Parents and pupils at the International Academy of Greenwich free school have been left shocked and dismayed after the Department for Education decided to close the school last week.
The controversial school had planned to build a 765-pupil base at the Bowring Sports Ground in Lee, but the application was unanimously blocked by Greenwich councillors in July over its proposed use of Metropolitan Open Land, which is protected from development unless there are special circumstances.
A need for school places could have qualified as special circumstances, but council planners said the school “failed to provide a convincing case” that such a need existed.
The school, currently based in an office building in Meadowcourt Road, told parents by email last week that “with great sadness” the Department for Education had decided to close the school for Year 7, 8 and 9 at the end of this academic year. Students now in Year 10 will be able to stay and finish their GCSE.
The news – which followed a “requires improvement” rating by Ofsted – was not a surprise to some after the council’s rejection. But the agenda for the planning meeting published in July shocked some parents to the core.
“We had been told it was some objections from local residents, which is usually the case with any planning application,” said Louise, the mother of a Year 7 pupil who was accepted for 2019/20.
She said: “But we had no idea of the opposition – all the school’s prospectus said was that it was operating on a temporary site and awaiting planning permission for a new site.”
The level of objections became clear when the agenda for the planning meeting was published.
Louise said: “That was the first time that any of us had any inkling of what was going on behind the scenes. There was a huge amount of opposition – it was so clear in that meeting that council had never supported that school.”
She said after the decision that Greenwich Council was “cold and insensitive”, adding there was “no emotional support”.
Louise added: “It was a really bad time. For six weeks I wasn’t sleeping, I was sick to the pit of my stomach about what would happen to my son’s education. They could at least have reached out and given families support.”
On the first day of term, her son was offered a place at another school and was moved immediately.
She said: “I was relieved but there are still pupils who haven’t been offered a place. What I would like to see is an independent investigation into what happened here and an apology.”
Phillip Dunkel, whose son remains at the school in Year 10, said IAG lied to parents that planning permission had been granted.
He said: “They told us at the time that planning permission was already in order – that was quite clearly untrue. In the first year it became clear that it had yet to be given but they said if the council declined to give permission then the DfE had made a commitment to appeal and get it through on the second try.”
A spokesperson for the school said it was “saddened” by the claim, adding: “We passed on the DfE’s very strong assurances that they felt planning would be granted, and based on this we believed that this would be the case, we cannot recall ever saying that it was categorically secured.
“We acknowledge that there are circumstances where the wording used by lots of stakeholders has not been as clear as it could have been.
“There are examples where it could be interpreted that planning was secured. For example, in the local authority’s admissions booklet it states that the new school would be open in 2021.”
Mr Dunkel, whose family lives in Greenwich, questioned the claim by the council that there was no demand for spaces, adding “if there was, all the pupils in the school would already have been distributed elsewhere”. He said: “The council’s figures are based on a school that hasn’t even been built yet.”
Julia Baker, whose son is still at the school in Year 8, said she was “disgusted that the powers that be could allow the process to get as far as it had”.
She said: “We had been told that planning permission was certain to be granted and had numerous meetings to be shown the architect’s plans.
“How could this be three years in the planning – presumably with millions of pounds wasted – and most importantly the education of several hundreds of school children in the balance?”
Ms Baker, whose family live in Lewisham, said they were “very concerned” about the future of her son’s education and that his secondary school experience “has been a disaster from the start”.
She questioned: “I would sincerely love to know where this so-called surplus of places are in the borough. My son is currently in Year 8 and on five waiting lists for an in-year transfer – is the council going to force the local schools to create additional spaces? We have had no apology.”
A Greenwich Council spokesperson said the “regrettable situation” was down to the DfE “granting permission for a school with no permanent accommodation to open” and as a result students are facing “upheaval” while year 10 pupils “face a disruptive lead-up to their GCSE exams”.
She said the council was “working closely” with Lewisham to ensure all those affected receive support.
Lewisham Council said: “We realise that this is a difficult time for parents but in keeping with our statutory responsibility, we are confident that a place can be offered at a Lewisham school to every Lewisham child affected by the closure.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said the decision to close the school was “not taken lightly”, adding: “Our priority is to ensure that pupils continue to receive a strong education, and the trust and local authority are working together to ensure appropriate provision is found for students following the closure.”
Grainne Cuffe is the Local Democracy Reporter for Lewisham. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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