Primary school leaders in Northampton have written to the education secretary to raise ‘serious’ concerns over the lack of consultation around the proposed Wootton Park Primary School.
The free school is being earmarked for the current police headquarters site and aims to open by September 2016.
The ageing buildings currently hold around 200 police staff, but is likely to be sold so the force can move into new premises in an as yet undecided location.
An application to set up the school was sent to the Department for Education on May 9 and a website currently exists for people to make comments on the proposals.
But the six schools in the nearby East Hunsbury and Wootton area have not been formally consulted on the plans.
Headteachers of Simon De Senlis, East Hunsbury, Hunsbury Park, Abbey, Delpare and Wootton Primary schools have signed a letter, the Chronicle & Echo can reveal,to the education secretary asking that the department turns down the bid.
The letter reads: “Although a statement on the website says that ‘Wootton Park will be a school created by the community for the community’, we have not received any communication or been approached as schools in the ‘community’ mentioned, for discussions around the proposal, which we find concerning.”
Free school applications need to be approved by the Department for Education, and successful applicants must show they have given ‘as many people as possible’ an opportunity to respond to the plans.
Government guidelines recommend other nearby schools are involved in the process.
Tom Rees, the headteacher of Simon de Senlis School, in Hilldrop Road, said the closest any of the Abbeyfield cluster of schools came to being consulted were by a number of marketing exercises conducted at their school gates.
Parents were asked about the plans by people working on behalf of the Wootton Park proposal, without permission, he said. School leaders were not asked for their views.
“We don’t think that’s the way a new school should do business,” Mr Rees added.
The letter sent to the education secretary also raised concerns about the core need for a new primary school in the East Hunsbury area.
Mr Rees said: “We accept there is a need for more school places in Northampton; we accept that in time towns grow and need more schools.
“But four out of the six schools who have signed the letter are in the process of increasing the capacity of pupils, including major building projects.”
“We don’t believe the Wootton or East Hunsbury area needs another school unless it is part of a major housing development.”
In the past decade the Ofsted ratings of schools in the Abbeyfield cluster have greatly improved, with five out of the six now rated as ‘good’ or above by Ofsted.
There were also concerns a new free school – which would not need to conform to the national curriculum – could be a ‘disruptive element’ within this cluster.
“Heads and teachers have worked hard over the past 10 years to get our schools up to scratch,” Mr Rees said.
“There is a real risk that throwing a new school in without the proper consultation or working with the community will upset that balance.
“I think that’s a dangerous thing to happen.”
The letter to the Education Secretary concluded by asking the department to look
at ‘alternative options’ for school expansion in Northampton.
LIB DEM LEADER LAUNCHES SEPARATE PLAN OFFENSIVE
A further 10 schools could also add their names to the objections against the Wootton Park School plans.
Councillor Brendan Glynane (Lib Dem, Delapre) has written to another set of schools in the surrounding area urging them to also write to the education secretary and voice concerns about the bid.
Councillor Glynane writes in the letter: “In my view, adequate consultation has not taken place and we are not able to see the assessment that the trust has made on the impact on local schools.”
Speaking this week, he told the Chronicle & Echo that he believed the ‘proper procedure’ had not been followed by the free school trust.
He said: “If you are going to introduce a new school to this part of town you should be talking to the other schools, asking them how is it going to affect you all. All the schools I have spoken to say they will be affected by this. We shall also be writing to the secretary of state.”
PROJECT LEADER SAYS ‘THERE IS A DEMAND’
The project leader for the Wootton Park free school says the development will be vital in meeting the educational needs of Northampton in the future.
Chairman of the trust leading the scheme, Andrew Sortwell,
has contradicted a letter sent to the education secretary by six primary schools in the East Hunsbury area, by saying there will be a ‘demonstrable’ need for it come September 2016, the date it is expected to open.
He said it would provide education for reception year pupils as well as years two, seven and eight with a curriculum focused on leading children towards a career in ‘public service’.
Mr Sortwell claimed: “The demand is clearly there.
“There has been over 70,000 people looking at the website for the school and social media pages.”
County council figures suggest three of the four school years being made available at Wootton Park would be ‘over-subscribed’ in Northampton by 2016.
But Mr Sortwell, a semi-retired international education consultant, who has launched schooling projects around the world, admitted primary school leaders were not involved in any consultation prior to the trust submitting an application to the Department for Education.
He said: “We have had a number of events, a leaflet that explains the background of the school, a website. There have been informal discussions with head teachers of secondary schools.
“We have not met primary school heads, but if the schools wish to invite us to a meeting we will be willing to go.”
Mr Sortwell said he was also not aware if parents were asked questions about the need for Wootton Park outside existing school gates.
“I’m personally not aware of every single location the consultancy company went to,” he said. “If that is the case I will go and ask the consultants what approach they used. If it caused offence, I apologise for that.”
A decision on the free application is unlikely to be known until September.
If it is approved, wider consultation would take place and the trust would then need to acquire a site for it.
Wootton Hall is the ‘preferred’ site, he said, but it is not guaranteed at this stage.
Mr Sortwell confirmed
the trust was looking at other sites within a three-mile radius.
WE AIM TO OFFER SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT
The Wootton Hall-based free school would draw on the building’s connection to the ‘blue light’ services in creating a curriculum aimed at leading pupils into public service.
It would introduce a ‘third session’ during the school day for ‘enrichment’ activities such as sport or community service. Andrew Sortwell said: “We are not about taking students away from other schools. We are going to be a school focused on building a better society.”
But when asked whether the facility, which has three Conservatives on its steering group, would be a hotbed for Tory ideology, he said: “It’s entirely my vision.”