I attended a meeting today in County Hall with the SABLE group set up by the energetic Mary Crofts and other local parents from the centre of St Albans aghast at the way that they have been cast adrift by the primary school allocation system. They were meeting Children Schools and Families Director John Harris, the Conservative lead member for education Keith Emsall, and county council staff. The meeting had been co-ordinated by St Albans central division LibDem county councillor Chris White and was also attended by Anne Main. Chris has been arguing for ages that St Albans needs an additional primary school in the city centre.
This is the year that chickens have really come home to roost with initially eighty city centre families finding they could not get a place for their four-year old children in any of their local community schools. This was because siblings of existing pupils from the pupil "bulge" of two years ago took almost all the places on offer at Aboyne Lodge, Maple and St Peters. For parents who often both work and who may well have chosen to live in the city centre as a lifestyle choice because they do not drive and don't even want a car, extra places provided at Mandeville, Bernards Heath and Margaret Wix just don't provide a solution.
The implications of having to walk up to two miles with a four-year old and perhaps younger siblings in tow because they cannot be left on their own - or rely on erratic and slow bus services - can be overwhelming. And then there is the sadness for young children who don't understand why they cannot just go down the road to school. Even where parents can get childminders, they often don't drive or simply cannot take one of a number of children in their care to a school outside the immediate neighbourhood.
It's a real mess. SABLE stands for St Albans Battle for Local Education because that is what they want. There's no easy answer but the county council needs to see if there are any ways to expand the capacity of existing schools in the short-term and urgently needs to identify and purchase a site for a new school to be constructed as soon as possible. One possibility for addressing the immediate crisis suggested at the meeting was using the Jubilee Centre in Catherine Street (a former school though too small to be used as a standalone today) to provide Aboyne Lodge with more space on a split-site model.
It's certainly worth investigating. In terms of a permanent home for a new school, the former Oaklands campus on Hatfield Road looks a horribly missed opportunity - I remember suggesting this at the time the departure of most of the further education college was first being discussed. But the "Tesco" site on London Road could be ideal - particularly if the county council showed some flair in design. So far that site has been looked at in terms of a standard new Hertfordshire two-form entry school and the conclusion has been that any new school would be "sub-standard".
This is an unfortunate terminology. There is clearly a space issue in terms of a traditional primary school model, but London has some primary schools on very cramped sites achieved by building upwards and putting playgrounds on the roof - see for example the cutting edge Hampden-Gurney CofE primary school in Westminster. Because the Tesco-Eversheds site is quite low-lying relative to the rest of the city centre, a school on more than one floor would not necessarily have a negative visual impact. It would be interesting to explore people's reactions to such a proposal.
The big "if" of course continues to be whether Tesco would have any interest in selling all or part of the land for such a use - it looks pretty unlikely currently. With compulsory purchase of any site taking up to seven years, the county council as education provider and district council as planning authority need to get moving on reviewing all the options.