A new primary free school proposed to open in 2019 in Kingston-Upon-Thames has been given planning permission by the Council.
The site for GEMS Kingston Primary Academy was acquired by LocatEd, the government-owned property company with a £2b budget for purchasing and developing sites for new free schools. The school will be operated by GEMS Learning Trust, the charitable academy trust arm of international for-profit education provider GEMS Education.
The 420-pupil school would be housed in two interlinked buildings in a development comprising the school and eleven apartments. The internal play area would be situated between the school and the residential units.
The report by the Council’s Head of Planning and Regeneration shows ‘outdoor educational space’ would be limited to just 335sqm. This is far lower than the recommended 1800sqm for a school this size as laid down in Building Bulletin 103: Area Guidelines for Mainstream Schools (2014).
But these building guidelines are not statutory, the council says, and ‘do not necessarily have to be met in every case’. The proposed school is on a ‘constrained’ Town Centre site so the guidance can be applied ‘flexibly in light of the particular circumstances’. This exemption is laid down in notes accompanying the guidelines. The get-out clause makes the building guidance worthless.
The government argues that the exemption clause brings the building guidance ‘in line with policies which seek to increase choice and opportunity in state funded education’.
Parents, then, will have the choice and opportunity to pick a primary school on a busy High Street, situated in two buildings connected by a bridge, with little external play area on site, just three parking spaces for parents dropping off their children and on-street parking limited to residents with permits. They can choose a school which proposes to have a staggered start time (08.45 for Key Stage 2 pupils, 09.00 for Key Stage 1) which causes difficulties for parents with children in both stages.
If plans to use facilities at Fairfield Recreation Ground and the Kingfisher Leisure Centres go ahead, then parents will be able to choose to let their children walk (or be bussed) along the A307 for 10-12 minutes either way in all weathers in order to access space for outdoor recreation and sport – space which most other schools have onsite.
Parents choosing a newly-built free school should be aware that the new school may not comply with building guidelines for mainstream schools. The guidelines, which cover such things as classroom size and sports facilities, can be ignored if proposers and planners argue there are ‘particular circumstances’. In other words, free schools, so-often described as being superior to other types of state schools (even, in some cases, of being like ‘private schools’), can be inferior in the standard of buildings offered.
This is not acceptable.