Council approves £30m school – despite 5,000 surplus places

These playing fields were Green Belt until last month. Now, Croydon Council has granted permission to build a large selective school here

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.

Nice leafy badge for Coombe Wood School. Shame that they intend to concrete over part of a 26-acre sports field

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.

Coombe Wood School’s spin on its application numbers. Of course, this perceived popularity could be because parents want to send their children to a selective school


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.

Councillor Simon Hall: considered applying to selective free school for his own son

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.

The sporting aptitude tests run last year by Coombe Wood School, where selection will be used to offer 10 per cent of school places to budding Harry Kanes or Jessica Ennises

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.

Alisa Flemming: Labour cabinet member responsible for Croydon’s first selective school in 40 years

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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13 Responses to Council approves £30m school – despite 5,000 surplus places

  1. Nick Mattey says:

    I thought this was meant to be a socialist-run counci? It seems to have lost its way and veered off to the right . Will there be reserved places at the school for council cabinet members?

  2. derekthrower says:

    A local authority with over 5,000 surplus school places facilitates another school on a controversial site. A Labour council complicit in creating a new grammar school within it’s own area. It can only be the London Borough of Croydon. Even Chris Philp has gone mute now that he has his grammar school after creating ructions in solid Tory Croham Ward which can be passed off as all the work of another party. You can’t really tell them apart on matters of substance can you.

  3. derekthrower says:

    Further the Local Authority really now has to advise the local electorate which schools faces closure after the creation of an unsustainable number of surplus places for non existent children. The most ironic matter with grammar schools will be that most of the places will magically find themselves taken by pupils who have little relationship to the claimed catchment areas of St.Peters or Park Hill. Well at the least the pupils of the great majority of lower income families who attend these schools.

  4. derekthrower says:

    It will be interesting to see the battlelines being drawn on a faith school having to be closed down. Not directly controlled by the Council as a voluntary aided school and so buck can be passed on to Central Government. All very interesting if this scenario happens.

  5. Helen Benjamins says:

    30 million ££££’s.
    I know, I have an idea. Why not, instead of replacing our old, used and broken toy with yet another new, shiny one, we use the money to fix the toy we’ve got and make it stronger than ever.

  6. timbartell says:

    The Labour party have just lost a voter and a lifelong member.

  7. Lewis White says:

    Selection undermines all local secondary schools, creaming off the academically able, as the grammar school grass is always always greener for aspirational and caring parents who naturally seek out what they believe to be the best for their children.

    If the number of potential secondary school students is dropping, overall, this school will weaken the academic offer of the existing schools, so we end up as usual with a depleted curriculum in the less favoured schools, thus deterring those parents from applying.

    Very sad, and I am wondering if the Government have been waving a big stick at every London Borough without a Grammar School, to accommodate one.

    Would Croydon have been taken to court –or their Grant cut even more- if they had not said “yes” to Wallington`s proposals?

  8. Pingback: This is what the political privatisation of the education sector looks like in England | The Learning Renaissance

  9. David Smith says:

    find it interesting that the correspondent suggests that this is the first selective school in Croydon for 40 years. In looking at the recently consulted upon, and approved Admissions arrangements for Riddlesdown states the following:

    Priority will then be given to the top performing students in the designated Entrance Examination for Riddlesdown Collegiate, up to a maximum of 15% of the PAN (48 students). The Entrance Examination is made up of tests in English, Mathematics and Science, set and administered by Riddlesdown Collegiate.

    Just demonstrates how ill-informed this so called information source really is. At least selection here is based on something which isn’t academically biased and is only at 10% or 18 students

  10. A quick browse through the secondary school allocations for this year shows roughly half of the schools using the CAF being nominally fully subscribed, or close to fully subscribed, with three even seeming to have an extra class of children above that quoted in the prospectus provided to parents. Coombe Wood is outside the CAF system this year so will suck up some of those pupils though there is no guarantee it will end up full itself. The grammars are in the CAF so will not affect the figures. Fee paying schools will also account for some.

    Looking at the figures, and accepting my quick sums may be hopelessly wrong, there do indeed seem to be about 550 to 600 places available in under-subscribed schools. Five of those are in the voluntary aided sector (St Andrew’s, St Mary’s, Archbishop Lanfranc, Thomas More and Virgo Fidelis) and account for about 400 places. The other schools seemingly with significant under-allocation are Meridian and Orchard Park.

    It might appear there is a lot of slack in the system with or without Coombe Wood, and there is also the school in Morland Road to come (or not, I’ve lost track of how far it has got). However there are clearly some other possibilities. Is it more correct to suggest there is an excess of provision in some faith schools that either isn’t available to, or isn’t appealing to, those outside that faith? Is there an excess of provision in certain parts of the borough? Are some schools perceived by parents, rightly or wrongly, to be badly broken?

    Is it not possible that we actually have a number of popular schools that are basically full up, and a number of unpopular schools with lots of places available?

    I think the question is not why Coombe Wood was approved with 5,000 extra places already in the system, but why it is actually so welcome despite those extra places. It isn’t Coombe Wood that is the problem.

    Apologies if any of the named schools have been inaccurately represented by my arithmetic.

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