No head, no leader, no planning: doubts over Free School

Plans for a three-form entry primary Free School on Highbury Avenue appear to be in some disarray, with no head teacher yet appointed just seven months before the school is supposed to open, no planning approval granted to build on council-owned playing fields, and now the south London Tory councillor behind the scheme is about to quit the country.

advance_school logoAdvance School Norbury was originally to open using the old Age Concern UK building on Highbury Avenue this September, taking in 90 five-year-olds. More recently, it has developed plans for a new-build on the Green Lane playing fields, which are owned by Croydon Council.

As Inside Croydon has reported previously, even though there is acknowledged to be a schools places shortage in the borough, there have been considerable reservations aired about the scheme.

Free Schools have been introduced by this government, ostensibly as “all-ability state-funded schools set up in response to what local people say they want and need in order to improve education for children in their community”, according to the education ministry. State-funded but not state- or local authority-controlled. It appears to be another method for the Tory-led government to transfer public assets into private hands.

In this instance, those hands were supposed to be Russell King’s, a Conservative councillor in Wandsworth, who calls himself the “lead founder” of Advance School Norbury. King is a former banker (his employers went bust in the financial apocalypse of the banking sector’s own  making), who has since re-trained to become a primary school teacher. It is not clear whether making things add up would be among his best lessons.

But now King is about to emigrate to Australia, where it is understood that his partner has secured a new job. Where this leaves King’s stated ambitions of “teaching in an inner city school with deprived children”, or the future of the Advance School Norbury, is anyone’s guess.

Tory councillor and school "lead founder" Russell King: is he cutting and running from Norbury?

Tory councillor and school “lead founder” Russell King: is he cutting and running from Norbury?

Yesterday, the Advance School refused to answer any questions about its progress – or lack of it – in recruiting a head teacher, nor about the stalling of its plans to build on to the Green Lane playing fields that lay behind its original intended site.

Indeed, no one from among Croydon’s councillors at last night’s full council meeting at the Town Hall seemed any the wiser about the school’s building plans, with everyone, the controlling Tory group as well as those from Labour, claiming to be against any scheme to build on public open land (presumably a principle that is adopted selectively by the controlling Conservative group, dependent on the number of millions of pounds that a property speculator might suggest that they can make from the proposals).

Alisa Flemming, an Upper Norwood councillor, was first to raise the issue, highlighting that the council had recently purchased land to secure access to the playing fields’ entrances. Dudley Mead, the deputy leader of the Tory group, recalled that he had played rounders on those playing fields and that, while he felt they were “under-utilised”, said that on the planning issue, “As far as I am aware, no decision has been made in respect of the site.”

Tim Pollard is the cabinet member responsible for Croydon’s schools. His mantra, repeated at the Town Hall last night is, “There’s a lot to be proud of in what our schools achieve”, as he failed to respond to the statistic that every other London borough is doing better with children at Key Stage 2 than Croydon.

Pollard has had discussions with King’s cabal behind the Advance School. But other councillors from Norbury and Upper Norwood – all from Labour, and including their group’s education spokesperson, Maggie Mansell – have complained that they have been kept out of the loop on the process at various stages.

There have been widespread allegations of nepotism, dodgy deals and outright fraud over the establishment of Free Schools in the United States over the last 20 years. In England, it has not taken quite so long for the stench of corruption around Free Schools to be noticed: Parliament will debate today a Free School fraud case where the vice-chair of a local Conservative party was making money from the school’s existence.

There is no suggestion of any fraud taking place in case of the Norbury school, but because of the lack of transparency and consultation, locals are understandably nervous about the project.

“My concern about the Advance Free School is its proposed location on a valuable and much-needed playing field in Highbury Avenue,” said local councillor John Wentworth, himself a headteacher by profession.

“Despite claiming to consult the community on its location, the school’s website announces ‘We’re delighted to confirm that we will have a custom-built school based at Highbury Playing Fields on Highbury Avenue’.

“Yes, we do need more school places, but under no circumstances should we be building on playing fields, especially in such a densely populated area,” Wentworth said.

The mobile phone number provided on the Advance School Norbury’s prospectus was switched to an answering message this morning.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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4 Responses to No head, no leader, no planning: doubts over Free School

  1. derekthrower says:

    This is a very sad story. When there are such problems with government spending and resources for schools. I thought free schools were to be driven by local communities, but this appears to have been the idea of a one man band who quickly drops out when the going gets tough. How can such a state of affairs be left to happen by Mr Gove?

  2. Libby Lawson says:

    Any developments here?
    When might Advance Academy – in Norbury and Pollards Hill be realized?
    For local children and communities the best answer might be never.

  3. Libby Lawson says:

    …and so it seems that the Advance Academy retreated and disappeared. Just a shame about Paxton Academy.

  4. Libby Lawson says:

    Like I say ,shame about Paxton Academy well of course I mean it’s a shame for those children at Paxton Academy in their office block, rugby pitch or wherever they are…

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