Education correspondent GENE BRODIE reports on an important decision for the future health of generations of school children taken at last night’s planning committee
Councillors on Croydon’s planning committee last night unanimously rejected a proposal to build a three-form-of-entry primary school on a small site beside a busy and polluting main road in Thornton Heath, in a belated about-turn from their recent decisions.
It means that the Paxton Academy, a science and sports specialism free school, faces the prospect of beginning its fourth year with its pupils housed in Portakabins at a nearby rugby club, presenting a further complication for the Department for Education’s land acquisition agency.
A local councillor said that the school’s pupils and their parents have “been let down terribly by the Department for Education, which should have found a suitable site for this school long ago”.
Finding appropriate sites for new schools is only going to get more difficult.
Last week, the DfE granted approval for yet another primary free school to be built in the north of the borough, where land values and property prices are soaring. This one is to be built for the Riddlesdown academy group which as yet has not determined where it is to site its publicly funded but independent of the local education authority school.
Johnette Barrett, Paxton Academy’s Principal, has known since 2013 that the site wanted for her primary was on London Road, just to the north of the busy Thornton Heath Ponds roundabout.
But complications over acquiring the site have seen delays heaped upon delay, and when the latest planning application was eventually put forward, it revealed that the academy’s leadership now wanted a four-storey building for more than 600 pupils, with the only open play space being provided on the roof overlooking a supermarket car park.
Previously, Croydon’s planning committee has granted permission for primary builds on cramped sites squeezed in alongside busy arterial roads, on the Purley Way and beside the Croydon Flyover.
But in the Town Hall last night, strong opposition to this latest proposal for Paxton was voiced by committee members Bernadette Khan and Jamie Audsley, both Labour councillors. Stuart King, like Khan a councillor for West Thornton where the school is located, also spoke against the application, and all 10 councillors on the committee, Tory and Labour, voted against.
Paxton has had a difficult time in its brief history, its first intake of pupils having spent weeks based in an office block on the Purley Way while there were delays in readying the Portakabins which have been its home since September 2014. Now they look likely to be its base for some time to come still.
In the midst of Tory government cuts to education spending, many are questioning the academisation policy, effectively another transference of money and property from the public sector, especially since recent reports suggest that land purchase and builds for academies are five times more expensive than schools built for local education authorities.
Paxton may now have to look for another, larger site, removed from the heavy polluting traffic of the A23 – though that would be no easy task – or instead consider scaling down its over-ambitious plans for London Road and propose a smaller school intake. Academy budgets are determined by the number of pupils, so ambitious heads and academy bean-counters always try to squeeze as many children into their schools as possible.
Today, King told Inside Croydon: “It is unacceptable that the pupils of Paxton Academy are facing a fourth year being taught in Portakabins in a rugby club car park. The school has been let down terribly by the Department for Education, which should have found a suitable site for this school long ago.
“However unacceptable the current educational environment might be, it would have been wrong for a school to have been built on a site that was too small to accommodate it, in a location with illegal levels of air pollution. I am pleased that the planning committee agreed unanimously with this view.”
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