The council, sadly, seems determined to plough ahead with its almost universally unpopular scheme to expand Belleville School into Shaftesbury while denying Shaftesbury children the right to attend. I say universally unpopular because it seems the latest proposals are disliked by pretty much everyone, even if for different reasons. So while I will object to the fact that nearby children are incredibly unlikely to ever get a place, Belleville governors will object because they are losing flexibility in admissions policy. And while it’s incredibly hard for someone like me to admit it – I’m a member of the council’s controlling group and on the executive – the council has got this wrong.
It’s perhaps understandable to see how the council got to this position. Lots of people want to get their children into Belleville, so those that can afford it move near the school, but many are still disappointed. The council, therefore, looked at expanding the Belleville site with a £6.72m development scheme. Unfortunately this proposal was unpopular with the parents. The consultation was extended twice and, ultimately, the idea dropped in favour of giving the Forthbridge Road site to Belleville. This consultation was not a model of good communication. The consultation focused on the area around Belleville, with only a few roads around Forthbridge Road included and no reference to the admission policy. Despite this there was a huge proportion of objections, over 450 from the 500 representations received.
Nevertheless the council ploughed on, this time consulting on the idea of priority zones to address the genuine concern about children near the Forthbridge Road site not being able to get in. Bizarrely, however, admission was still based on distance from Belleville, even when the places were at Forthbridge Road – so in practice it meant the child in Forthbridge Road was still at the back of the queue when it came to getting into that school.
Again, the response to the council’s proposal was not positive. But the council came up with a brilliant idea. Why not, they must have thought, create another priority zone a mile away from Forthbridge Road, while still basing admission on distance from the Belleville Road site. While we’re at it, why don’t we refuse to extend the current priority zone to roads a hundred yards away because they aren’t on the same “interconnected grid of streets.”
If you were deliberately trying to invent a scheme that was bad for Shaftesbury residents, it would be hard to come up with something better than the council has for this.
It’s a fundamentally flawed scheme. The council is addressing problems in their arbitrary ‘planning areas’ (the argument being there’s a problem in the planning area that contains Belleville, but cross the road into the planning area Forthbridge Road is in and all is well) but not thinking at all about basic human nature.
A parent will always want to do what’s best for their child. If they can afford it, they will move near a good school. They will not consider Wandsworth Council’s education planning areas.
So we will continue to feed the demand. We already have three priority zones. What next, who will have to suffer for zones four and five? Or six and seven? Are we to have a handful of super-schools in the borough, growing ever larger and expanding by taking over small sites here and there? Or is Shaftesbury going to be the only ward that will suffer? It’s short-sighted, and doesn’t solve the problem – in fact I’d bet it would get worse as parents move and stay near Belleville to get subsequent children in.
But my real objection is that it’s just plain wrong.
Do we really want to say to a parent living next to a school, listening to the noise from the playground, seeing the traffic dropping off and collecting children each day, that their child can’t attend because someone living a mile away had a better claim? I cannot see the justice in it. The counter-argument is that it’s just the same a living next door to a private school or a faith school. But it isn’t the same, this isn’t a private or a faith school: it’s a secular, non-selective state school, funded from our taxes.
The council’s current proposals will be discussed at the Education and Children’s Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee on Wednesday (it’s a public meeting, so if you want to go along it starts at 7:30pm and takes place in the Town Hall). I’m intending to go along and voice my objections, as it my ward colleague Guy Senior. Our other ward colleague, Jonathan Cook, is a committee member and will also be speaking out against the plans.
I’ll be calling for the council to re-think. Given that the plans have such little support and are so fundamentally flawed I can only hope the committee will listen.