Altruism in fashion on the King's Road

Nick Holdsworth

Nick Holdsworth on possible motives behind Kensington and Chelsea's plan for a centre of excellence.

The radical plan by an inner London borough to set up an independent specialist languages school mixing public and private students poses more questions than answers.

Is the Pounds 20 million scheme for a private charitable-status school on a prime site in Chelsea merely a well-camouflaged vehicle for political ambition?

Or is it a golden opportunity to halve the Pounds 6m a year spent on sending pupils out of borough for their secondary schooling and to enable local children, perhaps some from the World's End council estate, to learn two foreign languages in sumptuous surroundings? Could it be an attempt further to undermine state education in a Tory-controlled borough, as some claim?

Or merely a clever way of subverting the Department for Education and build a new school in a borough which currently has 750 surplus secondary school places - never mind a projected shortfall of 2,000 within five years?

Ask Mrs Ian Hanham, Tory leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea - Joan Hanham to her intimates - and her response is, perhaps, predictable: the proposed "innovative, practical and elegant" solution to the perceived need for a new school in the south of the borough, is an opportunity. Definitely not a political tool designed to lever her into former Social Security Minister Nicholas Scott's soon-to-be-merged Chelsea seat, as political opponents allege.

"I would never dream of using something like this even if that were so. To play politics with children's education is ludicrous," she protests.

The response of Robert Atkinson, leader of the minority Labour group is also true to form: "Joan Hanham wants Nicholas Scott's seat . . . This would be a real plum for her."

Nonsense, says Michael Stoten, the borough's director of education. The proposals, agreed in outline by councillors on the education and libraries committee last week, would enable 800 local children to attend a "prestige educational institution", offering them and 400 fee-paying pupils "vital linguistic skills to equip them in a modern commercial world". Political advantage has no part to play, he says.

So why do teachers in the three county secondary schools in the north of the borough feel the department has been waging a political vendetta with local inspections generally far more critical than the Office for Standards in Education visits? Bob Sulatycki, divisional secretary for the Kensington and Chelsea Teachers Association, says: "There's a general feeling that the department has been working towards a political agenda - arguing the need for a selective school in the borough."

The debate comes down to numbers: the borough does not dispute DFE figures on surplus places, but says a forecast increase in population makes a pressing case for a new school. Secondary school provision in Chelsea for those 49 per cent of pupils whose parents don't send them to fee-paying private schools is poor - a quarter of parents in the area fail to get their first choice of school, the second worst figure in the country. With the DFE unwilling to permit a new state school, a private venture, where the borough contracted to buy places for its own students, at a lower fee level than that charged private pupils, the selective school proposal offers a way forward.

Mr Stoten says the proposed new school on a site belonging to King's College, London, in Chelsea's King's Road, would halve the bill for out-of-borough education if the DFE agreed. But Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, has been distinctly lukewarm.

The outline of the scheme, rushed out last week to ensure a provisional decision before King's College put in a planning application for housing on the proposed school site, is detailed in educational terms, but vague otherwise.

The school, to be run by a charitable trust, would be a specialised language centre, with courses tailored to individual students' aptitudes. Mr Stoten is adamant that selective admission will not operate. As a key customer the LEA would have financial muscle, but no specific power over the private school's governing body.

Difficulties with guaranteeing a private school a hefty portion of its annual fee income are brushed aside: Mrs Hanham doesn't think a change of Government would affect the relationship, or that parents paying fees for their children would object to the fact that most pupils were being paid for at a lower rate from the public purse. Nor does the prospect that the school might prove so popular with fee-payers that it might later decline to take LEA children.

"Our expectation is that there will be enough fee-paying people prepared to pay . . . I cannot see a position whereby we would start off on this road without being able to secure the continued education of the children we wish to put into the school," she says.

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