GENE BRODIE, our education correspondent, on a scheme going to Monday’s cabinet meeting for approval for a 1,200-pupil free school to be built close to Lloyd Park
Croydon Council is about to become a local planning authority which blocks the building of more than 120 affordable homes on a site designated as precious Metropolitan Open Land, citing the rules which aim to deter over-development, but yet is prepared to grant planning permission for a Sutton grammar to build a 1,200-pupil selective school on playing fields in the borough’s Green Belt.There is something deeply ironic about a Labour-run local authority granting permission for a massive new free school which will operate a selective entry system based on 10-year-olds’ sporting aptitude, and doing so using millions of pounds of public money to concrete over the sports fields on Coombe Road, opposite Lloyd Park.
There is also something deeply warped that Croydon is giving up a large chunk of the borough’s precious open space when the sponsoring school could not get permission to build on its own playing fields at Woodmansterne because it is… Green Belt.
Coombe Wood School is to be run by something called the Folio Education Trust, which has been set up by Jonathan Wilden, the sharp-elbowed headmaster at Wallington County Grammar School, which is just over the borough boundary in Sutton. It has the permission of the Tory-run Department for Education and a hefty chunk of public money behind it, too.
Papers go before the Labour council’s cabinet meeting on Monday (see page 8 of this report here) recommending approval for the six-forms-of-entry school, due to open in September 2018, and which in its online materials Wilden refers to as a comprehensive.
When grammar school “annexes” were all the rage a couple of years ago as a means to get around the ban on 11-plus selection, Wilden and Wallington seemed hot-to-trot for a 21st century form of educational anschluss into Croydon. “Headteacher Jonathan Wilden told Schools Week that there is a shortage of places in south Croydon and a ‘huge desire’ for selective schools,” it was reported in October 2015.
Quietly, the plot for Croydon’s first grammar school for nearly half a century appears to have been dropped, replaced with backdoor selection. The compromise which the council has swallowed is that 10 per cent of the Year 7 intake – around 18 kids – will get their places based on their sports ability. Of course, once the free school is built on public land, this entry policy might change, and there’ll be little the local council could do about it.
“It will not be an expansion of this school it will be a non-selective school that will be totally separate but within the Wallington County Grammar School Federation,” Wilden has said.
“My vision is a school that promotes the importance of sport, that participation in sport will help their academic results and that learning to win and learning to lose is a part of the academic experience.” Which to many might sound an awful lot like the ethos of a grammar school.
Wilden then added this juicy non-sequitur: “Educationally, WCGS is one of the best grammar schools around and we have the know-how to make a fantastic comprehensive school.”
Publicly, the Labour group in Croydon is utterly opposed to the re-introduction of selective schools, while the local Tories, with their embedded links with the Whitgift Foundation, rarely break cover because grammar schools close to home might undermine the demand for places at the borough’s three big private schools. Wilden is well aware of this: a large number of pupils at his school, and at Wallington Girls’ and Wilson’s, are Croydon residents whose parents prefer not to pay £18,000 a year in fees.
But more pressing here is the matter of building on the borough’s open spaces. Earlier this month, council planners (the matter never got as far as the elected councillors on the planning committee), rejected an application from a housing developer to build 129 homes on the site of a golf driving range because it is designated as Metropolitan Open Land.
Yet our council has form for conveniently ignoring MOL when it wants: despite opposition from residents, the Oasis Arena Academy in South Norwood was given permission to build on MOL when the Tories ran the council, with barely a murmur of dissent from Labour councillors for the area, who include Tony Newman and Paul Scott, now the chair of the council’s planning committee.
And for Coombe Wood, the way has been paved in the Croydon Local Plan, which states, “The site is of a suitable size for a secondary school, is well connected to an area that has a high demand for school places and can make a significant contribution to meeting this demand. The site has met the criteria for de-designation as Green Belt and part of the site will be de-designated to accommodate a school. The site is currently used as playing pitches which are protected so any redevelopment for a school should look to retain some of this use.”
As this week’s council report to cabinet indicates, the site issue for Coombe Wood is yet to be confirmed. An alternative site, a field next to Duppas Hill Park, is not as large as at Coombe Road, but it is close to the Fiveways junction and has better public transport provision for any new school; at Coombe Wood, pupils would be almost entirely dependent on the Lloyd Park tram stop.For all the faux outrage about building on MOL and Green Belt from Croydon Tories over housing schemes in Shirley and traveller sites around the borough, don’t expect to hear much in the way of protests from the Conservatives about this development on open space.
Why? Well, Croydon South Tory MP Chris Philp has lobbied hard for a grammar school in his constituency, with Wallington emerging as the favoured sponsors, while Gavin Barwell, the MP for Croydon Central, sends his elder son to… Wallington County Grammar School.
Wilden’s empire-building in the lucrative, publicly financed education provision business continues apace, with St Peter’s primary in South Croydon and Park Hill junior school both considering leaving local authority control, becoming academies and signing up to his Folio trust, a move which might provide pupils in future with a preferential channel into Coombe Wood secondary.
And Tony Newman’s Labour-lite group? In the thrall of council officials, they’re clearly not too picky about school selection if the DfE is putting up the millions of pounds towards resolving the shortage of secondary school places in the borough, and when it suits, they seem happy, too, to abandon all principles of “protecting” Croydon’s green spaces.
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