Spending £30m on a new school was ‘crazy’ and a waste of money, according to a local MP.
GENE BRODIE, our education correspondent, reports
Croydon’s newest part-selective secondary school is being forced to move all its staff, equipment and more than 500 pupils more than a mile across the borough because its £30million building won’t be ready by September.
Coombe Wood School was granted planning permission in 2018 to be built on what had previously been playing fields, after Croydon’s Labour-run council removed Green Belt protection from the site, just across from Lloyd Park.
When planning permission was granted for the 1,200-pupil free school, Croydon already had 5,000 surplus secondary school places in the borough.
In many respects, it is that very surfeit of school places which is allowing Coombe Wood to move into a purpose-built and empty secondary school – St Andrew’s – which has been forced to close because of falling school rolls.
The move again raises serious questions over why tens of millions of public money is being spent on school buildings and why the destruction of Green Belt land has been permitted to facilitate a new free school when other schools are operating well under-capacity.
The MP for the area has described the whole exercise as “crazy” and “a massive waste of public money”.
Coombe Wood School’s pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9 will start the 2020-2021 academic year using the St Andrew’s High buildings on Warrington Road in Old Town, close to the Flyover. They are expected to be based there at least until January 2021, though sources close to the school suggest that the buildings may not be ready until September 2021, just in time for Coombe Wood to open its school gates to sixth formers for the first time.
The school is run by the Folio Trust which has been established by Jonathan Wilden, formerly the head at Wallington County Grammar School for Boys in neighbouring Sutton. The Folio Trust has been joined by two Croydon primaries, St Peter’s and Park Hill Junior, which act as feeder schools for Coombe Wood.
The first two years’ intake have spent their entire secondary school careers being taught in temporary cabins on the site as the building work goes on around them. In the past fortnight, parents of Year 6 children, many who must have been eagerly anticipating moving to their shiny new “big school” in September, were sent the news of the delay by Barry Laker, the Coombe Wood head.
“Apologies for not being in touch sooner,” Laker wrote, “but the Department for Education who are responsible for providing us with temporary and permanent building accommodation, have been clear that no information should be made public to parents/carers until their plans were contractually confirmed.”
The plans have been kept so secret, in fact, that there is still nothing about this temporary move on the school’s website or Facebook page, nor on Croydon Council’s website. The MP for the area, Croydon South’s Chris Philp, had also not been informed.
In his missive to parents, Laker said he had been “given the go-ahead” to provide an update on the progress, or lack of it, with the school buildings. Inevitably, he claims that the past three months of covid-19 disruption is to blame for the delay in having the buildings ready, referring to “a significant impact”.
“Although the site remained open, sub-contractors working on-site furloughed staff for a significant period of time, resulting in a reduced workforce,” Laker wrote, also claiming that using social distancing “slowed down productivity further”.
“As a result, Wates, the permanent building contractor, has now given us confirmation that they will not be able to deliver the project for September. They have been working incredibly hard to meet deadlines and anyone who has visited the site in the last year will have seen the rapid progress they have made…”.
Laker goes on to state that “in truth, we have been anticipating that this delay would be inevitable as soon as the impact of covid-19 became apparent”. Meaning that they just kept parents in the dark for four months.
“I am pleased to announce we have secured an alternative that will enable students to carry on unhindered with aspects of their academic and extra-curricular work from September onwards,” Laker wrote.
“It is of course hugely disappointing not to be taking up occupancy of our new permanent building in September as planned. However, delays to all aspects of life have been inevitable during this global pandemic that we have been going through and in truth, I am delighted that we are able to avail of the St Andrew’s site as a short-term solution.”
Parents of pupils at the school are less “delighted” than the headteacher, however.
“This is a big pain for children living in and around Coombe Wood School, as it’s not the easiest of journeys,” one mother told Inside Croydon.
“Many parents of incoming Year 7s are concerned about safety, too, as the main access from South Croydon is via pedestrian underpasses.
“Some parents are beside themselves. I suspect covid gave them a perfect excuse for it not being ready, when the reality was it was never going to be.”
And Tory MP Philp – who has previously lobbied for Croydon South to be allowed to have its own grammar school – says that Coombe Wood’s temporary move into vacant school buildings proves that the whole scheme has been a massive waste of public money.
“From the start, the site choice was a disaster – building on the green space and causing traffic mayhem. The council should never have given planning consent,” Philp said.
“Especially as it now turns out that there is a whole spare site that could have been used instead: St Andrew’s.
“Refurbishing and using St Andrew’s for the new school would have saved millions in ground-up building costs as well as protecting green space.
“It was crazy.”
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