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 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.