Chuka Umunna: New free school on Brixton Hill not best use of site or public money

Chuka_Umunna-5DOur local MP has written for Brixton Blog about the new ‘Catholic-ethos’ free school that has opened on the Lambeth College site on Brixton Hill (and will be part of the new development on the site). He states that the free school ‘is not the best use’ of the site and that ‘a new school on that site has neither been necessary, or the best use of the taxpayers money’.

Chuka lists four principal issues:

First, I do not agree that there are insufficient options for parents locally to send their children to schools with a Catholic ethos – as has been suggested to me – and that this is why parents are sending their children out of Borough. Both Bishop Thomas Grant and La Retraite are excellent catholic schools, determined to keep doing better and already providing a great education to the pupils there who I have no doubt can go on to do very well.

Second, I know supporters of the Schools have said that our schools are not sufficiently academically rigorous. I think the results of our schools, as set out above, demonstrate that this is not the case, and I do not see why – when there has been such rapid improvement in local schools under excellent leadership – that a new free school will do any better. No doubt commitment from parents supporting the school will help, but that could – and in my view should – help elsewhere to build on existing work.

Third, there is concern that not enough pupils locally are getting into Russell Group universities. Whilst we have excellent universities outside the Russell Group, I completely understand why parents and pupils alike will be concerned to ensure they can get into any university they want and that will help them get on.

Our Russell Group universities are excellent, and it is absolutely the case that we should want to help our young people locally get into those universities, and encourage them to apply when they want to do so. But our schools do not do badly on this measure. In Greater London, around 9% of key stage 5 students who took A levels or equivalent qualification went on to Russell Group universities. Last year, Dunraven School had around 12%, St Martin-in-the-Fields had around 14% and La Retraite Roman Catholic Girls School had around 15% attend Russell Group universities.

We should be unapologetic about wanting more of our children who would do best there to go to Russell Group universities, but our schools are doing well, and I believe will continue to do better and better on this score. I know that private schools often send many more of their pupils to Russell Group universities than State schools, but I do not think getting more people into university, including the Russell Group, is solely a matter for the school.

Universities themselves can do more, but information, guidance and help from parents and past graduates can play a huge role. That’s part of the reason why I would prefer those who admirably put in so much energy and work in setting up free schools to do the same to help the excellent local schools we do have help their students get into top universities.

I think that having children from diverse backgrounds learn together plays a positive role in education and encouraging success – I do not think it would serve anyone well if experience of attending university was confined to parents at a few local schools as I fear may happen in this case.

Fourth, I know a number of people think the school is a good idea because they are concerned that we will not have enough secondary school places in the Borough. This is not the case. Especially following the opening of City Heights E-ACT, which had its first intake last year. I have been very impressed when I have been to City Heights and when I’ve met with staff. I believe City Heights will be an excellent school for years to come, but I do not want to see a new school, with such a clear vision of how it will help students to get on, be undermined by the opening of a free school close by. I hope very much that either school will not become a destination solely for better off families and the other school lose out from having a mix of backgrounds as a result.

Read the full article on Brixton Blog.

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