1 April 2014

Discussing school places in Kingston

For several years I was deeply involved in education in Kingston. In addition to having two children who did all their schooling here I was a school governor for just over ten years and through that spent time on various Council committees, including the Schools Organisation Committee which, for a while, was responsible for balancing supply and demand for school places.

I am not directly involved any more but it is still a subject that I am interested in so I was attracted to a local meeting that my MP, Zac Goldsmith, organised to discuss local schools.

It was held in St Luke's Church which was just a stone's throw away from my former house in Kings Road. As it was a church I had never been there before though I had been to several children's birthday parties in the hall next to it.

New School in North Kingston

The bulk of the meeting was taken up with the new school in North Kingston that was due to open in 2015, understandable given the location of the meeting and the recent announcements about the school, e.g. the appointment of its first Head.

We were told that the new school places were not needed until 2015, which must have been a change from previous projections we were given when it was hoped to open the school a couple of years earlier.

Work was being done on the design of the school but this cannot be shared yet as the development contract was under negotiation. They should be available over the Summer.

There was, "No question that the school will open." It was on budget and almost on time. I think that the Planning Application will not be straightforward, especially regarding traffic, and time could become even more of a problem.

To enable the school to be produced faster and cheaper the current building, the North Kingston Centre, was due to be retained rather than demolished. This was a change from the original proposal.

The school will focus on the STEM subjects. This prompted a few questions from the audience, especially from parents whose children's interests lay in other areas.

Several questions were also asked about the sports provision. A large school is being squeezed on to a small site which will support just a hall and some small all-weather pitches. It was explained that the school will make use of the nearby Hawker Centre and also the distant facilities owned by the University and College.

The final problem that the school faced was competition from Grey Court School in Ham. After some troubled years this was now rated as outstanding and so was likely to be the first choice school for many parents in the area.

There was quite a bit of talk about governance of the new school and this is where the Tory councillors started to lose the plot with the bizarre claim that Free Schools improve community engagement. This claim looked very silly when it was explained that the new governing body will only have around 8 people on it to represent all of the stakeholders. When I was a governor we had 3 community governors in a team of 12.

The admissions policy was expected to follow Kingston's and there was no reason to think that it should be different but it seemed odd that they were waiting for the new head before making that decision.

The question on the possible name of the new school brought the most reaction from the audience, especially when it was announced that the final decision was due to be made later that evening and that only the parents of one year-group had been consulted.

The four short-listed names were all horrible. "Kingston Academy" and "River Park" were too general and "Hawker Academy Secondary School" and "The Cesar Picton Free School" were far too long and contained meaningless information about the current structure of the school. Why not just go for the much simpler "Cesar Picton School", or even "Tudor School" which was its original name?

My conclusion from the discussion was that the new school already faced some serious problems in its cramped and busy location, competition from Grey Court and lack of community engagement. There was a real possibility that it would open as a second-choice school with all that would entail. And that's assuming that it gets planning permissions which is by no means certain because of the impact on traffic.

Other school issues

The last part of the meeting considered other aspects of schooling in Kingston. It also became a lot more political with the Tories (it was their meeting) constantly saying how bad the Lib Dems were in Kingston and making simplistic comparisons with Richmond which had been run by the Tories for the last four years.

In doing so they conveniently skipped over the fact that a third of Richmond secondary pupils do not get in to their first choice school. An odd definition of success.

This started with more nonsense about free schools with the claim that Kingston had not done enough to encourage them (even though it was said earlier in the meeting that new school places were not needed until 2015). This is palpable twittery as the whole point of free schools is that they have nothing to do with councils.

The Tories think that the gasworks area is ideal for a 2FE primary school (I'm not convinced) but RBK only owns the triangular car park close to the station. A land swap is being considered but a triangle of land surrounded by main roads is not an ideal place for flats either.

Another mad claim made by the Tories was that Councils departments do not speak to each other so, we were told, Planning did not know that Education wanted to build a new school in this area. The truth is that the school was included in the recent planning brief.

If I was worried about progress on the new North Kingston school I was more worried about the possibility of the Tories getting their hands on Education again. Let's not forget that they closed Tudor School in the first place.

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