Angela calls for a re-think on Chapeltown Academy
In an Adjournment debate in the House of Commons (Wednesday 30th April) local MP Angela Smith has called on the government to re-think proposals to open a 16-19 free school in the Smithy wood area of Chapeltown.
In the debate she told the minister responsible for Free School policy that demand for sixth form places in the city was balanced and in fact education planners expect to see a 12% decline in demand over the period 2013-2020, thanks to a fall in the birth rate a few years ago. The extra places envisaged by Chapeltown Academy would therefore create excess supply and could put the quality of sixth form teaching at risk, given that resources could in some instances be stretched very thinly.
She also informed the Minister that the location of the school within the Hydra business park did not in her view represent a suitable location for an education establishment wishing to attract young people. The building designated for the new institution is a warehouse with an office block attached and is adjacent to an HGV repair garage. The area referred to on the Academy’s website for use as recreational space is currently a car park. It is off the main bus routes and young people arriving by train would find there is a further 1.7 miles to travel before getting to the school, often on roads that are without pavements and used by traffic making its way to the busy junction 35 of the M1.
The local authority has also raised concerns about the school and it is further concerned that it has not been allowed to put the proposed location of the school through the usual planning process.
In addition, Angela pointed out to the Minister that only 12 students from the city had so far placed the Academy as a first preference for September admissions.
Commenting on her speech to the Minister, Angela said;
“There is no real need for this proposed academy and figures I have been given by the local authority confirm that it will lead to an over-supply of places for sixth form provision in the city. Indeed what the city really needs is vocational training, especially in relation to those youngsters who have further to go in order to get themselves ready for the world of work.
Further, the location for the school is to say the least not ideal, given that it’s in the middle of an industrial estate. It is quite worrying that this location could even be considered as suitable for a college that is looking to be an elite academic institution.
A further worry is that as yet the take up of places seems to be very slow and indeed worryingly inadequate. On this basis, the school may never be allowed to open and this would leave some young people high and dry, with limited choices to make when it comes to finding an alternative sixth form place.
I have therefore asked the Minister to look at this proposal again and put an end to the uncertainty it is causing by stopping the process now. ”
For a full copy of the Angela’s speech
It is a pleasure to have secured this Adjournment debate on a topic that is very important to the people of Chapeltown and the surrounding area.
Chapeltown, and Sheffield generally, is an area that enjoys a rich legacy when it comes to providing educational opportunities, whether for young or old. I emphasise that that legacy has always been very locally driven by pioneers such as Lady Mabel Smith, who was—believe it or not—the sister of the seventh Earl Fitzwilliam but was a Labour councillor who worked very hard over a number of years to provide education for local people in the 20th century. She was the driving force behind the establishment of Ecclesfield grammar school, which is now the local comprehensive serving the Chapeltown area. She was the chair of governors for 20 years until her death in 1951. Even now, Ecclesfield comprehensive, which is a very successful academy, has its assembly hall named after her—Lady Mabel hall. We are all very proud of the legacy that she has left us. The school goes from strength to strength under the inspired leadership of Joel Wirth, the head teacher.
That tradition—that legacy—has continued in recent years. We have seen the development of a sixth-form college in one of the most deprived parts of the city—Longley Park. We have seen Hillsborough college go from strength to strength. Only recently, it has enjoyed an £8.8 million investment from the Government because it is considered successful and has been judged by Ofsted to be a good college. Very recently, we have had a university technical college—a brand-new institution that is already going down very well in the city and which was driven absolutely by local employers and local educationists.
We have also seen the recent development of three new sixth forms, approved by the Secretary of State. They are all in the north of the city, as indeed is Chapeltown. They have already provided 188 additional places, and that number will grow to 460 by September 2014. However, one of those institutions—Parkwood—has had to postpone its recruitment of sixth formers because of a lack of demand for places. In addition, Bradfield school, which is just six miles from Chapeltown in the north of the city, has failed in its first year to meet its initial allocation of 50 places.
Bradfield is the most popular school in the north of the city. Places in its years 7 to 11 are oversubscribed every single year, and its reputation drives that popularity. I am confident that it will fill its sixth form in the end, but at the moment it is failing to do so. The underlying reason is the demographic decline, which is beginning to bite in Sheffield and, based on birth rates from years ago, is forecast to continue until 2020. In the seven-year period from last year to 2020, we will suffer a 12% decline in the post-16 population, and the cohort will not be restored to 2012 levels until after 2023. The fact that attainment levels are going up all the time should lead to greater demand for sixth-form places, but that demand will not sufficiently replace the lack of demand produced by the demographic decline.
That all calls into question the establishment of the new, post-16 free school—Chapeltown academy—which hopes to open this September. For a start, the academy is not locally driven: it was not initiated or suggested by local people, educationists or employers. Moreover, based on the demographic decline and the fact that our new sixth forms are not being filled, the demand just is not there, despite the assertions of the academy’s proposers to the contrary. My statistics are based on those provided by the local authority of Sheffield city council, which does all the measuring, and there is no evidence whatsoever that there is demand for these additional sixth-form places. The increasing demand that does exist in the city, in common with other boroughs in the area, such as Barnsley, is for primary school places.
We also need to continue the work of building the skill set of young people in the region, given that our city, and the Sheffield city region more generally, is still broadly an engineering-based economy. On top of that, we need to ensure that we develop more fully the whole range of post-16 opportunities, because we want to develop the talent of all our young people, not just those who want to be professionals or academics. That is important, but all the evidence shows that, if we need to provide extra post-16 opportunities, the emphasis has to be on further investment in vocational training and skills.
That point is underlined by the fact that 1,200 young people in Sheffield are not in education, employment or training—the awful acronym NEETs is overused nowadays and I prefer to use the full term. That is clearly where the city needs to place its emphasis. We need more provision to help meet the needs of those 1,200 young people, who have fallen behind and need extra support to get themselves work-ready and skilled for the workplace. Clearly, there is no statistical base for opening the new academy.
There are also problems with the proposed location of the new academy. I visited the site at the weekend—I knew where it was, but I just wanted to have a good look at it. It is in the middle of an industrial park. It is a big warehouse, with office space attached to it. It is not possible to enter the area at present, because it is gated by an electronic barrier, which has a gatehouse attached to it. It is surrounded by other businesses, including a repair garage that seems to specialise in repairing heavy goods vehicles. When we visited on Sunday, a host of container-type lorries were parked in the area around the garage, which is adjacent to the proposed academy building.
The local authority planners, who are professionals, have raised serious concerns about the site’s sustainability. They are also concerned about the highways implications of the proposed site and the associated safety of students. One of the problems is that the planning process is abandoned—it is not applied—when it comes to new free schools. That does not prevent Sheffield planners from having a view and their view is absolutely clear.
The site is approximately 2 acres. The academy’s proposers suggest that there will be very minor amendments in the office space part of the building for the first year 12 intake in September. During the first year of the new institution, phase 2 site development will take place, which be in the huge warehouse—the industrial unit—attached to the office space. The proposers claim
on their website that the building works will not affect or disrupt existing classroom space, which I find very hard to believe, indeed.
The industrial park is off the road that takes traffic from junction 35a of the M1 down into Ecclesfield. It is a very busy road. The travel route for many students getting to the academy from Elsecar and the rest of Barnsley will involve going to Chapeltown railway station. The website for Chapeltown academy claims that Barnsley to Chapeltown on the Penistone line takes six minutes, which is great, but it does not say that there is a further 1.7 mile walk to get from Chapeltown railway station to the academy. That walk involves going up the busy road to which I have just referred, which is not safe. Alternatively, there is a slightly shorter route up Cowley lane in Chapeltown, but that is equally busy and will involve crossing the road twice as the footpath runs out on either side. I can absolutely understand why the planners in Sheffield have serious concerns about the safety of students in accessing the site, which is entirely unsuitable.
My final point about the location is that the site has no green space around it whatsoever. The website claims that there is recreational space in front of the building for students and staff alike. At the moment, that recreational space is a car park. Where recreational space and opportunities for sport will come from is absolutely unimaginable. I know that Ecclesfield park is down the hill in the centre of Ecclesfield village, which is what the academy claims on its website, but if that is the best it can do for green space, I am sorry to say that that is just not sufficient, and many local parents and young people will feel the same.
We have concerns about the transparency of Chapeltown Academy Ltd’s development of the proposal. Of course, the planning process does not apply in relation to getting planning permission for the site, but a consultation has to take place instead. The consultation, which was online, is now closed. There were a few questions asking for all people’s details and their e-mail address, but the consultation consisted of one question: “Do you agree with the premises chosen for Chapeltown academy—yes or no?” There was also a little box for additional comments. If the local authority tried to undertake a consultation as shabby and inadequate as that, it would rightly be pilloried by elected representatives, such as me, and by local media, parents, young people and the local community. It is absolutely astounding that the academy can think that that constitutes a proper consultation on a site as controversial as this one.
In addition, at the moment there is a shadow governing body, but the details of the permanent governing body have had to be extracted from the academy bit by bit. In the end, I had to write to the Minister to start to get any kind of detail at all. Even now, the detail of how the permanent governing body will look is not complete. We have the details of only four or five of the individuals involved, which is just not acceptable. On top of that, we have very few details about the staff. The names of just three members of staff and the principal-designate have been announced.
Yet we expect young people and their parents to put their faith in this venture. It is untried, untested and unknown—and it may never happen. I quote from a letter dated 25 March that I received from Lord Nash:
“I will carefully consider before entering into a funding agreement with the Chapeltown Academy Trust. Making certain that there is sufficient demand from students and that the institution will be financially viable are two of the factors that I will look at when making my decision.”
I come to the most important point of all. My understanding is that only 12 Sheffield students have accepted a place at Chapeltown academy as their first preference. Given that just 12 young people have taken a place at the academy, there is a strong possibility that the funding agreement will not go through. It is absolutely immoral to encourage young people to take up offers of places at an institution that might never open. What will happen if it does not open? Those young people will be left without a sixth-form place and will have limited choices from what is left. They will have the crumbs from the table when trying to find another sixth form to attend in September. Is that acceptable? I do not think so.
In summary, Chapeltown academy is not needed, it is not locally driven, it is in an inappropriate location, there is very little transparency in the development of the venture and it is risky. It threatens to let down the young people who have put their faith in the institution. Even though there are only 12 of them from the city of Sheffield, that is 12 too many as far as I am concerned. Chapeltown Academy Trust has no track record. It has come from nowhere. It is not a chain or a charity. It has no background whatever. It is untested, untried and unknown. I ask the Minister to make a commitment tonight seriously to consider backing out of the venture before it is too late and young people are left adrift in September, not knowing where to go to further their education.