As Croydon Council prepares to give the go-ahead for a school which has just 29 first-choice applications, WALTER CRONXITE turns detective to investigate the mysterious case of the disappearing demand for school places
Residents living near Croydon Arena in Woodside ward are increasingly concerned that they are to have a six-form-of-entry academy shoe-horned into their narrow residential streets, regardless of planning considerations, and despite previous undertakings given to them by the council, at a time when the council’s own figures suggest that there is no longer the need for such a massive school.
Croydon Council’s projections of the demand for secondary school places, in a report published last month, suggests that they need to provide an extra 18 forms of entry by September 2016. Two years ago, when plans for the Oasis Arena Academy were first announced, its presence was justified by Tim Pollard, the Tories’ education spokesman on the council at the time, because Croydon needed an extra 50 forms of entry by 2016.
Even in the midst of a school places shortage, the scale of demand put forward by the Tory council to justify the Oasis Academy next to the Arena was strongly disputed at the time. Now, residents’ disbelief appears fully justified.
“The need for 50 forms-of-entry seems to have magically disappeared,” said Frances Fearon, one of the residents who feels ill-served by her councillors on this matter. “Now the number of extra forms required is 18. The figures fluctuate like an amoeba.”
Fearon has also noticed how other sites in the borough, deemed somehow unsuitable for Oasis, have miraculously become suitable for other academy-running bodies.
“In June 2014, the Ark Secondary Academy was approved by the Department for Education as a new secondary school due to open in September 2016,” she said. “The latest council cabinet paper in January 2015 confirms that the site is Rees House on Morland Road. Croydon Council has deferred the opening of this academy. Yet when we suggested Rees House as an alternative site to Arena, we were told that the site was unsuitable for a secondary school.
“The Ark academy, plus expansion at Lanfranc, would give an extra eight forms of entry in this part of the borough. There are sufficient places without Oasis Arena.”
Yet applications have still been taken for the Oasis Arena Academy for September this year, even before it has been granted planning permission for the site. The application numbers seem to underline that a 1,000-person school is being foisted on a neighbourhood when there is not any real demand.
Fearon said: “Only 29 pupils have put Oasis Arena as their first choice for September 2015.”
That’s not even enough for one form of entry.
“There are only 184 applications in total, which equates with the numbers for the most unpopular schools in Croydon. The first year Harris Invictus opened, it received 454 applications.”
Harris Invictus opened in Portakabins – sorry, a “high-quality temporary building with clean and airy classrooms” – last September. Fearon and her neighbours were told that if Harris Invictus (the permanent buildings are to be on the site of the old Croydon Hospital on London Road) went ahead, there would be no need for any new secondary school at the Arena. And yet still the work on the former Ryelands Primary School continues.
“Now Oasis are recruiting a deputy head and all their literature states that Oasis Arena ‘will’ open. All this before planning permission is granted. Are Croydon Council too chicken to back out now?” Fearon said.
“This is a challenging site. It is unstable and contaminated. It has cost the people of Croydon maybe hundreds of thousands of pounds for design, redesign (as the first plans intruded on to Metropolitan Open Land), scans, surveys and reports.
“And now there are two blokes with a shovel digging 20 holes on the Metropolitan Open Land, designated to be a Multi-Use Games Area and car park, because the high-tech scans haven’t been able to differentiate between clinker and rubble or electric, water and sewage pipes. These miserable muddy individuals are doing it the old-fashioned, expensive way.”
And how expensive. The estimates on the cost of re-moulding the former primary school and providing, for the use of this favoured academy sponsor, a secondary school capable of accommodating 1,000 pupils and staff is a cool £22 million.
“This £22 million will not prevent gridlock on Portland Road, as is predicted by the traffic assessment, attached to the plans that will come before the planning committee,” Fearon said. “The report states that no amount of money can alter this for the only way to mitigate this problem would put pedestrians at risk.”
Fearon says that imposing the Oasis Arena Academy on the area will “inflict misery, traffic congestion, possible property damage, lack of privacy and loss of Metropolitan Open Land on the residents of Woodside”.
Residents have not even had it confirmed when the crucial planning meeting will be held, although they do know that there are three councillors on the planning committee who are currently governors of other Oasis-run schools, and that Julie Belvir, the Borough Solicitor, refuses to act on the matter, suggesting that there is no conflict of interest in the councillors’ roles simply because the are unpaid as governors.
These governors include Coulsdon Tory councillor Chris Wright, whose objective judgement sees him say of Oasis Coulsdon, “I am delighted with the progress being made.” Oasis Academy Coulsdon got just 5 per cent of its pupils in 2014 GCSEs achieving the benchmark standard of the English baccalaureate. At Oasis Coulsdon, performance has been so poor that they have closed their sixth form
Woodside residents such as Fearon are worried that no one will argue their case at the planning meeting, and that genuine planning concerns about the proposals will not be given proper consideration. Residents have been told that Tony Newman, the leader of the council’s controlling Labour group and who just happens to represent Woodside, will not ask his ward colleague, Councillor Paul Scott, to stand down as chairman of the planning committee for the meeting, even though Scott was formerly a governor of an Oasis Academy.
With £22 million of public money at stake to provide a school which has generated little demand for places among parents, for an academy organisation whose recent results are far from satisfactory, you might have hoped that Croydon residents would at least get a fair hearing.
Of course, the residents might take the matter to the new Croydon Fairness Commission. The Commission’s deputy chair is Hamida Ali. Unfortunately for the residents, searching for an objective body to represent their position, Councillor Ali also happens to be a Woodside councillor. Councillor Ali is also a member of the council’s planning committee.
- Is it time to park ill-considered plans for Arena Academy
- GCSE results put Croydon schools in bottom four London boroughs
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