One of the first things the new Conservative-Lib Dem Government did on taking office was cancel Labour’s school-building programme. As a result, London faces a dramatic shortage of places, particularly at primary school level. According to London Councils, there will be 80,000 children across London without a permanent school place by 2014. They’ll either be in classes with more than 30 pupils in them, in portakabins, or being taught at home. It’s a worrying time for parents right across the capital, including here in Lambeth.
Our Labour council has been pushing the Government to think again. Giving children the best start in life – including a place at a good local school – is one of the most important investments we make as a society. We all benefit from it.
Last week I went to see the Government Education Secretary Michael Gove MP. I made the point that his cuts had left Lambeth £70m short of the funding we need to provide new primary school places. The problem is most acute in the south of the borough in Streatham and West Norwood. What’s strange is that although the Government says there’s no money to build the schools we need (remember, that’s primary school places in the south), he has announced funding for secondary school places in other parts of Lambeth. He’s given Durand Academy in Brixton £17m to build a secondary school in Kent for just 200 local children, and he’s offered Katherine Birbalsingh, known in sections of the press as the ‘Tory teacher’ because of her attacks on state schools at Tory Party Conference, around £10m to set up a secondary school in the north of the borough. I asked Mr Gove why he was offering money to build secondary schools when we already have enough secondary places, rather than the primary school places parents need. His thinking makes no sense at all.
Lambeth will soon run out of primary school places in Streatham and West Norwood unless we find the money to build new ones. So, reluctantly, we have had to sell off some council-owned land to raise funds. The old Lilian Baylis school site in Kennington has been used as a community sports and arts centre since the school relocated to a brand new building. The Lib Dems and Tories tried to sell off the whole site to developers when they ran the council. Labour saved it so the community could continue to benefit from the well used facilities. We came up with an innovative idea – we handed half the site to a community trust so that the sports and arts activities could continue, and we sold the other half to raise money to build the new schools local children need. A sensible approach. Unless you’re Michael Gove that is. He had his eye on the site for Katherine Birbalsingh’s so-called ‘free’ secondary school (the one we don’t need, remember, because we have enough secondary places already). Ms Birbalsingh has taken to the media to attack Lambeth for this decision – although all we’re doing is making sure there are school places for children where they are needed, rather than where they are not.
It’s a very strange world indeed where Tory politicians’ vanity projects are considered more important than providing school places for the children who need them. Lambeth’s pragmatic about who runs the schools – all we want is good schools that have the confidence of local parents. What a shame we have a Government that seems to be ignoring the fate of children at the 24,000 state schools while they pursue their ideological obsession with 24 free schools.