Within 48 hours last week Educating Brentwood were contacted by unrelated people involved in education in Brentwood about a plan that seems to be developing to open another primary school in town. Apparently instigated by Essex County Council (ECC), we understand that it could result in a proposal for a free school to be sited on the former Sawyers Hall College (SHC) site in Sawyers Hall Lane.
Our contacts wished to remain anonymous but expressed concerns about the process that ECC were conducting, the veracity of the figures they were using and the potential detrimental effect on other schools in Brentwood and local residents if this was the result.
We are told that projected figures for pupil numbers for the next few years were presented to a meeting of primary head teachers during the week commencing 3rd June. We have since seen a copy of figures entitled “Place planning data for Brentwood Town – Brentwood Planning Group 1” which we believe were those discussed. The contents include predicted numbers that ECC believe will increase as a result of housing developments around Brentwood.
Based on these numbers, ECC have apparently decided that there is a need for a new primary school in Brentwood. We understand that the preferred solution presented to the meeting was that an invitation should be submitted to interested parties to submit proposals for a primary free school to provide the capacity.
Legally, new provision has to be created via a free school or academy route following the Academies Act 2010. The most likely scenario appears to be that private providers will be engaged with this in mind.
It has been suggested to us that steps may already have been taken down this path but we have no direct evidence that this is the case as things stand. However a tweet from the 4th June by Becket Keys Free School head teacher Mr Andy Scott-Evans which at the time seemed odd could now be viewed in a different context. He certainly doesn’t seem to share the concerns of those who contacted us.
Crucially, it has been indicated to us that ECC are suggesting that any extra provision may be based in Sawyers Hall Lane. This is because there is space on the former SHC site, which could avoid high capital costs, and because of the proximity of the Highwood development which they appear to believe will be the source of more primary school age children.
However, this conclusion would ignore the fact that several primary schools in the borough are under subscribed currently and that a significant number of those attending schools already in Sawyers Hall Lane are not local to the area.
We believe that it is in the interest of the whole community that there is a clear understanding of the case for any new provision before options to provide it are pursued. The future of our current schools should not be jeopardised by any new development. The financial and educational benefit of properly exploring expansion options over new provision should be a priority.
There is also the traffic issue. As local residents are only too aware, traffic is already ridiculous in Sawyers Hall Lane during the school run. Primary schools create more traffic than secondaries as older students are more likely get to school under their own steam. What would those living in the area make of this possibilty? Many will recall the concern when St Helen’s moved their Infants into the road from their former home in Queens Road to become the fourth primary in the street.
Because of the ramifications for current provision, the potential impact on residents and to ensure transparent and effective use of state funds, ECC should be engaging the wider community now in our view.
Surely the basis of the need for extra provision should be agreed before anyone is invited to set up a new school? Particularly when there are other options open to the council. The impact on residents of the location of any new school should also be central to the discussion. We fear that ECC are in effect pursuing a “solution” before going public and are risking the creation of a fait accompli.
I have written to the ECC press office for clarification of their plans and, as they are usually very helpful, I am hopeful of receiving something this week which I will be happy to share.
Given the potential ramifications of this process, I have passed on what we know to the local ward councillors who are liaising with their County colleague with the aim of clarifying matters further.
We will happily correct any of this information should any of it be inaccurate. For the good of all in the borough I would urge ECC to share as much as they can about their plans and engage with the community now.