GENE BRODIE, our education correspondent, on the predictable outcomes for residents in neighbouring streets after the opening Croydon’s first selective school for 40 years
Coombe Wood School has not been open for a month yet, but shortcomings in its planning, as predicted by residents living on the roads near the selective school, are already causing anger and anxiety.
An estimated 2,000-plus prospective parents descended on the residential streets off Coombe Road, opposite Lloyd Park, last Wednesday for the school’s open evening, causing traffic gridlock for hours.
Complaints to the school have received what residents have described as “unapologetic” responses, with one executive claiming that there was nothing more the school could have done and blaming the situation on “selfish” prospective parents for not travelling by tram.
Coombe Wood School is operated by the Folio Trust, an academy chain based at Wallington Grammar School for Boys. The large secondary is to have £30million spent on new buildings, to be sited on what was until last year publicly owned playing fields, designated as Green Belt.
The school opened the doors of its temporary, prefab-like classrooms for the first time last month, with a co-educational intake of 180 11-year-olds. Some of the pupils – 10 per cent of them – had been selected based on their sporting aptitude, and the school’s first intake was heavily over-subscribed.
Coombe Wood’s selection process for 2019 is already well under way, with applications for the sports aptitude test closing in early September. Last Wednesday was used to show off the school’s temporary facilities and to demonstrate its self-professed “grammar school ethos”.
Despite having acres of unused playing field at their disposal, the school website informed parents there would be no parking facilities on the site. There were no bookings taken for the event, so the school had no measure of how many parents might wish to attend. On its website, the school instructed its open evening visitors to park “considerately”, in neighbouring roads.
Melville Avenue was soon overwhelmed, as parents parked their cars on pavements and across yellow lines, in several cases causing obstruction to any resident trying to drive out from their house.
As one resident told Inside Croydon, “There were times when the road became completely congested as parents rushed to find any parking space they could.”
Concerns over increased traffic volumes, vehicle parking and road safety, particularly on crossings of the busy A212, had all been raised during the planning process by residents who live on the surrounding streets. But the council planning committee, under the chairmanship of Councillor Paul Scott, opted to ignore them, citing the need for additional school places in the borough.
In July, one large church secondary, St Andrew’s High, announced that it had been forced to close to Year 7 entry pupils because it was so badly under-subscribed.
The Labour-run council, nonetheless, has ploughed on with its plans to build over playing fields to create the vast, 1,680-pupil selective school.
Last Wednesday was the first big test of how Coombe Wood might operate alongside its neighbours. Residents affected by the parking chaos marked the school with an F-minus as its test result.
Some complained directly to the school’s headmaster, Barry Laker, and to the Trust’s “executive head” Jonathan Wilden. Residents describe the emailed responses they received as “unapologetic”.
“All Laker did was to ask residents to continue to support the school,” one resident said.
“Laker did admit that they had not expected such numbers to turn-out, but there would have been problems with parking even if just 400 or 500 parents had attended.”
Another resident said, “They just said that they can not do anything as they are not the police!”
The appearance of a wide gate leading from the school entrance on to the playing field has also intrigued residents. “Why didn’t the school just open the gate to allow parking on a section of the playing field which is currently in a state of disrepair and about to have construction traffic driving across it?”
The open evening was not a one-off as far as inconsiderate and potentially dangerous parking is concerned. The daily school run along Coombe Road is already busy, with parents driving children to the prep school and independent schools established near by.
Coombe Wood parents’ approach to parking is creating additional traffic and problems.
On Friday morning, one resident witnessed a parent stopping right outside the school entrance to drop-off a pupil. The lack of any zig-zag markings and notices outside the new school means, according to a member of school staff who also witnessed this, that there is nothing that can be done.
“Why has the council allowed the school to open without such basic safety warnings in place and enforceable?” asked the resident.
Councillors for South Croydon ward have approached the police to seek an urgent solution.
Meanwhile, residents in the lower part of Melville Avenue have also had to contend with school coaches waiting outside their houses, often with their engines left running, pumping out diesel fumes, as they are unable to enter the school grounds. The school is currently ferrying its pupils to Waddon Leisure Centre and Old Walcountians’ sports grounds for games and swimming lessons.
The school managed to further outrage residents on Saturday. A sunny and warm day in their gardens proved impossible to enjoy due to the constant shrill of the school’s intruder alarm system which activated early Saturday morning and didn’t stop until after 4pm. Residents were forced to alert the police and council, neither of whom had any out-of-hours contact number for the school.
The alarm finally stopped after a member of the school’s office staff spotted an email sent to their enquiries address.
The school has, this week, reached out with something that passes for an apology from Richard Baker, Folio Trust’s chief finance officer, who has promised to find a better solution to their coach parking, and suggested forming a working group of councillors, residents and school staff.
But woe betide any residents who might have complaints about the way the school, and its development, is being imposed on the previously quiet, suburban streets. “It will be important that all taking part come together constructively with suggestions rather than using this as an excuse to air grievances,” Baker wrote. “I am happy to listen to these as and when necessary, but this must be a positive forum.” Poor lamb.
Baker’s effort to excuse conduct at last week’s open evening, some residents believe, shows a shifting of blame to the visiting parents, rather than Folio Trust taking any responsibility for its piss-poor planning.
Baker wrote, “I fully understand and appreciate the frustrations experienced last Wednesday evening at our open evening, but in all honesty I am at a loss to think of what else we could have done. We certainly did not anticipate the volume of visitors that we experienced, and we had sent out a message that there was no on site parking, and that public transport links were very good.
“But it doesn’t matter how often you say that, or how much we believe in Mayor Khan’s sustainable transport agenda, people are by nature selfish, and will look for the most convenient solution which is usually to get into their car. It was suggested that we could have opened up the field for parking, but with an event where people are coming and going throughout the evening, and having only one point of entry and exit, that would have been an even larger nightmare.”
With Croydon Council once again failing to represent the interests of the people it is supposed to work for, residents and Council Tax-payers, it seems that those living on Melville Avenue and nearby streets are in for many more years of lack of consideration and civic development bullying.
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