Plans for a much-needed new secondary school in Lawrence Hill have been dealt a fresh blow, after the Department for Education told parents it would not open until 2024 at the earliest – six years later than first planned.
The future of Oasis Temple Quarter School on the Feeder Canal, which was approved to meet the rising demand for secondary places in east central Bristol, is now in serious doubt.
The development on Silverthone Lane finally received planning permission from Bristol City Council in August 2020. But following an objection by the Environment Agency over flooding concerns, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government called in the application in December, which means he will decide whether to approve the plans after a public inquiry lasting at least six months. Meanwhile, Bristol City Council will have to find even more school places for children at existing schools.
The 1,600-capacity school was initially supposed to open in 2018 after a successful bid by academy chain Oasis Community Learning. But in recent weeks representatives of the Department for Education (DfE) told local parents that the planning delays mean the earliest possible opening date would be 2024.
For years now, the council has had to find extra school places for children in east central Bristol at existing schools. But for the new academic year in 2021, the council can’t do this without creating temporary accommodation.
Councillor Anna Keen, Cabinet Lead for Education and Skills said the “disappointing” decision to call in the planning application left Bristol families and the council in “a very difficult position”, but that they were looking at all possible scenarios.
There is an estimated shortfall of 170 Year 7 places for the east central area for September 2021. In December, the council announced plans costing £4.5 million to find 140 places at three schools run by the Cabot Learning Foundation (CLF) by relocating sixth formers from Bristol Brunel Academy (BBA) and John Cabot Academy (JCA) to an existing CLF academy in South Gloucestershire.
Jim McEwen, a local parent and member of campaign group BS5 Secondary Education Forum, told the Cable: “In the DfE’s eyes, 2024 is the nearest possible date, but there were no guarantees on that.”
Jim lives in east Bristol, and has two children aged 11 and 9. For years he has been one of the parents worried about a lack of school places.
“I feel gutted. People in east Bristol were told this would open by 2018, not 2024 at the earliest, so that’s basically six school years. That’s an entire secondary full of children that are going to have their choice in education compromised, and will have had the quality of their education put at risk because schools are getting more and more crowded.
“It’s really upsetting that those kids growing up in Lawrence Hill and Barton Hill aren’t going to get this opportunity. Children here experience high levels of deprivation and they really deserve a decent secondary school on their doorstep and to have a genuine choice in their education.”
As parents nervously wait to hear in April which schools their children will be going to in September, Jim fears the school won’t be built at all.
How did we get to this point?
As early as 2012, according to Jim, the council knew that pupil numbers would increase and more secondary places would be needed. Projections showed year 7 pupils would peak by 2023, potentially totalling 35 extra classes in one year.
Funding for new school places is given to local authorities through the Basic Need Grant, which is based on current places and projected demand. But in 2015 it was decided that Bristol would need three new secondary schools to create enough places in years to come. The council said the Basic Need Grant wouldn’t be enough to fund these new schools, so there was no option but to go down the Coalition government’s Free School route, where the government pays for the capital costs but the council hands over control.
In 2016, the academy Oasis Community Learning, which already runs eight academy schools in Bristol, applied to the DfE to open a new free school on Sliverthorne Lane in Barton Hill, which was accepted.
The original opening date was going to be in 2018, but after difficulties finding a suitable site, planning permission for the wider SIlverthorne Lane development, which will also include hundreds of new homes, offices, shops, and student accommodation, was only granted by the council in August 2020. Parents celebrated the breakthrough, only for the government to call in the planning application for further consideration a few months later. The reason was flooding concerns by the Environment Agency about the site located along the Feeder Canal.
During years of delays in the building of Oasis Temple Quarter School, a new school, Trinity Academy, opened in Lockleaze in 2019, with the permanent building still under construction. Plans to build a new 900-place secondary school and community building at the Park Centre in Knowle West were approved in September 2020, which also will be run by Oasis.
Conservative councillor for Horfield, Claire Hiscott, who was cabinet member of Education between 2016 and 2017, told the Cable: “I thought [the Oasis Temple Quarter School] was an overly ambitious scheme from the beginning. It was modelled on a South Bank school (in London) that Oasis run. It has evolved into an ambitious scheme that has become more ambitious and therefore possibly unachievable, because now they’re including housing in the development.”
“Bristol Learning City Board made the decision to put one Bristol provider forward for that application, that was before my time. I was presented with a fait accompli that Oasis was providing the school.
“I was concerned that the bells and whistles would cause problems further down the line and they have… If it hadn’t been so ambitious, I think we would have built a school by now.”
A spokesperson for Oasis Community Learning told the Cable they remained “committed to continuing to work closely with our partners at the DfE and Bristol City Council on delivering the new academy” and “fully dedicated to ensuring the academy offers an outstanding education for local young people”.
On the decision to go down the free school route, Hiscott said: “That was the best option at the time, there was no way the council could afford the land and building. The government had pretty much made the free school route the only viable route. There wasn’t the capacity within the council to build three secondary schools.
“I think they have been failed. Parents are justified in their complaints. We deserve a school in east Bristol.”
The DfE told the Cable there was no provisional opening date for the school due to planning delays, and that a decision on the planning enquiry would not be known until the end of 2021 or early 2022.
Councillor Anna Keen said the decision to call in the planning application was “disappointing”, and that “parents and carers are understandably concerned”.
“The Department for Education (DfE) has overall responsibility for the location and building of a new school, however in Bristol we are fortunate to have strong and popular local schools with ‘Good’ Ofsted ratings that will expand further next year,” she said.
Keen added that the council’s work with the Cabot Learning Federation would create extra Year 7 spaces at Bristol Brunel, John Cabot, and City Academy this coming year. “This means that local children will be able to secure a place at a local school.”
“We agree that the call in was left too late, with Bristol families and the local authority, left in a very difficult position,” she said. “Our ability to plan longer-term is significantly impacted and will continue to be until the inquiry is concluded. We offered to provide a site for temporary accommodation but this option was turned down by the DfE.
“We are responding to the DfE delay and are looking at all possible scenarios. We want a school on the Temple Quarter site and have kept up our end of the bargain to deliver this for young people and their families in east central Bristol, but Local Authorities cannot build new schools and unfortunately we now have no option but to wait for this decision to be resolved by central government.”