Are we being misled over Croydon‘s school places shortfall?

By - Tuesday 5th August, 2014

Sean Creighton listens to assertions without evidence as Croydon seeks to accommodate a rising school population

Norbury Manor School field.
Photo author’s own.

What sort of school site do you think children and young people deserve? One with room for play, games and sport, like Norbury Manor Primary, or a roof playground on a building overlooking the main road through the town centre as is proposed for an academy school in Segas House?

Plans to meet the future need for school places have been working their way through the new Labour council’s decision-making process. First the cabinet meeting on 14th July considered a report entitled “‘Investing in the future of our young people: school places and admissions up to 2017/18″. Its approval was then endorsed by the full council next day. Then on 22nd July the matter was considered by the Children & Young Person’s scrutiny sub-committee.

Having heard the sub-committee debate and having re-read the paper, the report seems to me totally inadequate. Assertions are made that more primary and secondary places are needed, but no figures have been provided. You would have expected to find an appendix setting out information such as:

  • the number of 0-19 year olds at both primary and secondary level in 2011 national census
  • the estimated number of 0-19 year olds moving out of and into Croydon in 2011/12, 2012/13 – 2017-18
  • the estimated birth and death rates among 0-19 year olds, 2011/12 – 2017/18
  • the number of primary places at September 2013 by school
  • the number of filled primary/secondary places at September 2013 by school
  • the estimated surplus/shortage of primary/secondary places 2014/15-2017/18 at each school
  • the number of of pupils at primary and secondary who come into the borough from elsewhere
  • the number of pupils at primary and secondary level who go out of the borough to school
We are expected to simply take the word of council officers

I would also have expected to see an analysis of whether the number of pupils coming into the borough to attend academy schools is different from those coming in to attend borough-maintained schools. If it is, what effect will the difference have as new academy and free schools come on stream, especially in the secondary sector?

Croydon Council officers did tell the sub-committee that 25% of pupils go to secondary school out of the borough – which has always been the case at secondary level. Fewer primary school children, other than those living close to Croydon’s boundaries, attend schools outside.

None of this information is in the paper. Only the projected number of 16-18 year olds was provided – in a separate briefing note. Yet without this background information neither councillors nor interested members of the public can make sense of what the officers are saying. We are expected to take their word for it.

The officers have a difficult job because they are not in charge of planning. This is because academies and free schools can be set up on the approval of the Secretary of State for Education regardless of whether there is local need. The officers maintain there is a shortage of suitable sites, so schools can land up where they are not needed. This is particularly a problem if they are primary schools and local parents are not interested in them. Free schools in particular have to recruit parents, so their expectations of attendance may not be realised.

One academy which failed to co-operate with Croydon Council received governmental instruction to do so

Up to now, Croydon Council has taken the view that it needs to co-operate with helping academies and free schools gaining government approval in order to link them more closely into the whole school system. One academy which was not providing basic information to the council has now been instructed by the government to co-operate.

The other problem with planning is the uncertainty as to whether academies and free schools will open on time – partly due to site problems. Some schools will open on temporary sites before new buildings are available for them.

The officers say that ARK Oval Primary Academy, due to be expanded for this year by one additional form entry, is still at the design meeting stage. Paxton Academy, a three form entry free school (meaning that each year group consists of three classes), will start off in temporary accommodation on a sports ground before moving into permanent accommodation at 843 London Road in 2016. Harris Invictus will also start off in space in other Harris academies, until permanent buildings are available on the former hospital site on London Road in 2016. What will happen if there are delays in opening these new buildings?

Labour is taking the flak for the previous administration’s failure

Planned expansions are numerous and subject to an ongoing process of change. Planning from 2016-17 onwards becomes more complex, and officers’ problems are being compounded by the need to increase Special Educational Needs provision in dedicated schools.

It seems Labour cannot afford to try and resist the growth of academies and free schools. Firstly, maintained schools can suddenly be switched to academy status following poor Ofsted reports. This reduces the maintained stock and leaves parents and the council more dependent on these self-appointed bodies whose only accountability is at national level, to the Secretary of State for Education. The more academies and free schools there are, the more government funding flows into Croydon, which in turn allows the council to reduce its spending on expanding maintained schools to fill the shortage of places.

Croydon Council will try to buy Segas House to become the site of a new Oasis primary school. This shows how it has become locked into a position in which the natural instincts of some Labour councillors who have expressed reservations cannot be allowed to carry any weight. For those who consider Segas House totally the wrong site for a primary school, next to a busy main road and with a proposed roof playground, the only hope is that the owner will refuse to sell.

In that case the council would have to consider resorting to a compulsory purchase order. This could be challenged by the owner, meaning an unknowable delay in starting the conversion works, which in any case will be complex because of the building’s Grade II listed status.

And while Labour would take the flak for such delay, in truth it would be due to the failure of the former Tory administration to negotiate with the Westfield Group and Hammerson plc to create an appropriate site for a vital new school in the Croydon town centre redevelopment.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Stephen Giles

    Interesting, it makes me realise just how important it is to have the private education option. It’s no good blaming the former Tory Council, one needs to look back to the appalling record of the pre 2006 Labour Council, which you and many others seem to conveniently forget!!!