There is a predicted shortage of secondary school places in Bromley. We need at least 3 more schools in the Borough by 2022 but with the lack of certainty of school sites only one of those new schools, Eden Park, is actually being built to date and given its location on the Croydon borders it is unclear how many of those places will be filled by Bromley children.
The shortage of secondary school places has been known for 10 years – but this does not mean we will support any school anywhere, we need the right schools in the right location and we need the plans for these put in place before the last minute. Currently Bromley Council is relying on opening the SHaW Academy at 1 Westmoreland Road, with the possibility of a Catholic faith school and another school on the Borough border with Sydenham (Harris Sydenham) and of course Bullers Wood for Boys which we fully support but there is still no certainty as to its permanent home.
Bullers Wood School for Boys
Over the last 6 months we have seen 1000s of people take to the streets in support of the parents of the 11-year old boys hoping for a place at a new Bullers Wood for Boys secondary school after it had its planning permission revoked just a few weeks before national offer day for school places. The school has faced astonishing planning mismanagement by the Council – planning permission granted, then revoked just a few weeks before national offer day, causing huge stress and upset to the boys and their parents.
The Lib Dems were and remain completely in support of the new school - indeed many of us joined the marches. We understood the concerns for the safety of the children but took the view that if a desperately needed school with a proven catchment showing that 98% of pupils live in easy walking distance has pedestrian road safety concerns, the Council should make the changes to roads and crossings necessary to solve the problem, not refuse the school.
Finally, with a few hours to go before the offer letters went out to the children, we heard that the school would open. We applauded the tenacious, imaginative and brave campaign fought and won by the parents in the face of ridiculous obstacles put in their way by our own Council. The school will be placed initially in a temporary home at 1 Westmoreland Road. This is not a good site for a school so every effort must now be made to secure planning permission for the permanent home of Bullers Wood School for Boys at St Hugh's as swiftly as possible and ideally in time for the school to move to St Hugh's before the start of the 2019/20 academic year.
We campaigned against the siting of the SHaW school at 1 Westmoreland Road last year and we remain opposed to it. We’re in favour of the SHaW school – Bromley desperately needs more secondary school places and this school seems like an excellent concept – just in the wrong place. Such a small site necessitates a 10 storey building with no playing fields and little outdoor space, not to mention it being on one of the Borough's busiest and most polluted junctions. The Council can and must do more to make other more appropriate sites for the school available, such as the Civic Centre (currently the Council propose to sell much of it off for private housing instead) or possibly the Turpington Lane site that the Council has allocated for education in its draft local plan. We also recognise that with this school ear marked for special educational provision focusing on Science, Health and Wellbeing subjects with a more vocational perspective, it may not suit all pupils and so is likely to have a large catchment and attract out of Borough applications - it is still a great concept for a school but we must recognise that those factors limit its impact on reducing the shortage of secondary places for Bromley children.
Long term, we will continue to actively oppose placing a school at this location but it will not be an easy battle and we need to remain resolute. The current Council has recommended the 1 Westmoreland site both for educational use and for a tall building in its draft local plan. We have repeatedly alerted Cllr Harmer and his wife, Cllr Dykes, to the need to challenge the designation of this site for educational use in the draft Local Plan but they have stated they are supportive of the site for some form of education. With the Local Plan set to become primary planning policy for the Borough later this year, it will be this designation of the Westmoreland site, more than its prior use as a temporary site for schools, that will risk the SHaW proposal for a high-rise school for 1200 pupils winning planning approval on appeal to the National Planning inspectorate.
Whilst we welcome parent choice in education, we do not think a Catholic faith school that gives priority to pupils of the Catholic faith no matter how far away from the school they live (including out of Borough) is the best solution for meeting the school place shortage. The Diocese of Southwark who are behind the proposed Bromley school have insisted that they will only open a school if they can give priority to Catholic pupils for all of their school places and as such we do not support it unless a substantive proportion of its places are allocated based on non faith criteria such as proximity. Why should a pupil living nearby to this school be excluded from attending based on faith alone whilst the place goes to a child living many miles away who would be driven to school?
Schools located on Borough border
As mentioned above, we are also aware that it is not as simple as a mere numbers game based on numbers of Bromley children. Schools are prohibited by law from prioritising pupils who live in the Borough, which makes sense so that all pupils have the chance of going to their local school rather than miss out based on arbitrary borough borders. But it means we need better modelling by the Council, working with schools, to assess the proprtion of pupils from within Bromley a school located on the borders (like Eden Park and Harris Sydenham) will likely serve. On that basis it is likely that more than 3 new schools will be needed in the Borough but we haven't seen a detailed report from the Council on this issue since 2015.
A more holistic approach to planning for schools is needed and those plans should include road safety improvements to facilitate walking and cycling to school to ease congestion; rather than allow congestion and road safety concerns to be used as a reason to refuse any new school. We need a Council with more vision and coordinated planning to ensure this happens – the Lib Dems have that vision.