Labour backs plan to build selective school on Green Belt

KEN LEE reports on a planning application that would lead to Croydon getting its first grammar school since the 1970s

The school playing fields at Coombe Wood, which could be built on to provide a school that specialises in sport

A planning application is being considered by the council to develop a site in Croydon’s Green Belt, concrete over some school playing fields, and all to build the first state selective school in the borough for more than 40 years.

All of those outcomes go against Labour Party policy, nationally and locally, yet the proposal to build a vast free school opposite Lloyd Park appears to have the backing of Tony Newman and the Labour group running Croydon Town Hall.

Newman’s Blairite leadership clique looks likely to ignore the council’s own Green Belt planning rules to approve the application from a satellite school of a Sutton grammar. This will all happen just before the local elections in a South Croydon ward that Labour might have hoped to capture from the Tories.Planning notices were sneaked up on to lamp-posts over Christmas around the Coombe Road playing fields, advising anyone who might see them of the application for temporary school buildings for Coombe Wood School. The temporary buildings would provide accommodation for the first couple of years’ intake from this September, while the permanent  structure is being built.

The application is from the Folio Trust, the multi-academy body formed by Wallington County Grammar School for Boys. Initially the proposed new school will take in 180 pupils aged 11-to-12, but it aims to provide 1,680 places eventually, including a sixth form from 2020. The school, which would provide car parking for its large staff, would operate seven days a week, with the school day beginning at 7.30am with a breakfast club.

Nice tie: Jonathan Wilden, grammar head teacher with plans in Croydon

The school’s plans promise a partially selective intake, with 10 per cent of pupils offered places based on their sporting ability.

In Folio’s own publicity blurb, they struggle to disguise their intention to operate as a grammar school in all-but-name: they will have streaming and say their approach will be “no different to a Grammar School such as Wallington County Grammar School”.

At Coombe Wood, the wearing of school ties will be important, apparently. Pupils will be “… provided with a guide of how to wear their tie with pride ensuring that it is in a business-like manner. CWS believes that if children are to wear a tie then they must wear it well”.

Of course, as a free school, and therefore outside local authority control, Coombe Wood School could decide to alter its admissions policy as soon as the £30million new buildings – built using tax-payers’ money – open for the first time.

With a couple of fee-paying independent schools just up the road, both of which offer enhanced sporting curriculums, it all has the appearance of a hefty state-subsidy for the Folio Trust’s thrustingly ambitious senior staff to go into competition for pupils with the private sector.

The “executive headteacher” is Jonathan Wilden, formerly the headmaster at Wallington grammar, who in League of Gentlemen style promises “a local school for local children”. Chris Philp, the Conservative MP for Croydon South, has been a long-time supporter of re-introducing grammar schools into Croydon.

Free schools have been in the news recently because of the controversy surrounding the Tory government’s appointment to a university watchdog of one of their champions, Toby Young, the eugenics advocate.

And Wallington County Grammar is also attracting attention this week because of the start of the inquest into the death in 2015 of a sixth former while on a school rugby tour to Canada.

The planning application, to build on Green Belt playing fields, was sneaked out over Christmas

A previous proposal to build a school on the Coombe Wood site (for Archbishop Tenison’s) was turned down by the council because not a strong enough case was made to demonstrate the demand for school places in the area.

With some of the new-build secondaries elsewhere in the borough struggling to attract enough pupils to fill all their classes, it is hard to see what evidence there is to suggest that that situation has changed significantly.

The council maintains that there is demand for school places, but council predictions of pupil numbers dating from as recently as 2014 have already been shown to be well out: one new-build primary, supposed to accommodate 90 pupils per year, had an intake of just 26 in September.

As well as spending millions on a school for which there may not be any real need, “exec head” Wilden’s expansion plans into Croydon could create a precedent for building on Green Belt land.

The planning application notices admit, “The proposed development does not accord with the provisions of the development plan in force in the area in which the land to which the application relates is situated.”

Croydon Council, when under Tory control, pushed through development plans to build on Municipal Open Land (which is supposed to offer similar planning protections to Green Belt) for the Oasis Arena Academy, in South Norwood, despite there being no clear evidence of a demand for additional secondary places in that area.

This latest proposal is unpopular with members of the Croham Valley Residents’ Association, whose homes look out over the extensive Green Belt running up to Conduit Lane’s Vanguard Way long-distance walking path, with the Royal Russell school hidden behind the protected wooded escarpments around that school on the plateau at the top of the Addington Hills.

Labour’s Flemming: backing a new grammar school

More recently, Labour’s deputy leader, Alison Butler – the cabinet member who approved a scheme to build blocks of flats on Queen’s Gardens in the town centre – claimed that there was no threat of over-development on the borough’s parks and Green Belt open spaces because there is sufficient planning protection in place. She said this after the government inspector threw out her request to include “Local Green Space” as an additional planning designation in the Local Plan for 70 open spaces around Croydon, potentially leaving all of them vulnerable to development.

The 27-acre Green Belt site at Coombe Wood playing fields, however, was ear-marked for development in the Local Plan submitted to the inspector by Butler and the council planners.

If a two-storey building can be erected on Green Belt land here with such alacrity, you have to worry whether any Green Belt in the borough is safe.

The building has the backing of Alisa Flemming, the Labour council’s cabinet member for children and Ofsted emergencies, who delivered a report in October effectively endorsing the grammar school and recommending having 180 secondary school places on these playing fields by September 2018.

With Alison Butler’s husband, architect Paul Scott, chairing the planning committee, there seems little in the way to stop the public playing fields being taken out of use and handed over to Folio for its selective free school.

How Coombe Wood appeared in the Local Plan, marked for de-designation as Green Belt. Note: ‘No reasonable alternative option’

The Folio Trust, which as well as Wallington CGS runs what are looking like potential feeder primaries in Croydon at Park Hill Juniors and St Peter’s, now faces a race against time to grab its planning permission and have its school ready in eight months.

There is a possibility that bats and badgers might stand in the way of the bulldozers.

Coombe Wood provides valuable habitat for wildlife, so the site should be subject to a thorough monitoring survey before any building permissions are granted – though on past track record, this is rarely something which bothers either Scott or the Croydon Council planning department.

And while local Tory opposition to Green Belt development has been vociferous elsewhere, barely a peep has been heard over this proposal – probably because of MP Philp’s penchant for grammars.

Site 662, the 27 acres of public-owned playing fields, which Croydon’s Labour-lite council wants to hand over on the cheap to a free school

A more reliable road block to the process might be the usual, exceedingly slow, grinding of the wheels of local government administration. Croydon’s Local Plan is still sitting in the in-tray of the government planning inspector, never mind being approved by the council.

The consultation on the inspectors’ amendments to the council’s Local Plan closed last Friday. The inspector will write his report and his proposals will be rushed to the council meeting in March, the last of this administration before the council elections on May 3.

But the school’s plans will need approval before March to secure their building deadlines.

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20 Responses to Labour backs plan to build selective school on Green Belt

  1. whitgiftavenue says:

    Not having had the benefit of a grammar school education, I find myself ill-equipped to respond appropriately to either this proposal or our Labour Councils apparent support of it. I will therefore limit myself to the contemporary vernacular response;

  2. Nick Mattey says:

    Sutton Council prides itself on the results of its sacred grammar schools.

    The pupils are oftern not chosen on the basis of their own ability but rather on their parents having the financial means to pay the £40 an hour required to hot-house them through the entrance exams with tutors.

    The children are urged to great efforts by parents anxious that their offspring should not rub shoulders with pupils who come from poorer backgrounds. If free school meals are an indication of wealt,h then some of Sutton’s selective schools have only 2% of children who qualify for free school meals, whereas in non-selective schools the figure is closer to 15%.

    One of the reasons Labour won a landslide victory in 1945 was to avoid this discrimination and move towards a more egalitarian society. Obviously the current Labour administration in Croydon do not believe in these values .

    • derekthrower says:

      I am still waiting to hear the implications on young adults mental health of the educational burn out they have had to endure over the last decade of government policies.

  3. derekthrower says:

    This all seems to be a fait accompli.

    Engineers have already carried out scans of the local area using ground-penetrating radar to search for hidden obstructions. I doubt if all this investment would have been done without expectations of approval being given on the nod. However with all the concerns raised in the article it does seem to be cutting it exceptionally fine in starting an intake by September this year. All done with undue haste.

    Further no mention has been made on the transport implications of developing a site on one of the main commuter routes into Croydon by road and tram. The underground scans may not have detected any hidden obstructions, but are there any out there from another source?

  4. Lewis White says:

    GCSE – Politics, Education and Geography Answer ALL questions Discuss the following :-

    Question 1 – Why does Croydon council have to find space for an offshoot of a Sutton selective school? Is there not room for such a school in the borough of Sutton ? e.g. on part of the underused game fields of Sutton Grammar School in Northey Avenue, Cheam, or maybe, in the extensive grounds of the new Beddington Incinerator?

    Q 2 – (a) How can a Labour council justify facilitating such a school with a starkly different educational admissions philosophy from that held my most Labour party members? (b) Is there a relevant UK Government direction influencing the council ?

    Q3 – if the above can somehow be justified, and a school site has to be found within Croydon’s borders, is there no suitable brown field site , or area of green belt that has been spoiled by previous land use, or could be restored and improved by having a new school with well landscaped grounds? e.g. certain areas in the Addington / Selsdon borders?, or Purley Way / Croydon airport / (but not on the roadside zone), or the semi derelict open lands remaining at the ex Heath Clark school site at Waddon?

    • Nick Davies says:

      There’s a huge brownfield site currently full of old shipping containers with a central location and superb transport links. Perhaps it could go there?

  5. Ken Towl says:

    Toby Young would be proud.

  6. Very interesting, Croydon Council (CC) recently resurrected previously rejected plans to expand Greenlawn Memorial Park, which it owns, but is located in Tandridge District greenbelt. Major rationale is that it will do less harm to develop Tandridge greenbelt than developing alternative greenbelt sites within Croydon Borough. Cane Hill was one identified alternative site which CC previously felt was unsuitable for development of a cemetery but those same doubts strangely disappeared when it came to sticking a housing estate on it.

    Of course the whole thing is rubbish, there are CC documents going back at least a decade which make clear Greenlawn expansion has always been the most financially lucrative and therefore preferred option for Croydon Cemetries; unfortunately though in the public domain they cannot legally be considered in the application because they undermine rather than support the ‘presumption in favour of development’ which is now government policy.

    The last attempt to develop Greenlawn was thrown out by the planning inspectorate as it clearly lacked ‘very special circumstances’ required for greenbelt development. But it almost slipped through the TDC planning committee in controversial circumstances (there was much rumour about undisclosed horse trading between the then leaderships of TDC and CC, much of it revolving around development of Kent Gateway).

  7. The Oasis Arena school was supposed to be a “specialist” school for Sport and Science, and was presented as Croydon’s “Olympic Legacy”, which would utilise the neighbouring sports Arena. Or were those just cheap words to get through the planning process and nick a bit of Metropolitan Open Land?

    This current administration won’t be happy until they have built on every bit of green space.

  8. Lewis White says:

    Ah! A town planning “Eureka moment” !

    Instead of building a Westfield shopping centre on the Whitgift Shopping Centre site, why not a much greener solution, in this “post-peak-shopping age”.

    i.e.- rip down all of the existing buildings, rip up the concrete floors and multi storey car parks, and lay topsoil and turf on a big part of the area, plant some nice trees, and build a new free school on the remaining site.

    It could be styled in a neo Hogwarts architectural style, and called “New Whitgift Academy” . The public could come in and picnic at lunch times, allowing them to sunbathe while using their mobile devices to order their spring clothing choices via the Internet.

    Job done!

  9. As a parent with a child looking for a secondary school within the next year I am happy that this new school is being built. I may have the choice of quite a few schools in and around the borough of Croydon, however has anyone who has commented actually had a look at how many places are offered in each secondary school and how many actually apply. Normally 2 and a half times more than actual places. This tells us there are not enough schools in and around Croydon to educate our children who live in this borough.

    • That’s simply untrue, Alison.

      The council’s official figures show that there is a surplus of 5,000 secondary school places in the borough – it’s just that they tend to be in the schools where parents don’t want to send their children (often with good reason).

      The recently built Oasis Arena Academy, for example, is operating with around two-thirds of the number of pupils it is supposed to accommodate.

      Of course, the better schools are over-subscribed. They always are. Even in a supposedly non-selective borough. Sutton’s grammars get eight applications for every place that is on offer.

      And by spending £30m of public money on building a free school on what was Green Belt land, Croydon’s Labour council is wittingly assisting one of those grammars in meeting that “demand” by giving them a foothold in Croydon with a selective school.

  10. I understand what you are saying. Long gone are the days in which you just went to your local secondary and all was well. Unfortunately the borough of Croydon does have some schools with bad Ofsted results. I as a parent do not want my child to go to any of these schools therefore will not be choosing them. There are very few in our area who do have good results. What does a parent do who wants the best for their child? I have never voted Labour in my life. This for me is about what I want for my child, which in turn goes out of the window as I can put down schools that I wish her to go to, but what happens if there is no offer? I as a parent will not be noting 6 names, my child’s education is already a lottery which is why I welcome this new school.

  11. derekthrower says:

    Specialist Sport Free Schools have failed in the past and more free schools than academies and local authority proportionally fail. As with most things in life you are a person to whom facts are inconveniences to be avoided and your own selfish aims to be satisfied. Surely the Whitgift bursary scheme has already received your application?

  12. Those said facts show 5000 place surplus at schools that no residents want to send their children to. What a shocking statistic, could that £30m not have gone towards making some serious improvements so people actually want to send their children there? Why are the schools and the Council not held to account for this?

    • The £30m is from a Tory government fund used for building publicly funded free schools, which is not available for staffing or other elements of underfunded school budgets. And the schools and the council are not accountable, because the schools have largely been taken out of council control, and are now run by religious groups or carpet salesmen, as “academies”, making profits from the privatisation of our education service.

    • derekthrower says:

      So if there are 5000 surplus places it means residents don’t want to send their children there? Could it possibly mean there are not 5000 children around to attend these schools and more money is being spent by Central Government to create more schools? Councils do not make education policy !

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