Wheathampstead, Kimpton, Markyate and Redbourn village children facing block on school places in Harpenden

Headmaster of St George's School Raymond McGovern

Headmaster of St George's School Raymond McGovern - Credit: Archant

Parents and local politicians have been left reeling by a proposal from a Harpenden secondary school to no longer ring fence places for children living in the villages around the town.

The governors of St George’s School in Sun Lane - one of three secondary schools in the town - are proposing to remove the current 20 per cent allocation to Church of England children in the villages and replace it with distance criteria, albeit for faith children, from 2017.

Currently around 35 children from the villages attend St George’s under the ring-fenced faith allocation but, should the change be adopted, those numbers will dwindle, creating even more secondary allocation difficulties for families.

In their consultation, the governors say that in the past 10 years, the distance within which a faith applicant within Harpenden would be allocated a place has shrunk from a mile to less than a kilometre.

That is the result of increased brownfield house building and new compulsory higher profile groups who get priority for places.

The governors believe that the situation will worsen with demographic figures showing a surge in primary school children who face disappointment getting a place in the school.

As a result of wishing to retain places for siblings and children of staff, the governors are proposing to no longer ring fence faith places for village children ‘at a time when there will be more and more church attending applicants from Harpenden itself not allocated’.

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They stress that the proposal does not mean that it is not possible for village children to be allocated places at St George’s but the applicants most likely to succeed are those living closer.

Cllr Maxine Crawley, who represents Wheathampstead and Harpenden on the county council, said she had had no inkling about the proposal until she was alerted to it and called for a groundswell of parents and particularly heads of churches and schools to respond to it.

She pointed out that the ethos of St George’s was to serve the wider community and was disappointed that it was going to change.

Describing the proposal as premature with plans for a new secondary school in Harpenden in the pipeline, she said it countered the generous move by Sandringham School to enable more children from the villages to go there.

Cllr Crawley added: “I welcome changes to the admission rules like Sandringham have done which helps the situation but this admission rule change moves the problem around and doesn’t solve anything.”

Alderman Chris Oxley, who lives in Wheathampstead and whose son and daughter went to St George’s, said he was concerned about the impact it could have on church going in the village. “By sending a reasonable proportion [to St George’s], it encourages a significant number to go to church.”

Describing it as ‘a disaster for the village’ he said he would create the biggest fuss possible and added: “It aggravates the whole problem of schooling in the village. It really deeply worries me for the whole of Wheathampstead.”

Parish councillor and secondary school campaigner Judy Shardlow questioned why the school was not considering raising its Planned Admission Number (PAN) from the current 170 to 200 children to ease the admission problem.

She said: “St George’s School is by far the biggest school site of the three schools and it would be a far better approach to increase capacity on the site rather than to restrict access by a change to the admission rules, particularly a change which will penalise village children.”

But St George’s head Raymond McGovern said that when working on the proposal for a new secondary school three years ago, the county council had asked the Harpenden secondary schools to review the implications and costs of increasing their intake.

Given the constraints of the St George’s site, expansion by only one form of entry would have been prohibitorily costly and have had substantial adverse effects given the dining room, kitchens, assembly and circulation spaces were never designed for even the current number of students on roll.

He added: “This change would also not have come anywhere near meeting the projected local need.”