A decision on the future use of a potential school site in South Norwood might open the door to the first selective state school in Croydon in a generation, writes Cllr Tim Pollard, Cabinet Member for Children, Families and Learning.
In common with the whole of London, Croydon has a growing problem with a shortage of school places. Over the last five years demand for Reception places (for age 4/5) has shot up here, with a 25% increase in the last two years alone. The first of these new ‘baby-boomers’ are now getting to the end of their time at primary school and will soon be looking for places in secondary schools.
So why are there more children now? It is partly down to population growth in London and partly down to the effect of the recession, with parents unable to move house as their families grow. What is particularly striking is that the majority of the pressure on places is in the parts of the borough where building is most dense and there is least land available to build new schools or expand existing ones.
That’s why, in Croydon, the council has pledged to invest record amounts in primary, secondary and special schools. We opened a new primary school last year and will open another this year. We have permanently expanded lots of other schools by a form of entry and are putting one-off additional classes into others. But in two years time we will have to have additional capacity available for secondary-age pupils as well.
So, in April this year, Croydon’s cabinet agreed to seek to purchase the site of the now-demolished Croydon General Hospital on London Road, on which it proposes to build a new six form-of-entry secondary school. It also agreed, in principle, to offer the soon-to-be closed adult education centre in South Norwood to be the annexe of an existing school. (The adult education service is currently undergoing a restructure which will see it consolidate its activities into fewer locations, but still well spread geographically to ensure learners can access them.)
Why is this site to be an annexe rather than a new school? The site is only big enough to provide a maximum of four forms of entry and there are sound educational reasons why this is really too small to be a viable school. New schools must now be either Academies or Free Schools, which means that they receive funding direct from the Government and local councils have little say in how they are run. This gives the schools greater freedom, but it also means that they must be able to be fully self-financing, with no opportunity for subsidy from the council. The administrative overheads that they need to support themselves mean that, in strictly practical terms, a new 4 form of entry (FE) school will now struggle to be viable.
There are also limitations to the breadth of curriculum a small school can offer and how able it is to support a sixth form (a key consideration as the school leaving age is in the process of being raised to 18).
However, a 4 FE school which is run as an annexe of another school avoids these problems. It can share facilities with the parent school, enabling a wide curriculum to be offered across the two sites (especially for the older pupils, for whom movement between sites is less of a challenge). It can share admin staff and some departmental heads with the parent school, thus making the money go further. And it can share an ethos with the parent school, meaning that parents know broadly what they’re going to get when they send their son or daughter to this ‘new’ school.
But as a school annexe, rather than a new school, it must apply the same admissions criteria as its parent school. For a faith school or a selective school, this poses little difficulty. But for a community school which allocates places on the basis of the distance an applicant lives from the school, this does impose some limitations. In practical terms, it means that only a very local community school could really use this site as an annexe.
So we took the decision yesterday to open up the competition to run this school to all types of secondary school, not just community-style comprehensive schools. The criteria the new provider needs to meet are that it should be a Good or Outstanding school in its OFSTED rating, that it should have well above average GCSE and A-level results and that it must be able to demonstrate that it can apply its admissions criteria appropriately and be in a position to receive funding from the Government as it expands.
So does that mean it could be a Grammar School? Yes, it could.
In Croydon we converted our last grammar schools into comprehensives many decades ago, in line with what was then government thinking. Our neighbours in Sutton, Bromley and Kent, on the other hand, resisted the intense pressure then put on education authorities to follow suit and kept their selective schools. Those schools, including Wallington Boys & Girls, Wilsons and Newstead Woods, are now amongst the most popular choices for Croydon parents who seek the best standard of education for their children. They are heavily oversubscribed, with many more children passing the exams than can possibly be accommodated.
These schools achieve results which are on a par with those achieved by selective Independent Schools but are available to families who could not possibly afford independent sector fees. Many believe, and I am one of them, that the loss of our grammar schools across the country is the biggest single impediment there has been to social mobility.
My family is a case in point. My Grandfather, who lived in Richmond Road, Thornton Heath, had three sons but a pretty modest income. Nearby Selhurst Grammar (latterly Selhurst High and now The Crescent Primary School) offered two of his sons the prospect of a better future, whilst the middle son was fortunate enough to win a full bursary to Whitgift. All three sons went on to have good careers which comfortably outstripped their father’s.
My father (the Bursary boy) joined the air force and had a career as a pilot, which he loved, but that in the seventies paid very little. When I was coming up to eleven, living in a small village in Gloucestershire, independent education was out of the question but there was a local grammar school open to me. I was fortunate, worked (fairly) hard and was lucky enough to earn a place there. It was the making of me. I went on to be the first person in my family to go to university (the cost putting it out of reach of both my parents in the fifties), the first to get a degree and the rest, as they say, is history.
Critics of selective schools talk in emotive terms about the risk, for those who do not ‘pass’, of them going onto the scrapheap, with no future. Perhaps, just perhaps, in the past there may have been some justification for this thinking. In the village I lived in, if you didn’t get in to the Grammar School you went to the village secondary Modern, which was not a good school. Perhaps my life would have worked out as well had I gone there, but I suspect not.
The critical difference now is that we have a government and a local council who are absolutely committed to making every local school a good school. Every school does not have to be the same, but they do all have to be good.
That’s why, in the last three years, I have closed our three worst-performing schools and replaced them with Academies which are improving very fast. These schools are achieving round about double what their predecessor schools did. That’s how we have grown the number of pupils achieving five GCSEs at A* to C including English and Maths from 36% in 2003 to 61% today and the figure for any five GCSEs A*-C from just under half the pupils to over 90% now.
Is it good enough yet and can we rest on our laurels? Absolutely not: I will not be satisfied until every parent is content to send their child to their local school, even if it was not their ideal choice. We’re on a journey, but we are making very good progress.
It is perfectly sensible to offer a range of different styles of school which cater to the needs of different kinds of children. But wherever they go, our pupils have a right to expect a calm environment which enables them to be the best that they can be and achieve their full potential, however that expresses itself.
Some children thrive in the academic environment of our neighbours’ grammar schools, but many would not. What matters is that there is choice open to parents and their children to try to get the education that best suits their needs.
So for this reason I make no apology for opening up the South Norwood opportunity to selective schools as well as community and faith schools. I don’t know whether any selective school will come forward but I do think that all those parents who are so disappointed that their children narrowly missed out on the opportunities available in Sutton and Bromley, will want to at least see the opportunity extended to have more such places.
Equally, it may be that a local community schools or faith school best meets the criteria we have set.
Either way, we owe it to those parents and their children to do the best that we can for them.