"All politics is local" : the strange case of Whitehall Park School, the Liberal Democrats, and the voters of Hillrise Ward, Islington.
At last week's local elections whether or not Whitehall Park Free School, Islington, should go ahead was put before the electorate. In the event seventy five per cent of the votes were cast for parties opposed to the new school.
I have posted on the Local Schools Network about the proposed Whitehall Park Free School before, those new to the story can find a list of the postings here:
These postings, (with attached comments and discussions) amount to a reasonable quantity of background reading so here is a compressed account of the story so far, and how Whitehall Park School got entangled in the recent local elections.
The story so far - The proposal
The proposal to set up a new Free School, the Whitehall Park School, in the far North of Islington, and in Hillrise Ward, has four special features.
1. It is being set up on land being requisitioned by the Secretary of State, from Islington, without payment to the Borough. The financial loss is being borne by the Schools maintenance budget for Islington, so the welfare of children in Islington's schools is being directly discriminated against in favour of setting up a Free School. Less money for repairs.
2. It is in an area where in terms of demand for places it is not needed and where the surrounding schools are all at least "Good" in Ofsted terms - one is outstanding.
3.The proposers of Whitehall Park School is Bellevue Place Education Trust which is linked to a profit making commercial company, Bellevue Education International Ltd.
4. It is, even without having to pay for the land going to be an unusually expensive Free Primary School (see here:"Bill for Archway ‘free’ school set to top £10m" )
The Story so far - How it started.
It all started when a Liberal Democrat controlled Islington Council were looking for a solution to a serious problem. Ashmount Primary School was housed in a modernist building. In its time avant garde, it was built in the 1950's by the London County Council. It was now falling apart. The cost of repair was enormous, a bill (at 2004 prices) of 3.5 million pounds to merely fix the windows. (Of course one should realise that the outside of the building being entirely glass and steel it is essentially all window). And this would not solve any of the problems the building presented in terms of not being right in so many ways for use as a primary school. No disabled access, boiling hot in summer, the most expensive school of its size in London to heat, leaks everywhere, when it rained the phones and internet stopped working and so forth. The asbestos, the need to rebuild to conform to current fire regulations, the condition of the drains, the concrete embedded (faulty) electric wiring....
Refurbish or rebuild?
Better perhaps to refurbish the building, rather than patch up, but it turned out that to do that and fix the problems was simply not practicable. Better then , in terms of cost, value for money, and outcome to demolish and rebuild. Except of course you would have to house the children, and teach them, somewhere while you did this. So a scheme for a phased demolition and rebuild was worked out. In this you have the children housed in one part of the site, in portacabins at least partly, while you demolish and rebuild on the other part of the site. Neither the School Governors nor Islington Council fancied this at all. Islington because they could see it would cost LOTS; the Governors because they could not see parents sending their children to be taught on a building site even for a while. At the least, they thought admissions would have to be suspended for three years.
So what about moving the school? This needed a site nearby. One was found. Crouch Hill Park, which the council owned. The governors supported moving as it meant a new building and a lovely woodland setting, the Council supported it because they reckoned it would be cheaper as once the school moved the council could sell the old site. The Liberal Democrat administration expected to be able to sell for a good price, in the millions, for housing. Most of the housing would have been built for sale, with a quota of social housing being enforced in the planning conditions as usual. The site is between Highgate and Crouch End, so really attractive for developers.
The school move agreed and supported by Liberal Democrats and Labour.
And so the decision to move the school was made. When it was made the then Labour opposition supported the decision; it was one of the few policies in Islington to have cross party support.
Much work had to be done. As Crouch Hill Park had special protections there was a torturous planning application process involving both the Mayor of London and the Secretary of State for Local Government. So, by the time the contract to build the new school was to be signed, it was a newly elected Labour administration who took that decision in completion of the project started by Liberal Democrats. And like the Liberal Democrats they took the decision partly because the sums added up, IF you assumed a reasonable price for selling the old site. For Labour there was the extra incentive that they planned to sell the site to a Housing Association for social housing in fulfillment of an election pledge. Naturally the Liberal Democrats, now in opposition supported the signing of the contract (which assumed the sale of the old Ashmount site to make the finances work). After all, it was mostly their idea to start with.
The proposed Whitehall Park School opposed by Liberal Democrats and Labour.
So the school moved. (And the new building is great). Then there was Mr Gove's bombshell. The old, vacated, site was to be taken by him, and handed over to Bellevue, to set up a Free School. The Labour administration opposed this. In fact they were furious. The Liberal Democrats did not support the move to take the land for a Free School, however they were low key in their opposition leaving Labour to get on with objecting. After all Labour being in charge of the Council had most to lose. As one Lib Dem put it to me privately,
" We would really rather the issue went away. Surely when they realise what a state the old building is in, they (The DfE) will give up the idea on grounds of cost."
(However it seems that the DfE failed to actually look at the building before allowing themselves to get significantly committed in public by Bellevue Press releases: Revealing story in the Evening Standard here.
You can understand then why I was astounded during the election period to get a Lib Dem leaflet through my door announcing they now SUPPORTED the proposal to set up Whitehall Park Free School.
So I wrote to the local press about it on the 13 May. Here are some quotes from the letter.
" This (Whitehall Park School).... involves the Government seizing land from Islington Council, which a Housing Association were to use for council flats, handing it free of charge to a private limited company. Clearly a good deal for the Swiss based shareholders of the company. Not such a good deal for all the other schools in Islington, who lose more than 3 million of their repairs budget as a result of the loss of the land, for which the Housing Association was going to pay. Nor such a good deal for anyone in Islington struggling to be housed. This is also the proposal that the Islington Schools' Forum, a non party statutory body set up to advise the Government about schools' finance, and made up of Islington Heads and School Governors unanimously objected to, leading to the Chair of the Forum, the Head of Duncombe school speaking against it at a public meeting. A rare event; but possible because he was not only expressing the opinion of the Forum but also that of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats at that time. So why the change of mind by the Lib Dems?
Also,... we now have the public attack by Liberal Democrat Education Minister, David Laws, on the whole Free School project as an example of "zealotry". We have.. the Public Accounts Committee finding of £240M wasted on setting up free schools where there was no need for them, and the disclosure that Gove raided the "Basic Need Fund" to the tune of £400M to fund Free Schools rather than school places where they are needed. It is either courageous or really bad luck for Islington Lib Dems to announce their about face turn on the same weekend.
Naturally I eagerly turned to the leaflet to find out why this important change of mind had taken place. Unfortunately, ... it seems they are terribly ill informed.
First of all they announce a "schools places crisis" in Islington. Commonsense would suggest that this means there are not enough places for all the children applying in Islington. But the latest report from Islington Admissions to the Schools Forum is clear that, although numbers rose this year, there will be places for all Islington children.
Second they announce that the Whitehall Park School is "Full" but this only a week after Bellevue Ltd told prospective parents they expected the number of acceptances to " to be close to the minimum they needed, twenty four acceptances" As the planned capacity is 56 children how would that make it a full school? But actually to describe any Islington School as "full" at this stage of admissions, with more offers being made every day is wrong anyway. The leaflet appears to have been written by someone with no understanding of how admissions work. Or the significance or importance of waiting lists. It is irresponsible to scare monger in this way, when there are parents still awaiting the offer they will get eventually. It is shameful to add to parents' distress in this way."
I then concluded
"The only good thing about this is that as Labour and the Greens have declared themselves against Whitehall Park School, and the Lib Dems, have changed their mind and decided they are in favour, voters have a clear choice. And we shall find out on the 22 May how much support the Free School has."
Full letter here.
Following on from that, the day before polling day there was another leaflet drop from the Liberal Democrats. In that leaflet they highlighted their support for the Free School as a reason for voting for them and pointed out that not only did Labour oppose the Free School so, very much, did the Green Party. As the Greens have not actually been very active in my local ward, (they had target wards in Islington, mine Hillrise, was not one) in the absence of official Green leaflets the Liberal Democrats carried out the public service of ensuring that anyone contemplating voting for the Greens knew they would be voting for a party that opposed the Free School.
The Liberal Democrats also announced their support for the Free School on the doorsteps and in public meetings singled out Labour and the Greens for their " neglect of the school places problem"
The election result.
At the 2010 election Hillrise Ward elected two Liberal democrats and one Labour councillor. A "split" ward. Before that, for the previous two elections Hillrise elected three Liberal democrats, so in recent times a Liberal Democrat ward.
At this election it was a Labour clean sweep, all three councillors, with 58 per cent of the vote. If you add together the votes of Labour and Greens, the parties that opposed the Free School got 75 per cent of the vote.