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