18th May 2012
Planning & Access Service
Children and Young People’s Services
North Somerset Council
Weston-super-Mare BS23 1UJ
Dear Ms Young
I am writing in response to a letter that I, as a parent of children at High Down Infant and Junior Schools, have recently received regarding the proposed expansions and change of status to Primary School for both schools.
I have a number of concerns and questions regarding these proposals, which I have detailed below, and would like to make you aware that I am strongly opposed to these plans at this stage, as, I’m sure, will be a number of parents and local residents.
- Although there is no doubt that there is a shortage of school places in Portishead, this is mainly due to the number of young families who have moved into the “bottom” end of the town, in all of the new developments around and near to the Marina. High Down Schools are the furthest schools from these areas, so why have these been chosen for expansion? There are four primary schools much closer to these developments, so surely these would be much more suitable for these children and families.
- Following on from the above, if the majority of the extra pupils will be going to the 2 new schools on the existing High Down site, this means up to 210 extra children being driven to the area at the same time. How does this fit in with the Council’s Transport Strategy? I appreciate that it is likely that parents will be offered funded transportation but a) what will the cost of this be to the tax-paying residents of North Somerset? And b) How likely does the Council really think it is that parents will be prepared to allow their primary school children to travel to school in this way? I, as a parent of two primary age children, am pretty sure that not many parents will utilise the transport provided. This is particularly ironic, considering next week is “Walk to School” week, and children are being encouraged to walk to school, “leading to healthier children (and parents) and less traffic problems around our school” – this from the High Down Infant school letter received this week.
- North Somerset Council closed St Barnabas school three years ago, despite knowing at that point that there was already a shortage of spaces, with the problem only getting bigger over the coming years. Why was the school not put into special measures, or more time and money spent on improving the school, to make it more attractive to prospective parents? This would have at least meant the need for school places would not be as great as it is now. It is interesting that, once the school was closed, it was then occupied in the main by Council employees.
- The expansion plans for the High Down schools will result in, including nursery school children, there being in the region of 900 children attending what will still effectively be one site, with some parents potentially having children in both schools. As a parent with two children on the site at the moment, school pick-up and drop-off time is always rather chaotic as it is – with over 200 extra children there is the very real danger of children going missing without anybody realising.
- In addition to the chaos actually on the site, as a local resident I am extremely concerned about the effect on the area in terms of parking and road safety. This is already a real problem in the streets surrounding the schools, and for me personally, so again, having a potential 200 more vehicles looking to park will only exacerbate this problem, and will also increase the risk of accidents, possibly involving children and/or parents attempting to cross already busy and congested roads.
- Why are parents only being informed about the possibility of the schools expanding now, when the initial consultations with the schools were started in September 2011, with the consultation document being published in January 2012? In addition to this, no mention has been made to parents of the actual consultation period – dates, timescales etc. I note that the first (and possibly only) meetings that parents can attend regarding this are not being held until the last week before the schools finish for the Summer, so parents are assuming that the official consultation period will commence then, shortly before the six-week holiday, which is unfortunate timing for parents, but not so for the Council. Also, presumably a great deal of building work will be carried out which, as well as causing massive disruption to the children at the schools, and the local residents, will take a considerable length of time. This suggests that, as the plan is for the changes to take effect from September 2013, the decision has already been made, and the consultation process is just an exercise being carried out because it legally has to be. What are the chances of the decision being overturned, regardless of public opinion?
- Moving on to other schools in the area, the consultation report referred to above mentions the old Portishead Primary site not being a viable option in view of the £800k cost involved. I would question though, how this compares to the cost of expanding the High Down schools, along with the transport costs previously mentioned, and the cost of rebranding the schools, which I will discuss further later. It also suggests an option being to expand St Peter’s School, as there is, to quote “an area of land on the … site that could be used to deliver extra accommodation/be sold to create a capital receipt”. Whilst the effect on the surrounding residential area seems to be enough for this option to be disregarded, this does not seem to have been a consideration on the High Down site. There is also a suggestion that the Clifton Diocese have supported the idea of an expansion on the St Joseph’s site, but this seems to have been disregarded without further investigation or discussion. As for Trinity school, I understand the developers have fulfilled their obligation in building and then expanding the school to the size it is now, but most parents are outraged that this school, supposedly built to cope with the number of children moving into the area in which is stands, is nowhere near the size it should be to accommodate those children.
- In addition to these more suitable school sites being in existence, there are a high number of office buildings around the Marina area, with parking, that have been empty since being built at least a couple of years ago, and it would not take a huge amount of time or money for some of these to be converted to a school building, so why is this option not being considered as an alternative, rather than them continuing to lie empty?
- Regarding rebranding, you are obviously aware that, as it stands, one of the existing High Down Schools was given an “Outstanding” rating by Ofsted, whilst the other was only given a “Satisfactory” rating. It is obvious that parents looking for school places will, if they have to choose between the two, always choose the outstanding school over the satisfactory one. This will result in a school being full of children whose parents did not choose the school for them, either because their first choice was the school next door, or more likely, a school much closer to their home. In addition, the name High Down has always applied to both schools, but presumably neither school will be able to retain the name (so also the reputation of the school), which would mean further costs being incurred, both to the Council, but also to parents who will potentially have to purchase all new school uniform for children who will already be at one or both of the schools when the changes take effect. Having two competing schools on the same site is completely impractical.
- With approximately 30 babies per month being born in Portishead, that equates to 360 children per year. Even if the plans to extend the High Down schools goes ahead, there will still only be 330 Reception year places in the town, so this problem is not going to be solved by this expansion – where will those extra 30 children go when they are due to start school? Those figures, of course, don’t allow for people moving away from the area, but crucially also don’t allow for families moving in to the area, which is likely to be a higher number.
I look forward to receiving your response regarding these questions and concerns, along with confirmation of when parents can expect to receive more detailed information regarding the plans than the limited amount we have received so far.
Mrs Tanya Slatter