Council to approve selective school build on playing fields

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.

Playing fields near Coombe Wood could soon be bulldozed for a new secondary school

Playing fields near Coombe Wood could soon be bulldozed for a new secondary school

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.

Wallington headmaster Jonathan Wilden: he has a 'vision'

Wallington headmaster Jonathan Wilden: he has a ‘vision’

“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.

The council officials report to Monday's cabinet meeting, recommending a selective free school be built on public playing fields

The council officials’ report to Monday’s cabinet meeting, recommending a selective free school be built on public playing fields

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.

  • Inside Croydon is Croydon’s only independent news source, still based in the heart of the borough. In 2016, we averaged 17,000 page views every week
  • If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, a residents’ or business association or a local event to publicise, please email us with full details at

About insidecroydon

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
This entry was posted in Chris Philp MP, Coombe Wood School, Croydon Council, Croydon South, Education, Gavin Barwell, Paul Scott, Planning, Schools, Selsdon & Ballards, South Croydon, Tony Newman and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Council to approve selective school build on playing fields

  1. If the voters of Croydon ever needed more proof of their local Labour Party of being a “lighter shade of blue” then this is it.

    The charade Tory Lite in Chief, Comrade Newman, puts on regarding Southern is laughable. The hypocrisy of Croydon Labour endorsing Conservative policies is nothing new, Oasis Shirley Park was built under PFI, approved by Croydon Labour in 2003 and, from the last Accounts of the Council we are told (P68 Statement of Accounts 2015/16): “The Authority has entered into a 30 year contract with Norwest Holst on a design, build and operate basis, that includes enhanced facilities, improved ICT and access to the National Grid for Learning. This is supported through the Government’s PFI scheme. The PFI credits include £17.1m from the Department for Education and £4.7m from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; depending on usage, the Council may pay £59m over the remaining 18 years of the contract.”
    Beware of Grammar Schools bearing gifts, if PFI is anything to by the cost will be significantly more than first believed.

  2. derekthrower says:

    So this development by stealth has finally got to this point. It’s amazing that no consideration has been made of the Transport implications of placing a school at this location. I make it that there are around 10 public and private sites of education located within around a mile here on a busy commuter route road and tram route. Don’t think the local residents have really woken up yet about this, but have a feeling that there will be a small part of the Tory party at least that will be shortly expressing some concern about their property prices amongst other things. Perhaps the Bursar at the Whitgift School may also be worried about their fee income in a post Brexit controlled immigration UK.

  3. croydonres says:

    Before building on a playing field, why not look for a derelict site or an existing school site which would benefit from being redeveloped as a new School (grammar or otherwise), in the Wallington area?

    The Wilson’s Grammar site on the old Croydon Airport site has bags of space– build it there.

    What about building a nice new school on an area of derelict land or somewhere where there are existing underused playing fields next to a derelict site, or on run-dpwn MOL at Featherbed Lane by the Addington Road roundabout ?

  4. First they came for the playing fields, and I did not speak out, because I didn’t live near those playing fields…

Leave a Reply