Is new Sawyers Hall Lane school a chance to increase use of local schools in Brentwood?

The Brentwood Gazette has revealed on its front page today that a new school is set to set up home in Sawyers Hall Lane. This is despite four primaries, one secondary and a facility of Havering College already residing in the north Brentwood street.

According to the article, Essex County Council (ECC) are believed to have recommended the unused part of the former Sawyers Hall College (SHC) site to be the home of new free school, Grove House. Approved in the autumn of 2014, the new provision is intended to cater for students with severe language and communication difficulties from the ages of five to, eventually, nineteen. It is intended that the initial cohort will be made up of pupils from Years 5 to 8 when the school opens in September 2015. It is envisaged that around 100 students will attend once up to full capacity.Gazette 7th school

ECC have been seeking a use for the part of the site that was not taken up by Becket Keys free school following the closure of SHC in August 2012. Eighteen months ago, Educating Brentwood revealed a proposal to put a mainstream primary on the site despite other schools in the area being under capacity. (Are there really plans for a FIFTH primary school in Sawyers Hall Lane? )

Subsequent front page coverage by the Gazette revealed substantial opposition from residents and others using the road due to concerns about adding to the huge volume of traffic already present during the school run. Local County Councillor, Barry Aspinall, was particularly concerned that the plan appeared to have been hatched behind closed doors as he explained in a statement:

“Following calls from concerned Brentwood North residents I have asked at County Hall about the rumours of an additional school.

“I am astonished to find that the rumours have some truth to them. It has transpired that officers have applied for central government funding for additional primary school places in brentwood (sic) without talking to or consulting me as the county councillor for the area.”

AspinallBy September 2013 it was confirmed that the primary proposal would not proceed and ECC would work with existing primaries to address any need for future places while searching for an appropriate user for the empty site. (“Plan for sixth school in Sawyers Hall Lane scrapped” )

However, just over a year on, Cllr Aspinall, who is now leader of Brentwood Council, is rather more enthusiastic about further provision in Sawyers Hall Lane. The Gazette quotes him as saying that he “totally supported” the new school:

“The school is of great worth and I hope it doesn’t get any objections from anybody. I can’t imagine any councillors raising any objections to it.”

We will see if local residents believe that they have been properly consulted over the coming weeks no doubt. ECC are reported to be making a final decision “in the new year”.

The part of the SHC site that Grove House wish to use seems to be in keeping with the numbers of students proposed for it and will use buildings that risk falling into disrepair. From conversations I have had, it appears to provide a facility that will cater for children with different needs to those at other special facilities in the area, such as the Endeavour School, or the well established Enhanced Provision at West Horndon Primary with its excellent record of preparing children to return to mainstream schools. If I am correct (and I am happy to be put right) then the effect on existing provision should be minimal and, as such, this looks a good fit.

However, residents concerns about traffic are absolutely legitimate and should not be brushed off. As someone who has two children who walk to attend one of the schools in the street I can testify to the view expressed in the article that it is already “choked”.

The main reasons why this is the case are that the primary schools in the street have the biggest intake of any other schools in the town and that, because they are Church schools, their admissions policies give priority to children outside of the locality over those in neighbouring streets. This has been replicated, to the statutory limit of 50% of intake, by the secondary free school that has already got more than 20% of its students attending from outside of the town despite claiming in its proposal that all of its students would walk or cycle to school.

To illustrate the problem, St Thomas of Canterbury Infant & Junior Schools admit 77 children per year at present while their Catholic neighbours, St Helen’s, have 90 new starters each September. There are therefore over 1,150 primary school children attending primary school in one street. Children local to these schools whose parents don’t attend a church only qualify for entry in the 6th and final category at St Helen’s and the 8th and final one at St Thomas’.

Perhaps it is time to explore whether more can be done to encourage people to choose their local schools for their children and to walk to them?

Recent SATs outcomes certainly don’t indicate that the Sawyers Hall Lane schools are higher performing than their neighbours and, indeed, seem to show that smaller schools are faring better. The following table shows the Department for Education (DfE) 2014 figures for the percentage of students making expected progress in Maths and English alongside the size of the Year 6 cohort:

School                                                Cohort Read      Write     Maths

St Thomas’s Junior                          77           95           91           92

St Helen’s Junior                              90           92           88         80

Larchwood                                         25           91           100         91

Hogarth                                              28           96           100         100

St Mary’s Shenfield                          56           93           98           96

Holly Trees                                         46           88           91           88

Warley                                                 18           100         100         100

St Peter’s South Weald                     45           100         100         100

As both Larchwood and St Peter’s have announced that they are expanding their intake for future admissions, maybe this is an opportunity to reduce travel across Brentwood into Sawyers Hall Lane? By giving greater priority to local children in their admissions, the current schools in the street could also assist to ease the burden on residents in neighbouring roads.

If we want it to be, the establishment of Grove House could be the moment that the traffic problems in Sawyers Hall Lane began to be addressed.

Stephen Mayo

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