GENE BRODIE, our education correspondent, reports on allegations of an abuse of public property by one of the country’s largest multi-academy trusts
Council officials have been ordered to conduct an urgent investigation into how the Oasis Arena Academy in South Norwood has been able to go ahead and allow a private gym operator to set itself up on the school site, using facilities which were built just a couple of years ago with millions of pounds of public money.
Promotional flyers and a video on social media alerted residents at the turn of the year that a business called 3D Leisure was opening on the school premises.
“South Norwood Centre offers you one of the best gym facilities in South Norwood with a fantastic studio timetable. Situated in Oasis Academy, we will also have indoor hall and outdoor multi use games areas for hire,” says the blurb from the company, which operates at four other locations across the country, from Weymouth to Gateshead.
The gym in the South Norwood school was marketing its first 100 memberships at £19.99 per month.
Yet according to locals, the gym operator is oblivious to the strict requirements of the community use agreement which the council has with Oasis, the multi-academy trust.
The Oasis Arena Academy has been controversial since before it was even built, with the council granting it planning permission and allowing part of it to be built on Metropolitan Open Land, which is supposed to have the same protections from development as Green Belt land.
Residents living in the narrow streets around Croydon Arena opposed the building of the school, because of the abuse of MOL, the over-large scale of the buildings and the increase in traffic and parking issues which they predicted would arise. They maintained that there was already an over-provision of secondary school places in the area.
Four of the councillors on the planning committee who granted permission for the school were, or had been, governors of Oasis-run schools. None of them reclused themselves from the decision on grounds of a conflict of interest; these included Paul Scott, the Labour councillor for Woodside ward and now chair of Croydon’s planning committee.
Since the school’s new buildings opened September 2016, at a cost of £22million, the residents’ concerns about traffic and parking issues have been shown to be well-founded, even though the school is understood to be operating at below its intended six-forms-of-entry capacity. Inside Croydon today asked Oasis for their pupil numbers at the Arena; staff at their head office “who would know the figures” were in a meeting and did not call back.
And all promises made about “community use” facilities and “Olympic legacy”, which were brandished before the school got the go-ahead, have swiftly been forgotten.
The school’s own website states, “Part of Croydon’s Olympic legacy, the school is situated on the site adjacent to Croydon Arena athletics track, and benefits from partnerships with local sports organisations.”
The school fails to list any “local sports organisations” with which it has partnerships. There might be a reason for that.
Croydon FC is the borough’s longest standing non-league club. It plays its home games at the Arena,and in the past 12 months has embarked on an innovative and far-reaching community programme, offering football coaching for large numbers of youngsters who might otherwise not have an opportunity to play.
Yet when the community football club’s coaches approached Oasis Arena Academy to hire its indoor and outdoor training areas (the school has an expensively built multi-use games area) for its junior sides, they were told, bluntly, that the school would not be allowing any such hirings.
Residents who have been in touch with Inside Croydon this week confirm that the football club is not alone in being frozen out of the “community” school’s sports facilities.
“No one has been able to get permission to use any of their facilities,” they said.
“It’s frustrating to see the MUGA so underused. I did, however get permission from one of the previous head teachers to use the MUGA or the sports hall (I could choose!) for inline skating. His promise was never fulfilled.
“There has been a real sense of disgruntlement from local people that Oasis Arena are not willing to share their facilities after all the promises,” the resident said.
Inside Croydon has unearthed a copy of the Community Use agreement between the council and Oasis’s head office, dated 2016.
The agreement’s aims include, “… to provide the Facility for the Local Community and sports organisations to participate in sport and physical activity for health improvement and development of their skills, particularly amongst low participant groups;
“To provide opportunities for the Local Community to participate in sport;
“To use the Facility to encourage the range, quality and number of school sports club links and to stimulate competition that is inclusive of young people and adults…” and,
“To provide affordable access to the Facility and enable the Facility to be self-financing in terms of Community Use.”
Which all seems straightforward and reasonable enough.
For the purposes of the agreement, it defines “the facility” as “The Multi-Use Games Area (MUGA), sports hall and changing rooms, sports activity studio and sports fitness suite”. In fact, the same MUGA, activity studio, fitness suite, sports hall and changing rooms which are now being occupied by a private gym operator.
The agreement also lays out the times when community use of the facilities should be available in term time: all-day on Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays, and from 7pm to 8.30pm on weekdays, with a strict rule that floodlights must be switched off by 9pm.
A Town Hall source tonight told Inside Croydon, “The council only found out about this when residents started sending us the leaflets. Officers have been instructed by one cabinet member to check the legal requirements of our agreements with Oasis.”
There is some concern that a commercial gym being set up in new facilities might under-cut the council-backed offer at the nearby South Norwood pool, where Greenwich Leisure are expected to invest in new equipment when they take over the operation of the centre in a couple of months’ time.
“Alisa Flemming is the council cabinet member for children and schools,” said the council figure. “She’s certainly not been very active in ensuring that Croydon residents benefit from the supposed ‘Olympic legacy’ at Oasis Arena. She really should be on top of things like this.”
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What a huge mess the privatised state has created here. At the root of is it is an underused school built on the pretext of a demand for it’s services which simply does not exist. Another school is now being developed on green belt land elsewhere in the Borough using the same imaginary demographic figures. Apparently we live in an era of Austerity, but i have never seem so much valuable public investment being squandered in the name of ideology and not reality when we have other areas in health and housing which are starved of capital resources.
You want to be further repulsed? Check out the salary scales of senior Oasis, or any academy trust, figures. All derived from funding from DfE.