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How do we solve the "worrying" squeeze on Brighton and Hove school places?
As children start school for the first time one of the country’s most senior governors has claimed it is “very worrying” the issue of school places has not been resolved.
Pupils are being squeezed into Brighton and Hove classrooms with expansions taking away valuable space, according to Patrick Lowe, South East Regional Director and Trustee elect of the National Governors’ Association.
Mr Lowe, also chairman of governors at Coldean Primary School and chairman of Brighton and Hove Governors’ Association, said: “Partnerships with the local authority and other support groups have gone from strength to strength.
“However, it is very disappointing to see that the city hasn’t yet resolved the problem on school places. It is extremely worrying.
“Either there is the debate on the type of school and should it be located here or there, or residents object to a considered location because of variety of reasons.
“The end result is further pressure put on existing schools to somehow squeeze yet more pupils into the classroom, or that planning applications are put through to expand existing buildings taking away more valuable space.”
While praising the work to address the problem and talking up the role of governors in finding solutions, Mr Lowe issued a stark reminder that children’s futures are at stake.
He added: “I understand there are a number of people who have put a lot of work into this, however I believe now is the time to bring all interested parties together to form a working group, improve communication and to tackle the problem once and for all for the sake of the children of the city.”
The recently retired chairman of governors at Blatchington Mill School went further, accusing the council of a lack of vision over school places.
Former mayor Jenny Barnard-Langston said: “School places are a national problem but Brighton and Hove being a unitary authority is in a better position to predict what our needs are.
“It may be financial or it may be a lack of vision but the council appears to have failed to react to growth in the local population, particularly in the primary sector, which will have a knock-on effect in secondary schools.
“There’s only so much capacity our existing infrastructure can take.
“We’ve seen some imaginative measures at the old Hove Police Station site for instance which will relieve pressure in West Hove, but what is the long term answer?
“I think it’s a lack of vision from councillors. If councillors don’t put forward that vision than officers cannot implement it.
“We need councillors to have determination and bravery to push things through.
“If not we will have increasing bottle-necks in schools.”
She added: “I’m encouraged that the issues are being addressed. I think the way forward is to get everyone round the table rather than battle through year to year.”
Brighton & Hove has been growing steadily for the last 10 years. Between 2000 and 2010 there was an annual increase of 60 extra children entering the school system.
Since 2010 this has slowed to 30 extra children a year.
Since 2005 Goldstone, Westdene, Davigdor, Somerhill, Balfour Juniors, West Blatchington, West Hove Infants (Connaught Building), Queens Park, and Benfield, have been expanded, creating 345 more places.
If numbers continue to rise there will need to be further primary places and secondary places.
Sue Shanks, council member of education, said the “vast majority” of parents got their children into one of their preferred schools.
She added: “Overall, there are enough primary places in Brighton and Hove but they are not all where parents currently want them.
“Some schools, mainly on the edge of the city, have spare places.
“Others, especially in south and central Hove, don’t.
“There has been a shift in recent years and within the city people are choosing to raise families, which has led to an increased need for school places in the west of the city.
“Planning for primary school places is difficult beyond three or four years because the children are not yet born, so we have to make assumptions based on historic patterns.
“We use GP and other data to give us the best possible estimates for future pupil numbers.
“However, we cannot predict parental preferences so school place planning can never be an exact science.”
Plans for a new bilingual school on the edge of a popular park have been withdrawn after council officials recommended they were thrown out.
Volunteers at the 2,000ft miniature railway in Hove Park said Brighton Bilingual School’s plans for a three-storey building on the council’s parks depot would cause access problems.
The free school’s multimillion-pound plans for up to 630 pupils on Hove Park Depot in The Droveway, Hove, are described as a “significant investment in education provision in Brighton and Hove”.
The planning application was filed in two sections – one to demolish the existing building and the second to build a new school.
Brighton and Hove City Council recommended the plans be turned down, in a decision due to be made today, by councillors after dozens of complaints.
In response the school’s developer Kier has withdrawn the second set of plans and only the demolition will be considered by councillors today.
The school is currently based in Brighton Aldridge Community Academy in Moulsecoomb but wants to move to a new premises by September 2014.
Deputy head teacher Laura O’Grady said: “We all know that there is a dire need for school places and that more than a thousand new homes are being planned in Hove.
“The Bilingual Primary School will certainly help address the shortage of school places in the area.
“There is a huge amount of misinformation around but we look forward to working together with the community to create much-needed school places in the Hove area.”
Meanwhile plans to turn a former police station into a primary school for nearly 500 children were approved earlier this year by Brighton and Hove City Council.
Hove police station, in Holland Road, was bought by the council after it closed and will now be converted to form a satellite to West Hove Junior School with 480 pupils and 38 full-time staff.
Councillor Sue Shanks, chair of the council’s children and young people committee, said: “Planning school places is a challenge for most councils, and we are no exception.
“Local Government Association figures show that two thirds of local authorities will have insufficient primary school places in parts of their area by 2015.
“The situation hasn’t been made any easier by the fact that councils are no longer allowed to build new schools. The government has said all new schools must be free schools or academies.
“Councils have little control over where or when these are built or how many children they accommodate, and any new-build academy would need to be funded from existing resources.
“We can however expand existing schools, and have provided 465 new reception class places over the last five years to accommodate additional children – particularly in the west of the city – as the birth rate continues to increase.”
Goldstone Primary School, in Hove, has gone from undersubscribed to oversubscribed in a year.
Head teacher Chris Pearson said: “We’re seen as a better school and people are well-disposed to us. There’s been a big squash in central Hove for some time in places like Davigdor, West Hove and St Andrews. People are moving from east to west.
“There are perfectly good schools in Hove like West Blatchington which are undersubscribed partly because they are up a windy hill.
“We’ve expanded over the last couple of years and the council has spent a lot of money on facilities.”
To confuse matters parents are known to move house depending on catchment areas for preferred schools.
Estate agent Nathan Ryder, of Halls, said: “I lot of people move to Fiveways solely for the schools. A lot of clients have moved over here to get into places like Downs.
“But the catchment areas have expanded now which means people from Hanover and Elm Grove can get into Fiveways schools.”
Governors are not the only ones to criticise primary school provision in the city.
Conservative councillors recently tabled an amendment for the council to use the rear part of Kings House, in Grand Avenue, for a new primary school to solve the “desperate shortage” of school places in central Hove.
The landmark council property is being sold as part of a money-saving plan to rationalise workspace called ‘Workstyles’.
However the plan was rejected with council leader Jason Kitcat accusing the Tories of opportunism.
He wrote: “It was with considerable disappointment that I learnt of a Conservative ame-ndment to the plans, which aims to tear up the workstyles programme by putting a school on the rear half of the King’s House site.
“It somewhat renders the year of briefings and discussions pointless if a party is going to then opportunistically seek to amend at the last moment via press release – even more so when the Conservatives voted for the principle of selling all of Kings House off less than a year ago.”
Councillor Andrew Wealls, Conservative spokesman for education, said: “If any resident of Brighton and Hove gets a flyer, or reads a quote from either the Green Party or their Labour Party colleagues ‘campaigning for new schools’, they will know for certain this is empty electioneering.
“We had the chance to deliver over 600 school places exactly where they are in dire short supply. For reasons completely beyond any sane person, they’ve opted to refurbish Hove Town Hall instead. I cannot believe local families will ever forgive them.”
The city is well developed with debates over the proposed school at Bhasvic fields showing how treasured green spaces are.
A Government bid to build King’s Free School on Old Shoreham Road green space promoted a backlash from residents.
While the campaign was a victory for residents it demonstrated the obstacles facing new school bids.
Sue Shanks added: “I’m delighted the government saw sense on this and decided to abandon their plan. But the fact that the field was selected by the government at all demonstrates the problem we have in finding sites that are big enough for new schools in the city.
“We are keenly aware that today’s primary age children will in time reach the secondary schools. The opening of the King’s School will help ease any short-term pressures, but we know we need to create many more new secondary places by 2018.
“We are already in discussions with headteachers on how best to achieve this.
“Our strategy for making sure there are enough school places in the city is set out in our School Organisation Plan. This was agreed following consultation with schools last October, and can be viewed via our website.
“We are now refreshing this plan. It is currently being discussed by a cross-party group of councillors, and we will again be discussing our thinking with schools and their governors.”
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