Education chief: Old Hampstead police station is ‘not suitable’ for new school
Governors from six primary schools lead deputation over Abacus free school move
09 July, 2019 — By Richard Osley
Dr Kim Issroff, chair of governors at Fleet School, led a deputation at last night’s full council meeting
TENSIONS over Camden’s school rolls crisis were exposed again last night (Monday) as governors from six primary schools stood in front of councillors and warned against allowing a new one to open in the old Hampstead police station.
The Abacus free school is looking to secure planning permission to convert the cobwebbed police base in Rosslyn Hill, which has stood empty for seven years since being closed by the then mayor of London Boris Johnson. It says it will provide an alternative to parents who do not want to send their children to private or church schools – so-called ‘pay or pray’ options.
But primary schools in Hampstead and Gospel Oak say the new school will put pressure on existing ones at a time when demand for places is decreasing, due to a falling birth rate and a wider difficulty to find affordable family-sized accommodation in Camden. One casualty of the shifting demographics in north London looks to be St Aloysius School in Somers Town, which has announced closure plans due to a shortage of applications for the next academic year.
Governors from Fleet, Rhyl, Carlton, Fitzjohn’s, The Rosary and New End schools were part of the appeal for help at the full council meeting last night (Monday).
After their deputation in the council chamber, Camden’s education chief Labour councillor Angela Mason said she thought the site was “not suitable” and that she would be raising concerns when the proposals reached the Town Hall’s planning committee in the autumn.
Education chief Angela Mason: Free School policy coming home to roost
She said she had “considerable sympathy” with the other schools and said: “It is an example, I think, of the ‘free school’ policy coming home to roost and the contradictions of that policy. We have a limited amount of control in this whole situation”, adding: “It’s simply not suitable, I don’t think, on all sorts of grounds.”
Labour council chiefs are frustrated that while Camden may try to plot primary school place availability on geographical demand at the Town Hall, new free schools are approved by central government without, what they feel, adequate consideration to the planning at a local level.
Abacus has been backed by the Department for Education and came out of a campaign to tackle a shortage of places in the Belsize ward more than half a decade ago. During the search for a site and the financial and planning negotiations over the police station, it has been based at a temporary site in Camley Street, King’s Cross, with pupils bussed in and out of the old Jubilee Waterside building each day.
The school, however, remains eager to move into the Rosslyn Hill building and has a lobby of support of its own among parents and supporters, who have written to the planning department calling for the project to finally be approved.
Dr Kim Issroff, the chair of governors at Fleet, said she and other governors were not asking for Abacus to be closed, but that the deputation wanted assurances of “mitigation” for existing schools from the “negative impacts” that she said would come from it moving into the police station building.
Dr Issroff delivers her deputation
She suggested that if Abacus was starting its application to the Department for Education afresh now, rather than progressing with one submitted in 2012, it would not get the same backing from the government.
“Regulations have changed and the Department for Education currently only approves ‘free schools’ when they will be in an area of low standards and there is a demonstrable need for places,” Dr Issroff said. “This is neither true of Belsize Park where the school catchment area is, nor Hampstead – where its new location is.”
She added: “It threatens the status quo of the wider network of Camden primary schools that are seen as some of the best examples of state provision in this country”, adding: “It has a very odd shaped catchment area which goes right up to but does not include the social housing in front of Fleet Primary School.”
Janet Guthrie, another governor at Fleet, and a former Labour councillor, told the meeting: “What’s really important to remember is that when Abacus was set up, there was a shortage of school places in Belsize – and it seemed like a valid option. Times have changed. Several primary schools in the borough are already under numbers.”
Janet Guthrie: Times have changed
She added: “In this time of austerity, we need to recognise that school funding is already very low and if you have less than the optimal quota of children, it means the amount you have per child is less. What is happening by having extra schools is that several schools in Camden are not at full capacity and that is significantly affecting their financial situation.”
The concern over falling school rolls across Camden’s primary school was first revealed by the New Journal in March. The council is worried that if there is a shortage of pupils in the borough’s schools then it will have a knock on effect on the amount of per-pupil funding each primary receives from central government at a time when budgets are already squeezed. Cllr Mason told a council meeting earlier this year that Camden had the lowest ‘fertility rate’ in the country.
Abacus also appeared to be struggling to win political support from the rest of the ruling Labour group of councillors at last night’s meeting.
Haverstock councillor Lady Alison Kelly said: “The severity of the demographic changes facing Camden are becoming clearer and clearer, and they have resulted in a huge fall in the school rolls. Abacus could be putting other Camden schools at risk. Abacus feels, to many of us, like a very expensive solution to an issue that no longer exists.”
Liberal Democrat councillor Tom Simon, who represents Belsize ward, however had a more conciliatory tone.
“I do wonder if it’s perhaps wide of the mark to lay all of this at the foot of Abacus, one small high performing school serving 150 plus of our children in Camden at the moment,” he told the meeting. “Certainly the figures suggest that even if we could eliminate Abacus overnight somehow, it would only make a very small dent in the scale of the problem as it is.”
He added: “I wonder: Surely the right approach for the council in addressing this problem is looking at boroughwide solutions. Looking at where our primary school places are, how many we’ve got, and coming up with a flexible, sustainable solution which avoid the closure of schools, and all the damage that can do. We are talking about 150 children who, if Abacus was to close, would need to find new schools, and that would be very damaging and disrupting.”
Hampstead police station
Conservative councillor Maria Higson also called for more boroughwide planning on school places.
Abacus was not represented at the meeting, but last month the New Journal reported how the school was pressing ahead with its planned move and said it was answering a need for secular education in the area.
Headteacher Vicki Briody said: “The need to create a secular community school for Belsize was established by local families 11 years ago. There is not a single non-faith state primary school in the whole of our area – it was on the basis of both choice and need that the Department for Education gave us the go-ahead to open Abacus in 2013.”
On planning grounds, several opponents living in Hampstead have raised concerns about school-run traffic, but Abacus has pledged to be a “car-free” school with wardens ready to challenge parents driving their children to school.