Saturday, 5 March 2011

Preston Manor Expansion Call-In Fails

The Executive's decision to approve the  Preston Manor school expansion into primary provision was discussed at Scrutiny Committee on Wednesday March 2nd after a call-in by Councillor Harsh Patel.  I made a presentation on the educational and equality issues involved and residents spoke about poor consultation, traffic, planning issues, impact on neighbouring schools and covenants on the land.

Krutica Pau poured out a torrent of statistics in attempt to prove there was demand for a new primary school in the area including a 30% rose in Brent's birthrate, 89 additional births in Planning Area 2 (where Preston Manor is situated) between 2006 and 2009 and other primary schools in the area being currently full. Curiously she claimed that the current temporary school in Ashley Gardens had been designed to accommodate 40 children and was full, when throughout it was always said to be for two receptions classes (60 children). Reliable sources inform me that even 40 is an over estimate for number currently in the school.

My argument is that the imbalance between the number of schools in the north and south has an impact on the ease of access to secondary schools for pupils from the south as priority is given, after special needs, looked after children, and sibling connection,  to applicants who live nearest the school.

Unfortunately the councillor scrutineers  just don't have enough knowledge to ask the right questions and provide sufficient challenge to officers.  Krutica Pau said that she was committed to having an educational debate on the merits of all-through schools but that couldn't take place now because of the urgency of the situation and she and councillors were completely silent on the issue of equality between the south and the north of the borough which I had raised..

The south has four schools open to all pupils (counting Crest as two) while there are seven in the north, three of which wish to expand into primary. I reminded councillors of the 1980s Two Kingdoms Report into Brent secondary schools by Jocelyn Barrow.  This was an investigation into parental perceptions of inequality between the then largely Black south and White/Asian north. Although the boundary and ethnic make up may have shifted a little there is still a residual issue.  I  twice written to the local press trying to raise this issue as the council has failed to respond but my letters have not been published. I am not sure if this is because the issue is felt to be too irrelevant, too complex  or too dangerous.  

No mention was made of the existence of an Equalities Impact Assessment which I would argue should have been carried out. EqIAs look at the following.:
  • identify the needs of each equality target group
  • identify gaps in our knowledge
  • identify the positive impacts
  • identify the negative impacts
  • identify what needs to be done to reduce negative impacts and add to positive ones
  • amend what is being done accordingly.
As Preston Manor will give priority to pupils from its primary school who are likely to be recruited locally pupils from further afield will have less chance of getting into the school. Preston Manor intents to reduce the number of secondary places available to pupils from  other primary schools by 60. If they are followed by other secondary schools wishing to open primary schools (currently Alperton and Wembley High) then access will be further reduced for pupils from the south.

Councillor Helga Gladbaum agreed on the  necessity for an educational debate about the merits of all through schools but because of the urgent need for the Authority to fulfil statutory responses to provide places said that the Preston Manor expansion should go ahead. From personal experience she did however support my criticisms of Watts the builders who have been given the lion's share of the contract overseeing the primary expansion at Preston Manor and other schools. The Executive had taken the decision to employ them without putting the work out to tender. Watts had project managed a simple re-roofing project at Chalkhill Primary School where I am chair of governors. Governors had eventually declared lack of confidence in Watts and the contractor Breyer after 15 incidents of flooding resulted in damage to classrooms, pupils' work and teachers' equipment. The school has still not had adequate compensation and making good of the damage.

The equality of access issue will come up again when Preston Manor seeks to amend its admissions criteria to take into account the adjoining primary school. There seems to be a potentially good case for the involvement of the independent Schools Adjudicator.

After questions about the covenants that have been found which forbid building other than housing on the school site the public and press were excluded while the Committee was briefed. The Council has to appeal to the Upper Tribunal to get the covenants nullified or modified but appear confident of success. Residents, however, are considering legal action on the issue.

Eventually only Cllr Harsh Patel voted for the Executive to reconsider its decision.  It was hard to see how many abstentions there were as a number of councillors seemed intent on scrambling around their documents and searching under their chairs while the vote took place.

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