Support for Belsize Free School swells as children miss out on primary places

Eighty children have not been offered a place at a Camden primary school for September, fuelling support for a new free school in Belsize.

Parents with young children and education campaigners met on Friday and Sunday to discuss the latest plans for a non-denominational state primary in two-council owned buildings on Fitzjohn’s Avenue. A total of 550 residents signed a petition in Budgens in Belsize Park in favour of the school in just two days last week.

The school would be state funded, but outside of local authority control and would cater for local children.

At a meeting in Hampstead Town Hall last Friday, Jill Barnes, a solicitor and mother of two small children, who is leading the campaign, said: “We want to provide a choice for families who want a non-religious primary school where children can walk to school.

“There have been 320 applications for free schools across the country and they want to root out the frivolous ones.

“We have to be competitive and prove that we will provide value for money,” she told parents.

If the plan is approved, pioneers of the new school will be invited to an interview with the Department for Education in August and they will find out in September if they have been successful. They hope to have the new school up and running by January 2012.

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Ms Barnes said that there was concern among some Camden residents that opening a new school in Fitzjohn’s Avenue would sap money from other local primary schools but she claimed that this was not the case.

“The government will lease or buy the buildings from Camden at market value, so the local authority will not lose money. This school would address an area which is truly a black hole in terms of primary schools.”

The meeting was held in the same week as parents across the borough found out whether their child had been offered a place at a primary school of their choice.

As many as 80 four-years-olds living in the borough, who are due to start school next year, have not been offered a place at all in Camden. In total 1,759 Camden children applied. Meanwhile, 101 children who live outside the borough have been offered a place at a Camden school. In total 2,060 children applied and the council found places for 1,780 of them.

Ms Barnes explained that this is the third year that campaigners have appealed to Camden Council to open a new primary school in the Belsize ward.

A breakdown of the figures showed there was a real need for a new school in the area, she argued. Of the 80 children who had not been offered a place, none of them live in the Belsize ward, however, up to 25 children have been given a place at a school which they did not apply to. In Swiss Cottage, 12 children do not have a place and four have been given one at a school they did not apply to.

Camden’s solution last year, to open the Courthope Education Centre in buildings belonging to Hampstead Hill School, had cost tax payers up to a quarter of a million pounds. Yet there was still a need for places, she said.

She also pointed out that Camden’s plans to open a new primary school in Liddell Road in West Hampstead in 2015, would not ease the problem for parents who wanted their children to be able to attend a local school in Belsize, now.

Cllr Heather Johnson, cabinet member for children, schools and families, Camden Council, said: “The vast majority of parents have received an offer at the primary school of their choice.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to offer places to 80 families in the initial round of offers. However, there will be several rounds of offer-making between now and summer.”