The recent announcement of the proposed building of a new 900-pupil secondary school for Cheltenham is welcome news. Any investment in the education of young people at a time of such hard-faced austerity must be good for our town.
However, there are some interesting questions that it is pertinent to ask about this school…
Firstly, why must this school be a “Free School”? This means that it will be outside the control of the County Council and therefore the local community and its parents, it will not have to adhere to the National Curriculum, will not have to employ qualified teachers nor abide by national pay and conditions agreements.
Secondly, why was the proposal or location for this new school not mentioned in the recently published Joint Core Strategy signed off only a few months ago by the local authority? Is it because the pressure for a new Free School originates from outside Gloucestershire, possibly from central government and the Office of the Regional Schools Commissioner?
Thirdly, why has the location for the new school been identified as Kidnappers Lane on the south eastern edge of the town? This location is surprisingly close to the largest comprehensive school in the town and not far from the second largest but is difficult to access from most of the rest of Cheltenham. How much additional cross-town traffic will be generated by this school? Furthermore, the location is in area in which new housing was rejected due to the high levels air pollution. Does this not also apply to schools?
Fourthly, who currently owns the land on which the proposed school will be built, and will therefore receive a significant cash receipt?
Fifthly, the County Council’s data shows that there are growing numbers of primary aged pupils in the town who will transfer to secondary education in the next few years and therefore justify the building of a new school. However, it does not consider the 1000 secondary age children who are bussed from Cheltenham to Gloucester grammar schools every day – most of whom have home addresses in the south eastern sector of the town which is just the very area to be served by the new school.
Sixthly, why, when there is such a marked difference in educational attainment across Cheltenham, is the proposed location for the new school in the area of highest educational attainment? Should not the priority be to focus scarce investment in education in those areas with the greatest need?
Seventhly, why is the proposal for an 11-16 school, without a Sixth Form when a national educational priority is to raise post 16 educational participation and attainment? What impact will a lack of sixth form have on parental preference for the school? Now that we know that Balcarras School has been given the contract to open the school, will this be merely a feeder school for their large Sixth form rather than a stand-alone school in its own right?
Finally, how will the school be completed by September 2019 or even 2020, the declared opening date? Is it possible to build a secondary in such a short timescale when no advance planning has been undertaken – or will this new school prove to be a series of temporary huts without specialist or sports facilities?
It is good news that Cheltenham is getting a new school, but is it the right school in the right place?