Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Is Big Really Beautiful?

As Cllr James Powney has recently accused me on his blog of trying to wreck the expansion of primary school places in Brent I thought it it might be useful to if I outlined some of the issues that concern me so that readers can make up their own minds.

There are currently many 4 and 5 year olds without school places in Brent and the borough has received 'safety valve' money to provide extra places. This money has to be spent by the end of August 2011 or it will be lost. As a result there are a number of schemes under-way to add extra classes to some primary schools and a proposal for a 2 form entry primary school at Preston Manor High School, creating an all-through 4-19 school of more than 2,000 pupils.

It is the Preston Manor expansion scheme and associated secondary expansion schemes that concern me. The Preston Manor proposal for a 420 pupil primary provision only emerged during August and the consultation has been 'stream-lined' because of the need to spend the money by August 2011. The quality of the consultation has been affected by the need to meet the deadline but also by the impact of staffing cuts in the department concerned and the restructuring which has transferred the department from Children and Families to Regeneration and Major Projects. These factors have resulted in one consultation meeting for residents being held at a time when most residents were still at work; local residents only receiving consultation documents after vociferous protests; a 'consultation' at the Wembley Area Consultation Forum where after a PowerPoint presentation by seven project managers and council officers, only three questions from residents were allowed; and documentation that has already had to be revised twice.

A major weakness has been the lack of educational input into something that represents a major change in local education provision. Instead it has been seen as simply an exercise in creating extra classes or buildings to house children. The Ark Academy in Wembley will eventually provide 'all-through' education from 4-19. Preston Manor is five minutes away from the ARK and in competition with it and now consulting on offering the same range of provision. In addition, Alperton High School, Wembley High School and Capital City Academy have all expressed an interest in expanding to include primary provision and others may follow. Nowhere in the consultation has there been a thorough discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of such all-though schools which will each have a total pupil population of  1,600-2,000 or more.

Nor has there been proper consideration of the impact of such provision on nearby 'stand alone' primary schools. Preston Manor intends to give preference for admission to its secondary school to pupils who attend the primary school. This would represent 25% of their Year 7 intake. If you add preference given to siblings already at the High School this reduces the chance of children from stand alone primaries gaining admission to the High School significantly. Canny parents will want to send their children to the primary school in order to secure admission to the secondary school. In effect this means choosing your child's high school at the age of four. There is a real danger that stand alone primary schools will be destabilised as a result, losing pupils and experiencing high pupil turnover as they cater for an increasing proportion of pupils in short-term transit through the borough. A major consideration should be how this will affect equal opportunity for access to quality secondary education in the borough.

A further consideration is that the proposed expansions, with the exception of Capital City, are all in the North of the borough while much of the demand is in the South. The Harlesden/Stonebridge area lacks a community secondary school and there have been moves by parents to set up a 'free school' there. 'All through' schools in the north will reinforce that basic inequality and further shift the centre of gravity of the borough to Wembley.

To its credit the council has recognised that the rush to expand may affect the quality of the new provision. They should also recognise that the quality and viability of existing primary provision will be put at risk in the long-term if all-through schools become the norm. A further imponderable is the impact of the housing benefit cap on local families with the Council's own senior housing officer predicting that many may be forced to more out of the borough. Indeed there has already been an increase in evictions resulting in more families moving out of London or into short-term bed and breakfast accommodation. If that trend continues we may see a reduction in the number of pupils seeking school places.

The Green Party is in favour of genuine all-through schools which would be smaller and where the form of entry would be the same throughout.  Small schools where the headteacher and staff  know all the pupils have huge advantages in terms of creating a caring, family and community centred ethos. Large schools may be able to offer a wider curriculum and more shared resources as well as economies of scale but lose a lot in the process and I question whether large institutions are good places in which to care for and educate young children.

Brent used to offer a range of sizes of primary schools from one to three form entry but the number of one form entry schools (210 pupils from Reception to Year 6) has been reduced as a result of expansion plans and there are now some four form entry schools (840 pupils) which are bigger than many secondary schools. This process has been taking place over several years and there are legitimate  arguments for and against  which deserve a public airing before 'In Brent Big is Beautiful' becomes our borough slogan.

It may be inconvenient to ask these questions but it is not a wrecking tactic. Important decisions are being made and parents, teacher, governors and residents deserve to be part of the discussion.

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