Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Summer holiday decision on the future of primary education in Brent

Map showing unplaced primary children  in Brent 
Click on image to enlarge

Tonight the Brent Council Executive will consider a report setting out plans for future primary provision in the borough as a result of the burgeoning child population. The Council expect to be short of 46 reception class places in September after taking into account places at expanded schools and in bulge classes. However overall they expect as many as 513 Year 1 to Year 4 children to be without a school place in September.  Numbers are expected to rise 'dramatically' in 2012-13 with a record shortage of places of 1778 by 2014-15 if nothing is done.

The report proposes a three-pronged approach to the problem:
A robust lobbying campaign to central government, clearly demonstrating the size of the challenge the Council faces and the inadequacy of the available resources. At the time of writing the government has made no firm proposals or commitments to provide additional capital funding to support the provision of additional school  places. The problems are particularly acute within London, and the Council should actively consider collaborative lobbying with other likeminded Boroughs. On 19 July 2011, the Secretary of State announced that the government will provide an additional £500m to fund more new school places for September 2012 in those areas of greatest need. It is Brent Council's priority to make its case towards this allocation as part of our lobbying efforts.

A medium term approach linked directly to the Council’s emerging property strategy, which considers more radical ways of addressing the challenges associated by providing school places and delivering a ‘fit for purpose’ school portfolio. This will involve a review of the entire education portfolio and  consideration of new models for schools, including five form entry primary schools, all through schools and ‘urban’ style schools. The Council’s approach is in line with the government's latest announcement to conduct a full survey of the school estate for a fairer funding model. Such a strategy will take a number of years to come to fruition and will have little or no impact on the existing pressures. However, clearly the cycle of inadequate extensions and bulge classes needs to be broken at some point. The government has announced a new privately-financed school building programme to address the schools in the worst condition wherever they are in the country. The programme is expected to cover between 100 and 300 schools with the first of these open in September 2014 and is expected to be worth around £2 billion in up front construction costs.

A costed short term strategy to maximise the capacity of the existing school portfolio, involving a combination of extensions, expansions and bulge classes, in order to help meet immediate pressure for additional primary school places. This strategy is currently unfunded, and there is currently no government grant available for this. The report sets out the costs associated with the delivery of the short term strategy and suggests possible sources of finance in order to minimise the unsupported borrowing burden to the Council.
The report summarises the result of the consultation on future primary provision which was carried out in July and extended after protests that insufficient time had been made available for detailed consideration of the options.  They say 29 responses were received of which five were from headteachers, nineteen from individual school governors, and the remainder from 'others'. In fact I know that two responses were made from governing bodies but this isn't mentioned.14 (48%) were in favour of expanding existing primary schools as their first choice and 7 (24%) were in favour of creating bulge classes and 4 (13%) expressed a preference for all-through (4-19 years) schools.4 (13%) said that building new schools should have been considered an option and 6 (21%) suggested that the Gwyneth Rickus Building in Brentfield Road (currently the borough's Centre for Staff Development) become a primary school. (This may be an option if the CSD transfers to the new Civic Centre in 2012)

The strategy put forward in the document is not entirely in line with the consultation findings:

Diversity in the size of primary schools in Brent ranging from 2 FE to 5FE. In future, the minimum size of primary schools in Brent should be 2FE. (2 forms of entry is 420 pupils plus nursery and 5 forms of entry 1050 plus nursery))

Continue the move away from separate infant and junior schools and support the amalgamation of existing infant and junior schools.

Develop all through primary/secondary schools as an option within a diverse range of provision but maintain the primary ethos and character within all through provision.

Support the co-location of special schools and mainstream schools.

Within the overall system, maintain the flexibility to commission or decommission school places in response to fluctuations in demand
The move to all-through schools and the establishment of large 5 form entry schools are  both likely to be controversial. The short-list for possible expansion includes the conversion of Wembley High, Alperton and Capital City into 'all-through' schools with twoor three forms of entry in the  primary phase.The separate Roe Green Infant and Junior schools and Lyon Park Infant and Junior are ear-marked for expansion to five forms of entry, along with Barham and Braintcroft.  Byron Court and Preston Park are considered for expansion to 4FE. The 'short-list' is actually quite long with Wykeham, Fryent, Elsley, Chalkhill, Mitchell Brook, Leopold, Malorees Infants, Malorees Junior, St Andews and St Francis and Furness on the list for possible expansion to 3FE.

The report signals the end of one form entry primary schools which I personally find very sad as they can be quite magical places that are amazingly responsive to children and their families.

These are clearly important long-term decisions so it is a pity that the Executive is making them in the middle of the Summer holidays when many people concerned about such matters are away.

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