feasible to build a school for 1,200 children in Hurworth.

"This idea puts a school right in the centre of the community where most of the children live. Nearly 1,000 children will be able to cycle or walk to school," she said.

Hurworth governors meet tonight to discuss whether to back the academy plans.

But Mrs Asquith was resolute that, if governors voted against the academy, the plans would not be shelved.

She said: "We will keep talking to them. We understand why there are some challenges but we want people to work with us through this."

Instead of limiting parental choice, she believes that an academy will increase it.

"You only get real parental choice when the opportunities in the schools are all the same," said Mrs Asquith.

She urged parents to listen to all the information before making a decision.

She said: "At this stage, we are just expressing an interest. We have not decided. The whole process could take 18 months to two years.

"We want parents to talk to us about their fears."

Answering complaints that the council has not consulted parents, Mrs Asquith said: "There is a huge difference between information and consultation. Consultation is a formal process which will take place four to six months in the future."

She said no sponsor had been selected, but any company would have to share the council's vision.

She said: "The process of change can be uncomfortable, but we need to go through this process to improve outcomes for our children."

l To discuss the proposals with the council, call (01325) 388212.