Cllr Meri O’Connell outside the old Elvian school
Why does Reading need a new Secondary school?
Since becoming the Lib Dem Lead for Education on Reading Borough Council in May 2012, I have been acutely aware of the pressure on school places in Reading. Local authorities across the country were caught by surprise when it became apparent that national forecasts for school places, based on property types, was inaccurate. The system failed largely because growth in population was not matched during the Blair and Brown years by a comparable building programme.
As a result of the revised forecast, Reading Borough Council has permanently created an additional 360 primary places to cope with projected pupil numbers. The area with the largest expected rise in growth is the densely populated urban area of Central West Reading, accounting for 58% of growth.
Why should it be on the old Elvian School site?
Central West Reading will need 9 extra entry forms in Year 7 (the first year of secondary school), by 2018. Even with all the existing secondary’s in the Central West area taking additional forms (there are 2 Reading and 3 West Berkshire Secondaries), it is clear that a new school is needed. The problem is that suitable school sites in this area are hard to find.
When it emerged that the West Reading Education Network (WREN) were proposing to develop the old Elvian School site for a new secondary school, with its existing buildings, playing fields and easy access to bus routes, I was extremely relieved that we had found a solution to the towns predicament. After meeting the WREN group I was further inspired to support them as their bid is creative and original and their enthusiasm infectious!
The alternative, at the old DEFRA site in Coley, is unsuitable because it is much harder for those living in the Central West area to reach. It doesn’t have the space for sports facilities and students will have to travel off site for sports lessons. The DEFRA buildings are not suitable for education provision and will need complete alteration to become fit for purpose.
Why not support the plans for more houses here?
Taylor Wimpy want to build 193 homes on the site. Only an idiot would fail to agree that Reading needs more homes, particularly affordable ones. Sadly Taylor Wimpey are only planning on 23 houses and 20 flats falling into the ‘affordable’ category out of the total, this falls well short of the 50% that Reading Borough Council’s own policy says major developments should achieve.
Supporting the WREN’s school bid doesn’t mean that we don’t support housing developments, but there are many other sites that homes could and should be built on in the general Reading area (the DEFRA site being a prime example). Realistically, there is no other site, so strategically perfect for a school serving the Central West area, that could become available and then be made ready within the time needed. The bulge year groups hit secondary age in 2018.
A local resident giving evidence in support of the WREN group pointed out that there is little point in building more family homes in this area if there are no local schools for their children to go to. We need to build the infrastructure first or we will only compound the impending school places problem.
So what can you do to support WREN’s plans?
Taylor Wimpy are appealing against Reading Borough Council’s refusal of their planning application. The WREN group, supported by a wide variety of local residents and the Council are having to put their case at a public enquiry.
The first part of this was heard between the 9th and the 13th September. It has been extended to the 12th, 13th and 14th November because of the enormous number of people who wanted to speak in support of the WREN group’s proposal. WREN are asking anyone who is interested in supporting their school bid to attend on one of those days.
It is held at Reading Town Hall from 10 till 2pm each day. You can stay for the whole session or just drop in for 10 minutes to show your support. If you are only able to attend once then WREN ask that you try and come on Thursday 14th as that is when they are making their closing statements and support most needed.
One final thought…
At the close of the first part of the appeal proceedings WREN announced that they would withdraw their bid to create a new free school if they were unable to secure the Elvian site. If this school doesn’t get built we will be back to square one in planning to provide secondary education in West Reading for the bulge year groups that are coming.
Current education policy means that Reading Borough Council is not allowed to build schools, even though it knows there is real need. Money for new schools is only given to Free schools (those set up by groups of parents, teachers, charities, trusts, religious and voluntary groups) and Academies. Reading needs the WREN bid to succeed, please support them by attending the second part of the public enquiry.
Cllr Meri O’Connell
Tilehurst Ward Councillor and Lib Dem Lead for Education