St Albans primary school expansion postponed

The entrance to Garden Fields JMI School

The entrance to Garden Fields JMI School - Credit: Archant

A controversial proposal to expand a central St Albans primary school has been put on hold to allow for further consultation.

The decision to move forward with the next stage of the Garden Fields JMI expansion was deferred until June at a Herts county council (HCC) cabinet meeting, following an overwhelming response from residents and parents.

An initial consultation which ended in March saw 141 people disagree with the plans to upgrade the Townsend Drive primary school, signalling an 81.5 per cent objection.

Key issues raised during the period were that the expansion would lead to a decline in school standards and would result in insufficient core facilities such as playground space.

But the county council said it was confident the school would be able to maintain its performance levels and could introduce additional facilities if necessary.

Other concerns included insufficient information being provided to consultees by HCC and the issue of having to relocate the nearby St Albans music school.

The county council has seen a recent significant increase in the demand for reception class places in the St Albans district which is set to rise.

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It identified the school for expansion as it is located close to the area of demand and capable of “accommodating an enlargement”. The current capacity of Garden Fields is 420. If the plan is implemented in September next year that figure will rise to 630 pupils, excluding nursery pupils.

Herts county councillor for St Albans South Sandy Walkington said there were clearly “continuing concerns” about the impact of the expansion and that delaying was the right decision.

He went on: “But it is also clear that there is a huge challenge to meet upcoming demand for primary places, particularly south of the city centre.

“We’ve been here before with families left stranded because County has failed to predict it.

“Garden Fields expansion is only a stop-gap. My sense is that we need at least one and possibly two wholly new primary schools to meet forecast demand.”

A statement issued on behalf of Garden Fields back in March said they were “open in principle to the possibility of expansion but on a proper basis”.

A spokesperson went on that if a suitable proposal could not be found then the governing body would oppose the plan. They cited the school’s primary concerns as the provision of additional core facilities, the allocation of a realistic county budget, the design of a thoughtful layout and the question of safety in neighbouring roads.

Justin Donovan, director of education and early intervention, said: “It remains the council’s duty to ensure that there is a school place for every child who wants one and we take this duty seriously.

“We are aware of local concern about this proposal, however, and I think it is appropriate to allow a little more time for the discussions with the governing body to continue before reaching a decision.”