Concern at rapid pace of new St Albans primary school scheme

A NEW primary school could open in St Albans as early as September but a call for more debate and scrutiny is being made by two district councillors who feel it is being rushed through.

Cllrs Rod Perks and Melvyn Teare say they are concerned that in the rush to purchase the University of Hertfordshire’s School of Law in Hatfield Road for a primary school, some of the most pressing issues have been overlooked.

They maintain that all the facts have not been available to the public and there has been no significant debate about the school’s location.

Speaking after county council’s cabinet gave the go-ahead for the purchase of the land on Monday (February 14), Cllrs Perks and Teare said they were fully aware that the district needed additional school places but that they wanted to establish that the current proposal was the best solution.

Cllr Teare said the process was moving at “breakneck speed” and issues regarding safety, traffic and the site itself were being ignored. He warned that if they continued to be disregarded, they could pose a significant financial problem for the county in the future.

Plans to open the primary school in the School of Law were first revealed in December when Richard Thake, the county’s Executive Member for Education, said it was an unique opportunity to buy a building that was already intended for educational use and would require minimal adaptation.

But Cllr Perks disagrees and says that a building meant for adults will still need significant adaptation to be made suitable for children.

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Both councillors want to learn more about who will run the school after it was revealed that an application had been made to turn it into a free school which means it will have more control over its admissions and may offer places to a wider catchment area.

That could result in many parents who live close to the new school and have offered their support finding they are struggling to get their children into it.

Cllr Perks said: “We don’t know who is going to run this school and what their motivations will be. We could have well-intentioned people or people looking to run a free school for profit.

“There’s a lot of things that haven’t been thought through and one of our biggest concerns is the pace at which this process is moving forward, irrespective of the issues which have already been identified.

“The traffic issue, which will put an enormous amount of pressure on the town centre, is massive. The town centre is struggling enough as it is and the last thing it needs is gridlock twice a day. This will be the final nail in the coffin if the town must also handle the traffic from the school.”

Adamant that they support the provision for places, the councillors say they are drawing attention to these issues to ignite a much-needed debate about the site and ensure that a proper time frame is put in place to ensure things are done properly.

Other issues they raise include:

• If the school is successful and is to continue to meet the needs of a growing population, it will need to expand and the current site will not allow for any further expansion.

• The plans suggest that the land behind the museum would be used as a playground but this land was gifted to the local authority by Earl Spencer over 100 years ago on the understanding it would be used as a museum. District councillors are trustees and Cllr Perks says, “the plans take for granted that the trustees will breach this covenant or permit the use of land to be varied, which may not be the case.”

• The lower field of Bernards Heath is proposed as a green space for playing but the councillors claim the 1.5 mile round trip along St Peter’s Street to the site was deemed by parents at Maple School as an unsafe route for their children to take in a separate consultation. The lower field is also very unsuitable, Cllr Perks says, after extensive groundwork last year.

This week Cllr Thake defended the plans and said they had not been made public before December as the publicity could have drawn attention to the site and driven up the cost.

He added: “I’m incredulous that the district councillors would expect the county to sit on their hands and let this opportunity pass us by.”

He also confirmed that an application had been made to turn it into a free school and while it would be free to determine its own admissions policy it had to be in compliance with the law and it was his belief that free schools were intended to embrace communities and meet local need.