The council’s executive committee unanimously approved the decision to revisit the Belleville admissions policy last night. This was a final formal hurdle, since under the council’s executive and scrutiny model the Overview and Scrutiny Committees (OSCs) don’t have formal decision-making powers.

The practice is that the executive committee will rubber stamp the OSC views, recognising the OSCs ability to undertake detailed study, discussion and debate. There was a strange paper (opens a PDF) from the director of children’s services reminding members of their power to accept, reject or insert their own amendment which worried me slightly, but proved irrelevant when the time came.

It does point out that it means the existing criteria will stay until 2013 because of the consultation timetables (not, you might think, that much heed has been given to consultations in the past!) but in fact this is probably a slight win for the ward since several roads within the Shaftesbury ward are closer to Belleville than roads within the proposed first priority area they are now have a better chance of getting places. Of course, roads near the Forthbridge Road site will still miss out – but then they would not have any places in any event!

Now that the formal decision has been taken it’s up to us to make sure that meaningful discussions take place about a more meaningful set of admissions criteria.

One of the things that has impressed me throughout is the maturity of approach of the Forthbridge Road residents, who were perfectly happy to accept the need for places to be given to children from around Belleville, just not happy with the total exclusion of children near Forthbridge Road. Similarly, my suspicion is that Belleville recognises the inequity of soaking up all the places in a school without any concession to its neighbourhood. The challenge will be finding the right balance and coming up with a model that is flexible enough to respond to the inevitable changes in behaviour that will result.

It’s an odd, but strangely liberating, experience to have broken rank and spoken out against the council.

Last night was the first time I’ve ever ‘rebelled’ by speaking (but not voting, as I’m not a committee member) against the proposed admissions policy for Belleville School.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I, or any councillor, usually agrees 100% with what their party or group or administration says or does. It means that we are all coalitions, even when it’s just one party in the coalition. We all have different views on different things, but our views have enough in common that we can work together on the shared ground and operate a system of give and take on those issues over which we disagree. But the consequence is a constant cognitive dissonance, and while it’s usually fairly insignificant and easily overlooked, sometimes it gets so large something has to give.

And so it happened over the Forthbridge Road site and the proposed admissions policy for Belleville – something had to give and thus three ward councillors (two who are in the council’s cabinet) found themselves in committee room 123 arguing against their own council’s plans.

I won’t beat around the bush; I’m really pleased about the way last night went.

There was a packed public gallery and I think it was a great example of how democracy can work well. The Education and Children’s Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee heard first from Ian Hamilton, who was representing Forthbridge Road residents in opposing the plans. Then from the chairman of governors at Belleville who was also opposing the plans. Then from Guy Senior and myself spoke, again, opposing the plans. When the committee started formal discussions Jonathan Cook (who is a member) moved an amendment requiring the council to re-think and he too spoke in opposition to the plans.

I suppose there is an argument that if everyone is unhappy then the plans are, at least, balanced. And the chairman did remind the committee that, having heard from some of the people who oppose the policy they should also consider the people who supported it (he might also have pointed out that they need to consider the others who oppose it they didn’t hear from, like the Taybridge Road residents who were excluded from the priority zone).

But when it came to a vote Jonathan’s amendment (seconded by the Labour spokesman, Andy Gibbons) was supported 6-4. In other words, the council will have to re-think its plans. Thank-you to Cllrs Andy Gibbons and Wendy Speck, parent governors Dympna Kelly and Jon Cox and Diocesan representative John Russell. And most of all thank-you to all the parents and residents who turned up to show their opposition.

Technically the committee’s ‘decision’ is only a recommendation to the executive to act a certain way. Technically, the executive can choose to ignore that recommendation, but the practice is that the executive committee recognises that debate takes place at the committees and will follow this recommendation. I certainly hope that practice will be followed here.

It will be too late to do anything about the first lot of admissions to the Forthbridge Road site (and the objectors I spoke to recognise this; indeed, I was impressed at how practical they were when discussing how to balance the needs of Belleville parents with the desires of Forthbridge Road residents) so the first lot will be admitted based on distance from the Belleville main site. But it does mean that there will be a lot of time for discussion and drafting to get the new admission scheme right. I don’t think anyone believes everyone will be totally satisfied, but I think we all know we can do a lot better than a scheme that no-one really liked.

And I hope it goes without saying that Jonathan, Guy and I will be closely following what happens!

I’ll make no apology for reflecting on this personally, it has been a remarkably novel experience for me. I started by referring to the cognitive dissonance, that small tension caused by the difference between my belief and opinion and the broader programme to which I signed up as a Conservative candidate, then as a Conservative group councillor. It is hard to describe the feeling of freedom that comes with removing that tension, but it’s easy to see the attraction. And while I’ve no intention of becoming a serial rebel, I can see why for some people the threat of sanction (be it sacking or removal of the whip, and I’m sure there are those who think it should happen to me) is not a deterrent.
But most of all the episode has reinforced my faith in democracy.

I’d lost count of the number of times I spoke to somebody in the days leading up to the meeting for them to say, “there’s no point in objecting, the council has made up its mind.” For them it was quite clear that the council had weighed the views of Shaftesbury residents against the demands of Belleville parents (and potential parents) and decided firmly in favour of the latter. The council was obviously getting it wrong, but was an unstoppable juggernaut.

I’ve always been clear in my view that the council is not perfect, like any person or organisation it can make mistakes; what is important is that it can spot and rectify those mistakes. Last night, I was proud that the council proved it isn’t an unstoppable juggernaut, it is a mature and responsive organisation – it might not get things right first time, but it’s prepared to listen to make sure it’s gets there in the end.

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.

There is no doubt the council’s current consultation on expansion at Belleville is stirring up heated debate. Reading through some of the conversations that are taking place on forums like Streetbook and NappyValleyNet it’s clear there are many different views about the council’s proposed solution to the ‘problem’.

I’ll be honest, I never thought that Belleville would ever impact on Shaftesbury. It is such a popular school that the most Shaftesbury parents could usually expect was disappointment that their children couldn’t get in, however, the council’s proposal to create a ‘satellite’ site on Forthbridge Road has changed all that. But not, I think, for the better.

To give a potted history of the issue Belleville is a popular school. Every year far more parents want their children to go there than there is space. As a consequence the school has been expanded several times. The most recent proposal, to expand into the Forthbridge Road site (previously the Vines and then Paddock school) came after local parents vigorously opposed plans to expand on the main Belleville site.

When the opposition meant expansion on the Belleville site was not an option the education department looked at using the Forthbridge Road site. As Shaftesbury ward councillors we have been involved throughout, quietly trying behind the scenes to influence and improve the proposals which we felt were far from ideal. Jonathan Cook (who has the same views as expressed here) has been particularly active after being thrown in the deep end with this issue straight after his election in May!

Unfortunately, although the proposals changed significantly we were never able to get our main concern addressed: that the council was effectively creating a new school which local children would not be able to attend.

The problem
The problem as the education department sees it is that there are not enough schools places in Northcote, basically the area around Belleville School. There are, however, enough school places in Shaftesbury, the area which contains the proposed satellite site. The logic is that, therefore, it’s not a Shaftesbury problem but a Northcote problem and any new capacity created should go to Northcote children.

Indeed, the initial proposals were that the site would function purely as a part of Belleville, without any chance whatsoever for children from the neighbouring roads to go. In effect residents of Forthbridge Road would get all the pain of a school on the road, the increased traffic morning and afternoon, but no school. It would look like a school and sound like a school, but unless you lived within a few hundred yards of a school a mile away, it wasn’t a school!

The problems with the proposed solution
The ‘second priority area’ might be an improvement from having no local children attending, but making a bad idea a little bit better still results in, fundamentally, a bad idea.

It remains incredibly unlikely that significant numbers of children from the area will get a place. On the council’s projections local children would only be a majority in their local school in one year out of the next ten!

And, frankly, I have doubts local children will ever get places: while Belleville remains such a popular school, parents are still (if they can afford it) going to be moving as close to Belleville as they can. In effect the council is reinforcing and encouraging the behaviour that has already created a super-sized primary.

Even when you look at the details there are flaws: the biggest being that even in the second priority zone priority will still be decided by proximity to the Belleville site – in other words, when spaces are available to Shaftesbury children, those living next door to the Forthbridge Road site will still be at the back of the queue!

I believe in choice in education. Every parent should have the right to choose which school their child attends. However, I also recognise it’s impossible to exactly match supply and demand. As such, I do not think it is necessarily a bad thing that not every parent gets their first choice. However, when many parents fail to get their first choice, and this happens year after year then something needs to be done to address that.

The council deserve credit for trying to address it, even though I think the approach is wrong. It’s a mix of increasing supply (by creating an ever bigger Belleville) while attempting to choke off demand (by creating arbitrary areas outside of which you do not have the choice of Belleville). In effect it’s returning to an old system of catchment areas and reducing, rather than enhancing parental choice. It strikes me as an administrative solution to a difficult problem – it may address the numbers, but doesn’t really satisfy on qualitative issues like parental choice.

A better solution?
I believe there is a better, far more innovative, approach. Instead of tinkering with supply by expanding as far as possible and artificially limiting demand with arbitrary borders we need to address why Belleville is so popular compared to other schools and help create a more competitive education system. Otherwise in a few years time we’ll be having arguments about another satellite site and a tertiary priority zone.

A school is so much more than a building; it’s an ethos, an approach to education, it’s the leadership from the head and the involvement of the parents. Belleville is a successful school not because of the bricks and mortar, but because of all the people involved; teachers, staff, parents and pupils.

Actually Wandsworth is ahead of the game in realising this that a school and a building are not the same thing. We have, for example, the Wix’s Lane site containing both a Wandsworth School and a French Lycée, and are proposing that ‘Belleville’ isn’t just on the Belleville site.

So why aren’t we looking at expanding and duplicating the model? Instead of giving parents just one choice of a massive Belleville, why aren’t we creating new Bellevilles? Why aren’t we taking the Forthbridge Road site and offering it as a potential Free School? Or creating a system of mini-Bellevilles, using the expertise and ethos that already exists to spread a popular model as widely as possible.

Then, instead of having choice only for those who can afford to go private or move next to Belleville, we have choice for all.