Council and government in row over where to build much-needed extra school capacity
Campaigners have been joined by Waltham Forest Council in opposing government-backed plans to build two new schools on protected open space.
Opposition to the schools proposed for a former Thames Water depot, opposite Lee Valley Ice Centre in Lea Bridge Road and adjacent to a nature reserve, is attracting support across the community.
Like the marshes surrounding it, the site is designated Metropolitan Open Land – London’s equivalent to ‘green belt’ – and campaigners say it should be returned to its natural state to encourage wildlife habitats and recreation for local people.
However, a government body responsible for financing academies and free schools, the Education Funding Agency (EFA), bought the land from Thames Water last year to allow these new schools to be built.
The council’s opposition now brings the local authority into conflict with the Department for Education. Councillor Grace Williams, cabinet member for children and young people, told the Echo: “We are opposed to setting-up a new secondary school on the Thames Water site.
“The council’s plan to create extra secondary school places was for Norlington to build an eight-form entry school in the centre of the borough.
“But instead, the EFA has financed a new school on the edge of the borough to be run by Lion Academy Trust, which does not have a track record in running secondary schools. We want to see a secondary school run by an established provider.”
The proposed secondary school would be called Barclay Secondary School and would be run by the Lion Academy Trust, which currently operates Barclay, Sybourn and Thomas Gamuel primary schools.
Councillor Williams said: “This proposed school is [also] in the wrong place. Building a secondary school on the edge of the borough could create problems. It is not close to the areas where the people who need the school places live. We are concerned it could attract pupils from existing schools so their numbers reduce and their finances suffer.
“If the new school does go ahead, it’s possible that many of its students will come from Hackney.”
Barclay Secondary School is scheduled to open in September 2017 with eight classes of first-year students, eventually reaching a capacity of 1,400 pupils by 2023. Waltham Forest faces a projected shortage of secondary school places from September 2018, with an estimated deficit of 90 pupils, or three classes.
Councillor Williams added that the council was also opposed to the primary school proposed at the same site in Lea Bridge Road, because of its location. The school would be called Athena Primary Academy and be operated by REAch2 Academy Trust, which already runs four schools elsewhere in Waltham Forest and is one of the largest primary school operators in the country. Athena would provide 420 pupil spaces.
Both schools are already soliciting parents to apply for places, but their planning applications have not yet been submitted. New pupils could be taught in temporary buildings if construction is not finished by next September.
Under current law, while the council has responsibility for making sure there are enough school places, it is not allowed to build new schools itself. This role is limited to educational trusts using central government funds.
All new schools must now be established as either academies or ‘free schools’ funded directly by government and run independently of the local authority.
Campaign group Save Lea Marshes recently wrote an open letter to the Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly opposing the new schools at Lea Bridge Depot. Claire Weiss, a campaigner with the group, told the Echo: “The site is protected from development and we want to keep it as a community asset. Thames Water got special permission to use the depot to help them build London’s ‘super sewer’. Now that work has finished, we are campaigning for the land to be returned to open marshland as promised.”
New mayor Sadiq Khan has said it is “vitally important we protect our city’s precious green spaces” and has pledged to oppose building on green belt and MOL.
A Department for Education spokesperson declined to comment on the reasons why EFA had bought Lea Bridge Depot as a site for new schools.
Both Lion Academy Trust and Athena Academy failed to respond to enquiries from the Echo.