The free school campaign is making waves again. Make that free schools. Plural. Having struggled to get much traction in the latter half of 2013, the NW6 Free School group has re-emerged with a new name, a shiny website and a mildly controversial claim that Liddell Road would be the ideal site for its schools – a primary and secondary.
A school on Liddell Road? Doesn’t that sound vaguely familiar?
At the moment, Camden is planning to build its own state primary school on the Liddell Road industrial estate. It’s an extension to Kingsgate School and would house kids from 3-7 (the existing Kingsgate site would house the 7-11 year-olds).
To pay for this, the council plans to sell off the rest of the land at Liddell Road for 120 flats and some commercial space. Despite broad acceptance of the need for more primary places, there have been many objections to this overall proposal and to the way in which the decision has been made.
Dr Clare Craig, the public face of the free schools campaign, argues that the site should be used to house its schools instead of Camden’s. Originally, the free school campaign wanted a secondary school only. The plan to include a primary school as well began before Christmas. Dr Craig: “We realised that the Department for Education want to see that free school groups are addressing the needs of their whole community and we would be failing to do that if we didn’t have a primary offer too.”
The campaign, now operating under its new name of “The West Hampstead International School”, has also brought its schedule nearer with an ambition to open in 2015 rather than 2016 as originally proposed. This would mean opening a year ahead of Camden’s own proposal.
The school(s) would have a two-form primary school entry and a six-form secondary entry. To get government backing, the Department for Eduction apparently likes to see evidence that there’s twice as much interest in a new school as places. This means the campaigners need 120 signatures from parents of children starting reception in each of the first two years, and more than 300 for those starting Year 7 in those years. In other words, around 850 parents have to sign up. As of the start of this week, the campaign had more than 200, although apparently not all of the right age.
If the campaign fail to get enough signatories by the start of May, the 2015 opening date will be impossible to meet and they will revert to 2016, given them more time to collect support. Even now, opening two schools within 18 months with no site allocated and no buildings up seems like an extremely tall order.
It’s hard to imagine Camden, which owns the Liddell Road site, deciding to reverse its decision and allow a free school to open there, even if the campaign could muster the support it needs.
Dr Craig has said that the group is looking at two other sites, which are privately owned. Apparently, she is not allowed to reveal where the sites are until after negotiations. There are not many options in the area though – there’s always idle chatter about using 156 West End Lane (Travis Perkins) for schooling, but there are practical difficulties and it seems unlikely it would be redeveloped in time anyway. The other options might be down Blackburn Road.
Free school agnostics might see the primary school option as a way of removing the problem of a split-site Kingsgate school. But are there enough of them with children of exactly right age? To give some context, the 2011 census counted 3,279 children aged 0-15 in West Hampstead and Fortune Green wards. No wonder then that, while the free school is choosing to have “most of our admissions” based on a fairly tight catchment area, there will also be places “allocated by lottery” for anyone living within two miles.
The group is holding a series of public meetings to explain more about its proposals. The next one is Monday Feb 10th in the synagogue community hall. The other two in West Hampstead are on March 1st and March 11th.