Enfield is facing a severe shortage of school places and something needs to be done. This is not just an Enfield issue, as all over London, boroughs find themselves in the same situation. But the question is what to do about this? I’ve been giving this some thought and more and more come back to a somewhat radical solution, but first of all, let’s consider where we are at present.
The first step in Enfield has been to shoe-horn more children into existing schools. A number of primary schools in the area have been given bulge classes, temporary extra classes which will work their way through the system and then return the school to its original size; sadly there’s a problem. These extra children have siblings, and these siblings can have the effect of making it even less likely that local children can find a school place at their local school. This year almost all of George Spicer Primary’s available places went to siblings with few places for "first children". And adding more children to schools where provision of lunch rooms, toilets, playground space was never planned for them, brings all the problems you might imagine.
The second step has been to permanently expand existing schools and Merryhills School is undergoing just such an expansion. But there are problems here too! Many community schools like Alma, Bush Hill Park or George Spicer are on severely constrained sites and although classroom space might be available, this would leave children "cheek-by-jowl" during break times. Splitting lunchtimes helps in some ways but it means that children are expected to work in class whilst their school mates are enjoying break time – and we all know how quiet children at play can be!
Other community schools such as Worcesters have great sites, but terrible access along narrow residential streets. Yes, I know we should really walk our children to school (and mine walk almost every single day to and from school) but not all parents have the luxury of the time that takes.
Then we have the issue of voluntary aided school, typically religious schools whether Catholic, CoE, Jewish or other. Some have shouldered their part of the burden and accepted expansion, but some have thus far resisted. The council seems reticent to take on the boards of governors, even though the council, as the LEA, does have the right to force expansion if they can show it is in the best interests of the borough as a whole.
So where does this leave us? Well we still need new primary school places and really the only sensible solution is to build new primary schools – but where? A huge problem in London is the price of land, but of course there already large tracts of land dotted around the borough, the parks, so could we use these and if we did, how might we limit the impact to other park users?
Well let’s start with some ground rules. We don’t want to take an entire park and leave nothing for the community, and wherever possible, we would want to replace lost park land, perhaps with smaller new parks elsewhere, perhaps on small existing brown field sites. We would also want to maximise the amount of shared space; although hard-core playgrounds are required, there should be no "fencing in" of playing fields – during the week they can be used by the school, and during the evenings and weekends, by walkers, dog owners and weekend footballers. Finally, the school should be build not only to the highest modern building standards, to blend with the local communities, but also with an eye to use as community facilities outside school hours. At the weekend I was at a new school in Islington which provided excellent facilities for small conferences because the design of the school permitted use of the main halls without having to permit people into classrooms.
I appreciate that this will be far from a preferred solution and many will rail against it, but we’ve already past the time when the borough should have been building new schools and we need to catch-up. I hope article this will start not only a dialog, but a flurry of positive ideas whether in support of this suggestion or even better ones which could provide the borough with the school places it so desperately needs, in real, purpose build schools, equally accessible to all the borough’s children.