GENE BRODIE, our education correspondent, provides lessons in arithmetic and reading comprehension for Croydon Council, after it cleared the way for the first selective state school in the borough for more than 40 years
Croydon Council has removed Green Belt protection from a swathe of playing fields close to Lloyd Park and has given the go-ahead to £30million plans to build a 1,260-pupil selective free school on the site – even though there is a surplus of more than 5,000 secondary places in the borough.
The decision to grant planning permission, initially for temporary cabins to accommodate the first year’s intake this September for Coombe Wood School, was taken last week, despite objections from residents and the Croham ward councillors, led by Maria Gatland. A planning application for a permanent building on the site is now sure to follow in due course.
The school will be run by the Folio Trust, which has been established by Jonathan Wilden, the senior head at Wallington County Grammar School for Boys in neighbouring Sutton. WCGS is one of the best-achieving state schools in London, according to recently published league tables. The Folio Trust has been joined in the past 12 months by two Croydon primaries, St Peter’s and Park Hill Junior, which are likely to act as feeder schools for Coombe Wood.
Previous attempts to build a school on the playing fields were rejected, because of its Green Belt status. But the Local Plan, as submitted to the government planning inspector last year by the Labour-run local authority, has conveniently removed that Green Belt protection for this site.
The precedent created will cause ripples of anxiety among many residents’ associations and friends of parks groups around the borough, since around 30 other greens spaces and parks are seen as lacking in adequate protection from development as a consequence of the council’s planning designations under the Local Plan.
Croydon Council officials seem able to push through plans to build schools on land with protected status, regardless of what political party is supposed to be “in power”. Under the previous, Tory administration in Croydon, the go-ahead was granted to build the Arena Oasis Academy on Metropolitan Open Land – land with equivalent protection to Green Belt.
Local residents opposed that school, claiming the building was over-sized for the cramped site surrounded by narrow residential streets, and that there was already over-provision of secondary places in the area. That school is now operating with just two-thirds of the number of pupils it is supposed to accommodate.
That’s unlikely to be the case with Coombe Wood School when it opens in two-storey temporary buildings in September.
They received 530 applications for the 180 places, or three applications for every available place. According to the school’s Twitter account, this in some way demonstrates “the strength of the evidence of demographic demand in the area”. Either that, or it simply shows that Coombe Wood will be the first new selective state school to open in Croydon for 40 years and parents want their kids to go there.
Wallington Boys routinely receives eight applications for every available place at the school, many of those coming from Croydon.
In Folio’s own publicity blurb, they struggle to disguise their intention to operate Coombe Wood as a grammar school in all-but-name: they will have streaming by ability and they say that their approach will be “no different to a Grammar School such as Wallington County Grammar School” (note the ungrammatical use of capital letters for generic “Grammar School”; perhaps they wanted to emphasise a point?).
Labour council cabinet member Simon Hall has tried to claim publicly that Coombe Wood is not selective – even though it is clearly stated in the free school’s prospectus that it will be offering 10 per cent of the places at the school to pupils selected on the basis of sporting aptitude and ability.
But then Fieldway councillor Hall also admitted that he was considering applying to send one of his own sons to the school.
As a free school, Coombe Wood is outside local council control, receiving funding directly from the Department for Education. And it is possible that, within a year or two of moving into buildings on the previously verdant playing fields of South Croydon, the Folio Trust governors and staff might decide to adjust their entry conditions: perhaps removing the sports selection, or they might decide to apply other criteria. Such as a 11-plus academic test, as they use at Wallington Grammar.
While most of the objections lodged to the building of the large school on the playing fields on Coombe Road came from residents living in streets neighbouring the site, the dozens of comments received during the planning process in support of the application came from right the way across the borough. These were likely from parents of prospective pupils, many of whom had been encouraged to do so by the Folio Trust as it sought support for the scheme.
Croydon’s non-selective comprehensives have long wrestled with a situation in which many of the borough’s 11-year-olds have been “creamed off” and lured away from the state schools by Sutton and Bromley’s grammars and the three large fee-paying schools run by the Whitgift Foundation.
High demand from parents for a single selective school in a borough risks distorting further the applications process elsewhere in Croydon, where some of the large academy chains with schools performing less than well are already struggling to attract sufficient pupil numbers, and are therefore facing further budget cuts and reducing teaching staff numbers.
Given all those circumstances, there has got to be serious questions asked of the current Labour council for pushing through the de-designation of 26 acres of Green Belt land for use by a selective free school when its existing schools are under-subscribed.
Inside Croydon has obtained Department for Education figures which show that one-fifth of places in Croydon’s secondary schools are unfilled.
The schools capacity document, which is based on school rolls for 2015-2016, the most recent that is available, shows that only four of the borough’s 24 state schools had a full complement of pupils. There is capacity for 26,775 secondary places in Croydon, but in 2016 there were only 22,101 pupils – meaning 5,204 unfilled places.
According to the council’s own report submitted last month to the Town Hall cabinet, moves are already being taken to reduce the size of some of the borough’s over-expanded primary schools. This must cast doubt on the accuracy of previous population estimates which were used to plan increased school sizes.
The cabinet report talks of a 5 per cent fall in the birth rate since 2013. “Based on Croydon’s recent School Capacity (SCAP) Survey and forecasts of pupil numbers submitted to the DfE in July 2017,” the report states, “our latest estimates suggest that there will be sufficient places in Croydon primary and secondary schools to accommodate children for the next three years.”
The report was prepared by council staff, for the benefit of decision-making elected councillors. The report sought cabinet approval for Croydon’s “School Place Supply Strategy” for academic years 2018-2019 until 2020-2021. Coombe Wood School is included in the report.
The report failed to mention the DfE’s 2016 figure of a 19.4 per cent overcapacity in secondaries.
The council executive whose name is on the top of the report is Barbara Peacock, and the cabinet member responsible is Alisa Flemming: the same pairing that between them delivered the children’s services crisis for Croydon.
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