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Tory Government's £33m Highbury White Elephant

Joe_Caluori.jpgCllr Joe Caluori, Islington’s Executive Member for Children, Young People and Families, writes about how the Tory Government is wasting £33m on a Highbury Free School while refusing to fund essential works to Islington’s ‘Outstanding’ Central Foundation School.

In July, the Leader of Islington Council Richard Watts revealed in The Guardian that the Government had paid £33.5m for Ladbroke House, a former London Metropolitan University building in Highbury. This was done in order to put a secondary school and sixth form between two existing popular and highly-rated secondary schools, Highbury Grove and Highbury Fields.

Here is a map, posted by Highbury Grove Head Tom Sherrington on his blog, showing just how close a new school would be to the two existing schools.

Richard rightly described this as a “staggering waste of money”, given Islington has clear plans to meet future need for secondary school places by expanding existing good and outstanding schools, including Highbury Grove. The likely costs of redeveloping the site for mixed educational and residential use would stretch into the tens of millions. When you consider that many local authorities are struggling to meet basic need for reception places and secondary places, the wrongheadedness of this is stark.

We now know that the Meller Trust have submitted a proposal to establish a new secondary Free School with a sixth form as part of a mixed development including luxury housing. They claim to have identified a need for places in Islington based on comparing our primary school numbers to our current secondary school capacity. However, they have not considered planning constraints and admitted they had no awareness of Islington Council’s place planning strategy, which identifies enlargement of existing schools to meet future demand.

It is worth noting that the Trust is Chaired by David Meller, a luxury property developer, Conservative Party donor and a member of the Department for Education Board. Furthermore, one of the Trust’s two UTCs, Elstree, has recently been rated as ‘Requires Improvement’ by Ofsted.  Their Watford UTC has not yet been inspected. All of Islington’s secondary schools are currently rated as Good or Outstanding by Ofsted.

Richard and I have written to Lord Nash, the Minister responsible at the Department for Education (DfE), urging him to think again, not only because of the possible impact of a new school on the existing school, but also on the grounds of public safety.

If this new school goes ahead, there would be up to 3,000 pupils entering and leaving the three secondary schools in a tiny area, in addition to the three closest primary schools. Narrow pavements and already overstretched bus services would effectively become a no-go zone for locals, raising serious road safety concerns.

Highbury Fields, the main thoroughfare from Highbury Barn to Highbury and Islington Station, would also suffer the impact of dramatically increased footfall.

Meller Trust has apparently told governors from Highbury Grove and Highbury Fields that they will be responding to a London-wide school places problem, drawing pupils from all over London with a curriculum specialising in film and performing arts. But why not invest in building new schools where they are actually needed by other local areas rather than forcing parents to bus their children across boroughs? And where is the evidence of demand from parents for this kind of school?

If the Government wants to do something useful with that building, they should convert it into keyworker housing for the countless teachers at Islington schools who cannot afford housing and struggle with long commutes. Many of our schools have high staff turnover rates because younger teachers say they are priced out of living in central London when they want to buy a property or have a family. 

We’ll find out at in November whether or not the DfE give this proposal the green light. If they do, they should expect huge local opposition from local parents, the local schools, the NUT and of course Ward councilors. 

Pictured: Cllr Joe Caluori

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