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School Places

Issue: TW11 April '14

SECONDARY SCHOOL PLACE offers were sent out over the spring, and in Teddington this year we had the distressing situation whereby 150 offers were made for Turing House School, only to be retracted nine days later. Turing House school is a proposed new free secondary school backed by the Russell Education Trust. Local Education Authorities are no longer allowed to establish new schools and therefore all new schools must be parent-promoted free schools of this nature. The timing of the Department for Education’s decision to stop the school from proceeding with a September 2014 start could not have been worse and lead to stress and anger
amongst parents.

The Department for Education claim that the reason for their decision to demand the retraction of offers was the failure to secure a permanent site for the school. Originally thinking in terms of the Clifden Site in Twickenham, the Education Funding Agency – the body responsible for finding a location for free schools once they have been approved to go ahead – had been looking closer to Teddington, considering both NPL and the Imperial College sports ground on Udney Park Road. At NPL it became clear that the land in question was already earmarked for new laboratory space and so wasn’t available, and Imperial College, having apparently shown an interest in selling their site reportedly pulled out of negotiations close to, but before, the date for sending out offers.

Given that this failure, therefore, was seemingly known about before offer letters were sent out, why was the decision to postpone the opening of the school not made sooner? Was this an administration issue, or did something else play a part in changing the mind of Lord Nash, the minister for schools ultimately responsible? We can but wonder.

There is a question regarding how to move forward. A pressure group of parents in support of the Turing House group are campaigning for the Department for Education’s decision to be reversed. They have confidence that the school would be viable running from an undisclosed temporary site until a more permanently solution
is found.

Whilst I have every sympathy with the parents in this situation, I would worry that opting for a temporary solution is high risk given the time it can take for a school to be built from scratch. The difficulty of securing a site is significant – and seriously underplayed by DfE literature. Experience from numerous local schools projects suggests that the realistic time it takes to design, secure planning consents, procure and build a new secondary school can be anything up to 4-5 years, once a site and funding is in place. I would be concerned about placing children in a less than ideal site for what could be the duration of their stay at secondary school. I personally would have to be fully reassured about the nature of the temporary site before being convinced that this was the most appropriate course of action.

Whatever the final outcome of this situation, parents and students have been put in a very difficult position, and the saga raises serious questions around the processes governing the establishment of free schools.

Cllr Jennifer Churchill