Extra chairs had to be brought into the hall of Preston Park Primary School last night as residents flocked to the last public consultation about the move of Islamia Primary School to the area. The mood of the often-rowdy meeting can be summed up by one comment shouted from the floor to the Islamia Chair of Governors, 'We want your school to stay open, but we don't want it here.'
The Chair of Governors Sofia Moussaoui was flanked on the platform by other members of the Governing Board, the pastoral adviser to the pupils, Shirley Parks, Brent Interim Operational Director, Safeguarding, Partnerships and Strategy and the Brent Council Transportation officer responsible for School Travel Plans. Several councillors were present including Cllr Gwen Grahl, Cabinet member for Children Young People and Schools. Cllr Grahl was initially incognito in the audience but perhaps should have been on the platform to give support when Shirley Parks was showered with sometimes angry questions. Both were only appointed to their posts in May of this year.
The headteacher of Islamia Primary School was unable to be present because he had been involved in an accident that evening and there was no representative of the Yusuf Islam Foundation, that has served an eviction notice on the school, in attendance.
At the beginning of the meeting there were complaints that local people had not been consulted, some had only heard about the plans for the move a week ago (they clearly don't read Wembley Matters!), and many had not read the consultation paper before coming to the meeting. The school had made some copies, and these were distributed. The Chair of Governors denied a claim that locals who had given their emails in order to receive further information at the last meeting had not received anything.
As well as local residents the meeting was attended by a group of Islamia parents who were vociferously opposed to the move because of the difficulty of travelling from their homes in what they said was a 6-mile journey four times a day. They had suggested in a 509-signature petition that Brent Council should make the proposed South Kilburn site, earmarked for the, to be merged, Kilburn Park Junior School and Carlton Vale Infant School, available to Islamia instead. They cited very low numbers in both the schools in contrast to the 420 pupils at Islamia.
Shirley Parks said that this was not possible because a community school. open to all, was essential on the estate as it developed, and the population rose. Work had already started in the two schools towards occupation of the new premises. The new school was part of the long-term plans for the area and needed to be open to all pupils, not those from just one religious group. In any event the new building would not be available until well after Islamia's eviction deadline from the Queens Park site.
After many interventions from the floor, including suggestions that the closed South Kilburn Job Centre site could be used, the Chair of Governors said that if there was a possibility of a move to South Kilburn the Islam Yusuf Foundation could be approached to delay the eviction until a new site there was available.
Residents already concerned about traffic congestion in the area, particularly at school run times when cars often drove on the pavement, were shocked when Sophia Mousssaoui revealed that 160 parents had said they would travel to the site by car, 51 by bus, 58 by train and one cycling. When pressed she was unable to say how many parents would not be able to travel to the new site at all. The 223 bus that runs close to the site is already over-crowded at school times.
There was derision from the audience when a School Travel Plan was mooted as a solution. It was claimed that Islamia did not have an extant Travel Plan on its current site and the Travel Plans of schools in the Preston area made little difference.
Cllr Kennelly, Preston ward councillor, said that the environment and meeting climate targets needed to be considered when looking at traffic issues. If the move were to go ahead there was the challenge of how to make it work. There would be a need to reduce the number of cars making the journey as low as possible.
A resident from SKPRA (South Kenton and Preston Residents Association) asked why a request to see the feasibility plans for the Strathcona Road site had not been published. He doubted that there would be adequate playground space and whether it would meet DfE standards for a 2 form entry primary school. Shirley Parks replied that there was a caveat on the study that meant it could not be published.
The question of how many pupils would not be able to travel to the new school because of transport difficulties or special needs gave rise to two concerns.
Firstly, if numbers dropped would Islamia still be viable? Shirley Parks responded that there were many successful one form entry primary schools in Brent (in fact there are only a handful) and Islamia could operate as a one form entry school. The Chair of Governors said there would be plenty of demand from neighbouring areas - that produced cries from the audience about more car journeys and the impact on the Council's Climate Emergency Strategy.
Secondly, if there were spare places at Islamia once established, would local Muslim children transfer from their present schools, threatening the viability of those schools that were already facing falling rolls and budget issues? Shirley Parks said that parents did not tend to move children from their current schools but there would be impact at Reception level when parents choose their child's future school. A question on how schools were funded was not answered but there is an amount allocated per pupil so that would make an impact if classes were only half full. In the 1970s when falling rolls hit London there were some schools where year groups were merged to make mixed age classes.
A member of the audience suggested that some schools, low in pupil numbers could be merged on one site and the building vacated allocated to Islamia. Shirley Parks said that a review of primary provision was in progress.
Emerging at times during this discussion was whether voluntary aided faith schools should exist at all. Shouldn't Brent as a multi-cultural and multi-religious borough have mixed schools open to all? Cllr Michael Maurice, citing his own children attending the Jewish Free School l(JFS), mounted a strong defence of faith schools and Islamia's right to exist. Members of the audience quoted the number of schools in the borough of various faiths, compared with only one Muslim primary school. Islamia was popular, followed the National Curriculum and had received a Good Ofsted Report LINK.
A resident raised 'the elephant in the room', Yusuf Islam and his Foundation and the fact that the Foundation had been given the opportunity to redevelop the Islamia site to improve provision by Brent Council, with funding, a long time ago but the Foundation had ended the discussion. There was an 'education use' only covenant on the site so the Foundation would be using it to expand their private secondary provision:
'Yusuf Islam is going to get a free site and Brent Council will pay £10m to move the school.'
I pointed out that the Foundation's actions had divided the community and Yusuf Islam had not responded to requests for a comment on the situation.
A former Islamia Primary pupil who had gone on to the private secondary school spoke in defence of Yusuf Islam and the foundation. He had put his own money into the project and the Foundation was a charity, he was not making money out of it. He should be accorded respect.
Amid this a member of the audience who works on Pupil Voice in local schools asked if children had been spoken to about their views and how this affected them as they would have heard what was going on. Shirley Parks said from a safeguarding point of view she would be concerned that such discussions would worry the children. However, the member of Islamia staff responsible for pastoral care and said that there had been questions from pupils and that these could be addressed through the Pupil School Council.
The issue of lack of provision of information to local residents came up again. Sophia Moussaoui said that the Governing Board could not be expected to leaflet every home in the area. The parent who had organised the petition, Jamad Guled, said that she had prepared a leaflet for distribution to residents informing them of the plans but had been barred from distributing it by the Governing Board. The chair of the Board said they had seen the leaflets and that it was written as if from an outsider and they thought that it would create panic and division in the community.
Contributing from the audience Gwen Grahl, Brent Council Lead Member for Young People and Schools, said she recognised that this was a difficult situation. Brent Council had been approached by the Islamia Governing Board for help when the school received the eviction notice. Islamia was obviously a very popular and successful school and unique as the only Muslim state school in Brent. She understood that other schools were being built in Brent but the site in South Kilburn was inappropriate for a lot of reasons. Teachers, parents, and pupils of the merging schools were really excited about moving to the new school and in any case, it was not opening until 2023.
Cllr Grahl said that it was her job to scrutinise the council officers to make sure they were doing their jobs properly and she could assure residents and parents that they had looked at every single option for finding a site nearer to Queens Park. The Yusuf Islam Foundation had commissioned their own search and couldn't find a site either:
'You can't build a site just anywhere it has to be big enough and accessible and crucially available in the very small window to 2024.'
She recognised that there had been some problems with the informal stage of the consultation, not least that the Governing Board had not expected to have to undertake the consultation process. As a result of representations from the ward councillors the consultation period was extended, and the Council played a bigger role in ensuring the process was transparent and organising additional meetings. It was going to be her job to steer any proposal through Cabinet:
If I am not satisfied that either parents of the school or residents support the proposal, or its not feasible for any other reason, then I won't be voting for it. So, I ask everyone to engage in the consultation. We want to hear from you, but to be honest, my challenge was that 420 children go to a school, and it's going to close. I wish that it could have been able to remain in Queens Park - I wish they hadn’t been evicted.
This is the proposal that we have managed to come up with. The capital funding comes from Strategic CIL and is not coming from any other Council department. It had to be allocated as here is no guarantee that it would be available at a later date.
Cllr Grahl went on to assure that audience that the Council was here to listen and would see what happened at the end of the process. She finished, 'In terms of options I really wish there was another option, but there isn't one.'
The Chair of Governors Sofia Moussaoui said that the Governing Board did not want to move either but were faced with the stark choice, 'Move or close'.