Could Croydon school places shortfall be eased by 'classrooms in the sky'?
SPECIAL REPORT: In the second part of our series investigating how Croydon will cope with its rocketing population, Rachel Millard asks where we will educate thousands of extra children in our already bulging schools system...
PLAYGROUNDS halfway up disused office blocks in multi-storey schools could be the future of primary education as the borough grapples with unprecedented pressure on primary school places amid vanishing space.
Housing benefit changes, immigration and the recession are among the factors driving a shortfall of 274 places this September when applications closed in January, with demand only expected to rise.
Bulge classes, new schools and school expansions are under way to meet the demand, concentrated in the north of the borough, but education chiefs concede those solutions can only go so far.
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Tim Pollard, the council's cabinet member for children, young people and learners, admitted: "In built-up areas you cannot easily expand schools – while putting (in) more schools would be impossible.
"So in areas where the population is expanding, it is more difficult for schools to expand."
Cllr Pollard and colleagues conducted a "fact-finding" visit to the four-storey Hampden Gurney Church of England Primary School, in Westminster, which has playground space on the balconies.
He said: "They made a number of mistakes but there is a lot to learn from that school.
"It shows that you can build a school on a smaller footprint and make it work. You can put play spaces on 'super balconies.'
"The children can still have that outside play area, run around and let off steam and do the parts of the curriculum for which they need to be outside."
Mr Pollard added that while there were "no active plans" for such a school at present, "it is important to know that it can be done."
But the council's deputy leader Dudley Mead, who also visited, was more positive. "It was absolutely brilliant," he said. "I am sure it's going to have to be done.
"On the first floor they have taken all the windows out, though there are barriers to stop people walking off. There's netting – rather like upmarket chicken wire – to allow the air to rush right through.
"It had been covered in that sort of soft material and was being used as a playground.
"The school was on five floors. It had a lift but they got the children to use the stairs.
"There were things they could do to improve but the space is one we could look to replicate in Croydon in the future."
As well as finding space, Mr Pollard said the council is also working at building relationships between nearby primary schools to help with the logistical tangle of allocating places.
He said: "We have a duty to provide places but we do not control the means of delivery, so we are asking schools to work together and decide between them how they are going to meet the need in the area."
And he is lobbying the Government not to press ahead with changes to the timing of pupil censuses used to determine funding, which will mean a "huge disincentive" for schools to take on more students.
But, he added, there is a chance the demand might drop.
He said: "We do not know what will happen when mortgages start to be accessible again in a way they have not been for many families in many years.
"And whether that will then mean the north empties out a bit as people say 'We were there when we needed to be there' – we do not know."
Croydon's shadow cabinet member for schools says the Government needs to do more to ease pressure on the borough’s primary school places.
Kathy Bee said more needed to be done centrally to reduce factors pushing people out of central London, such as high rents and housing benefit caps, and help outer boroughs shoulder the burden.
She said: "A concern is that people are moving out of central London and Croydon residents will be providing the cost.
"What is the Government doing to deal with the disproportionate effect on outer London boroughs?"
Cllr Bee, who represents South Norwood, added that the Government was also not providing enough money to local authorities to tackle school places.
She said: "We often hear on the news about money going directly to schools, but we never hear about financing the strategy role of local authorities. There are fewer people to deal with the systems side of things and one of these is looking for school places and getting people into places.
"If that central infrastructure is not properly funded then local authority has fewer people to do the things they need to do.
"At a time when there is enormous demand on resources, they have shrinking resources to deal with it."
She said the Tory council was 'trying really hard' to solve the school places conundrum, but there may be some 'reluctance to acknowledge' issues with their colleagues in Westminster.
"If things keep going [as they are] I am really concerned we will find it very difficult to expand and maintain the quality of provision," she said.
Plans to build a new secondary school are a step closer following a deal between the council and the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust.
The deal for the council to buy derelict land at the former Croydon General Hospital site, in London Road, West Croydon, has been approved by the council’s corporate services committee.
Although financial details have not been released, the council’s cabinet has earlier agreed that up to £6 million could be spent on buying the land. The intention is to build a sixth form entry school to help meet the growing demand for secondary places.
The council will now start looking for an organisation to run the new school.
It will have to operate either as a free school or as an academy.