Big battles fought in our own back yard;Another Voice;Opinion

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
THIS is a dangerous column to write. Past experience has taught me it is risky to stray into local school rows. It is one thing to upset national politicians, quite another to incur the wrath of friends and neighbours.

Even NATO would struggle to keep the peace in some communities when parents, teachers, and governors fall out over school closures, admissions rules or where to build a new school.

My daughter's primary school is in the middle of one of one such row. Friends have fallen out, public meetings have turned nasty and the local media have carried letters of accusation and counter-accusation.

There are sound arguments and honourable people on both sides of this dispute. I bring it to your attention not from any desire to wash dirty linen in public but because it highlights tensions and contradictory pressures at the heart of two key national education policies. This is a row which could soon be running at a school near you.

It began because the schools where I live have a very high proportion of primary classes of 30-plus pupils. Under pressure from the Government, the council plans to reduce class sizes.

The area has also experienced the "league-table effect". Encouraged by shrewd estate agents, parents have rushed in. Many schools, including the separate infant and junior schools on the site attended by my daughter, are now over-subscribed and are being encouraged to expand. This again is something the Government wants to encourage.

You begin to see the problem. If my daughter's school cut class sizes it would be turning away even more children from a good and popular school. It has no space to expand and has too many "temporary" classrooms which have been there for decades.

The school came up with a cunning plan: the junior school would expand into the infant school buildings and the infant school would have a new building on education authority school playing fields, which are right next door.

This way both Government aims could be met: the schools could increase their intake by taking an extra form of entry and reduce class sizes to 30. There would also be less-cramped and much-improved accommodation for both schools.

To the school's delight the Department for Education and Employment even agreed to put up most of the money for the new infant school building. But the solution proved illusory.

For many years the playing field has also been used by local residents and dog-walkers as a convenient, and relatively rare, bit of green space. It is also home to a thriving Saturday soccer mini-league.

Green space is a bit of an issue around here. Not long ago we had "eco-warriors" living in tree-houses to protect a row of poplars from developers bent on improving the view from their new luxury flats. "Swampy and Co" had a lot of local support as residents felt, quite rightly, that local opinion had been ignored in the council's haste to accommodate the developers. The whole affair was acutely embarrassing for the council, which is now wary of any further "green" banana-skins. There is another policy issue to consider too: the Government, anxious about the state of school sport, has moved to protect school playing fields.

So you can see why this issue has become a spaghetti junction of contradictory national policies: class sizes, popular schools, playing fields and green planning issues.

Those wanting a new school made the case for more parental choice, smaller classes, and better accommodation.

The other side, led by the mini-league organisers but including many local parents and residents, argued for preserving sports facilities and green space. In a further argument, which touched a chord with many teachers, they claimed a four-form entry was too large for an infant school.

Last week, events came to a head as placard-carrying parents descended on the town hall to hear the council rule against the new school. The DFEE's gift-horse was stared in the eye and cut loose. The problem remains: where will the children go if the classes are cut?

The summer holidays approach but, while they may dissipate some of the tension, the problem will still be there in September. I feel for the governors and staff, who have had to wrestle with this on top of the usual daily pressures.

It is sobering to realise that as Whitehall and Westminster increase their centralising power over education, it is local education issues which most excite parents. At a time when some question the role of local authorities, it is interesting to see how it is often locally-elected councillors who feel the heat generated by conflicting national policies.

LEAs are a convenient whipping-boy for governments. It is more likely to be councillors, or school governors, who face the revenge of the ballot box if parents are unhappy about something affecting their school. This is far from a perfect state of affairs. Indeed it often produces short-termist, "not-in-my-backyard" decisions. But that is democracy.

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