Ham&High letters: Abacus Primary School and living with the Berlin Wall

This former Hamstead police station could become home to Abacus Belsize. Picture: HARRY TAYLOR

This former Hamstead police station could become home to Abacus Belsize. Picture: HARRY TAYLOR - Credit: Archant

Letters, contributions and comments sent in from Ham&High readers this week.

Why question great Abacus?

Siew Gratton (address supplied), writes:

I write this as a parent of a child who is currently in Abacus Belsize Primary.

My child was actually transferred to Abacus Belsize from another Camden school, which enabled us to notice and compare the difference of a truly "outstanding" school.

Abacus Belsize Primary School is also the only state school that we know of teaching Mandarin in their curriculum in our area.

To be honest, I find it quite hard to believe that such an amazing school, open since 2013, would still have to flight so hard for its right to have a permanent home in the area. The school's current location is just too far and inconvenient for the parents. The old police station will be the best and the only option.

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Abacus Belsize Primary is an existing school since September 2013 to address the "Belsize black hole" of having no secular primary schools in the areal.

The school supports green travel plan. The new school site would encourage families to stay local and walk to school to reduce traffic.

There are 171 children who are currently receiving outstanding education from the school and it needs a permanent home. After 78 sites have been searched over the last seven years, there is no appropriate site in Belsize Park, the old Hampstead Police Station is the only option.

The catchment area for Abacus Belsize Primary School would not change if the site moves from its current temporary location to the old Hampstead Police Station and it would still serve Belsize Park.

The school would not be competing with New End or Fitzjohn's School.

Great passion for Abacus Primary School

Jerome Sibony, Belsize Park, writes:

My name is Jerome, and with my wife Danielle, we are residents of Belsize Park. We are the parents of three young children: Elise, six, Jonathan, four, and Emma, two-years-old.

Elise and Jonathan are respectively in Year 1 and reception at Abacus. They are fond of their school and are making great progress thanks to very dedicated teachers and staff. We chose Abacus because of the fact that it is not faith based, it demonstrated academic excellence and they have a very welcoming and inclusive ethos.

There are a few facts that have been already mentioned, but they are nonetheless true, and probably worth repeating once more. Children are for the vast majority in the vicinity of the police station and will be either walking or taking public transportation. We will be quite simply hopping onto the 268 bus that will take us straight there.

The school is thriving and serves a full cohort of children from reception to Year 6. There are many independent schools in our catchment as well as faith-based state school, but no co-educational state funded schools, hence the need for Abacus.

I understand people who oppose the move have their own arguments, but surely, once the school is open, they will see that they have nothing to fear in terms of additional transportation or pollution. If anything, it should provide more customers to local Hampstead businesses, which means more jobs and activity. I know local residents are attached to their local shops and want to foster a strong community. The school will contribute to that. As people who have been following the issue for while will know, there are no other credible alternative locations, and the police station was acquired by DoE for Abacus.

My final point is that it is important to understand the very personal stories, journeys and hopes of all the families that live in the area, and whose only ambition is to support a thriving local school and contribute to the local community.

Police station is 'perfect' for school

Giulia Gallea, Belsize Park, writes:

I am writing this letter in response to a number of articles published in the recent months opposing the move of Abacus Belsize Primary School from the temporary location in King's Cross to a permanent one close to home, namely the old police station in Rosslyn Hill.

I believe people are getting very confused. The decision currently at hand is whether Abacus should be granted permission to move to the old police station. Some residents are concerned about noise, traffic, pollution, etc; I may not agree, but I accept them as fair points from a resident perspective. By the way these points have all been thoroughly analysed by the planning officers and it is clear from their conclusions recently published that the school moving there would not pose such problems and their recommendation is for the planning permission to be granted. All details available for all to read on democracy.camden.co.uk.

However - and this is what has been bothering me the most - some of the other arguments brought up by those opposing to the move, revolve around "too many schools in the area", "existing state schools not filling their spaces", and "funding will decrease with the addition of a new school". Those arguments have nothing to do with the conversion of the old police station and Abacus moving into it. Those are arguments debating whether a new school should open or not. But Abacus already exists, serves - really well - 170 families, with children from reception to Y6, like any other school. Its move from King's Cross to Rosslyn Hill is purely physical and will have no impact whatsoever on funding, empty places, number of schools, and so on, as Abacus is an existing school, already serving the local area as if it was based in Belsize. No change whatsoever.

Going back to the fair point of traffic and pollution. It has been mentioned before that Abacus has and will have a car-free policy. The objections claim this cannot be practically enforced, and it is true, it can't. However, you just need to come to the school bus every morning to see that this is not just policy, it is reality. We all walk, scoot and cycle there and will continue to do so when the school moves. How do we know? Because it isn't really something that has been imposed on us by the school (although highly supported), it is simply the way most Abacus families operate and will continue to do so. More than half of us don't even own a car, by choice. For some of us Rosslyn Hill will be a longer walk, for others will be shorter; overall the extremely limited use of cars will not change.

Just like the residents around the old police station, we care about air pollution and we want our children to breath cleaner air. Car-free is not something that needs to be enforced because is something we, as parents, want and implement in the first place, in our daily life.

As far as the building conversion itself, it is very clear from the conclusions just published of the planning officers, that it would bring new life to this semi-abandoned precious building, while restoring it, improving it while maintaining its listed building important features and while remaining in public hands for public use. There is no better public use than a wonderful, inclusive, multi-cultural school, where children can thrive and build the foundations of their - and our - future society.

Why Abacus is not right for area

Todd J Berman and Andrew Neale, co-chairmen, The Hampstead Committee for Responsible Development, write:

The Department for Education ("DfE") wants to build an out of catchment commuter school in Camden for Abacus Belsize Primary School but at the Hampstead Police Station rather than in Belsize Park, its local community.

If allowed, this will be the most expensive school per pupil built in the UK, in an area that already has among the highest density of schools in the country and a growing surplus of primary school places. There is simply no need.

Virtually every Hampstead planning and heritage organisation has come out against this application: The Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum; the Heath & Hampstead Society; the Camden Residents' Association Action Committee; The Hampstead Committee for Responsible Development; RedFrog - The Redington Frognal Neighbourhood Forum; Residents' Associations on every neighbouring road; local GP and health care practices; as well as many hundreds of individual local residents. Approving this would be terrible for Camden—the proposal represents cynical, self-interested policies. We ask that this plan is objected outright. There are multiple legitimate planning grounds for refusal.

Abacus Belsize could and should build a 210 pupil school in its catchment area so that it can truly be at the heart of its community.

Camden's executive director wrote in his 2018 Annual School Places Planning Process Report: "Camden has to balance the duty to ensure sufficient school places, alongside its duty to make efficient use of resources. This would compromise the viability of existing good and outstanding schools which would be both destabilising and poor use of public money."

If allowed to locate at the Hampstead Police Station site, Abacus Belsize would seriously destabilise and undermine local Camden state schools. Dr Kim Issroff, chairman, governors of Fleet Primary School, publicly stated that "no reasonable person" would choose this path. The governors of New End Primary, Rosary Primary, Fitzjohn's Primary and other local state schools have written objections to this plan. They see the damage that will result if this is allowed to proceed.

Abacus Belsize is in Camden but it is not a Camden school: Camden education has no control over its catchment, its admissions, its funding, its curriculum or its management. Abacus Belsize has drawn its catchment area to intentionally exclude social housing in Belsize Park. Unlike other Camden schools, Abacus Belsize has no pupils with special needs. Abacus Belsize has only 13 per cent of pupils with eligibility for school meals compared to 42pc for Camden schools. And only 41pc of Abacus pupils have first language not english while for Camden schools it is 59pc. This is a truly appalling state of affairs.

Rather than a state school reflecting its local community, Abacus Belsize looks suspiciously like a selective, elitist fee paying school but with the DfE (ie, all of us!) paying the fees. Significantly, it would also be a commuter school like so many other fee-paying schools in Hampstead.

The DfE has pushed for six years to jam Abacus Belsize into the Hampstead Police Station because it's such an unsuitably large space: A 210 pupil school would be seriously damaging but in future they will seek to expand to 420 pupils, something which would devastate the ecology of local state schools. And while a Section 106 agreement may be agreed to try to limit the school to 210 pupils, those agreements can be renegotiated over time. More importantly, if Camden Council cannot stop such an obviously outrageous application now, it is very unlikely to be able to prevent expansion if a school is already operating at the site.

This proposal would institutionalise enduring educational inequality. The planning application allows Abacus Belsize to use the excess space in the old Police Station to run what would effectively be a small real estate business - with the roughly £150,000 per year proceeds going directly to Abacus Belsize. This would give Abacus Belsize much greater funding than other local state schools, virtually all of which have suffered from this same government's cuts to local state school's budgets.

The site could also be converted to social housing for nurses at the Royal Free just around the corner; or social housing for police families, desperately needed in the area but for most police an unaffordable place to live. Or it could be converted to a nurses training college to train local young people from across Camden. But a school doesn't pay taxes to Camden Council and is not needed or wanted in Hampstead.

In short, this proposal is a clear example of a central government policy that will cause great damage to Camden's schools—local children—creating terrible, lasting educational inequality.

Good reasons to block relocation

Stephen Grosz, Downshire Hill, Hampstead, writes:

There are many good reasons for Camden Council to stop the development of Hampstead Police Station by the Department of Education, and Abacus Belsize Park Free School.

Here are two fundamental reasons—pollution and educational equality.

Camden's own policy on pollution unequivocally forbids this development: "Hampstead and Belsize Park have a very high concentration of schools where significant issues exist concerning the 'school run'. We will refuse applications for new schools or the expansion of existing schools in these areas, unless it can be demonstrated the number of traffic movements will not increase." Camden Local Plan (2017) 4.33 by Camden Council.

Abacus Belsize is a Belsize Park school. It expressly excludes local Hampstead children — this is a commuter school. There are more appropriate sites available in the school's catchment area in Belsize Park. Being out of its catchment area, it is creating a new, unnecessary school run, putting at least 100 more cars in Hampstead each day. More cars mean more pollution. Further, twice a day, at least 450 people will converge on the corner of Downshire Hill and Rosslyn Hill—slowing traffic, increasing queuing and idling, creating more and more poisonous air pollution. At Hampstead Police Station, pollution is already above the government's safe level. Current NO2 levels are wholly unacceptable, particularly for the elderly, infirm and children. This development will increase pollution. For this reason alone, Camden councillors must vote against it.

If Camden's councillors approve this planning proposal, they will institutionalise enduring educational inequality. The planning application allows Abacus Belsize to rent out the excess space in Hampstead Police Station — roughly £150,000 per year in rent monies will go directly to Abacus Belsize. This will give Abacus Belsize much greater funding than other local state schools. This is unfair to our schools, and children. That's why this planning application continues to be opposed by every headteacher and governor of all local schools.

Life growing up with Berlin Wall

Marx de Morais, Hampstead, full address supplied, writes:

Quite often we enjoy our lives and do not think about it too much. Why can I travel? Why can I do just about anything I want? Why am I free to live and work wherever I want?

When I think about it, I can answer that for my life and realise that my life is a privilege. Not a privilege as it is to be born in a prosperous society, I wasn't born in such. It is something that is much more awesome.

I am the first generation of my family that is free to do, free to go, free to be, and free to speak out as it want. Actually, that is pretty amazing and actually that should call me to more responsibility than I am often willing to give.

Last week 30 years ago, the Berlin Wall fell down. 30 years ago, the path my family decided to take, along with so many others, has led to one of the few successful, peaceful revolutions in the human history.

As a little boy, I sneaked into the "secret library" of my grandfather and sat there between mountains of books, that in the dictatorship in which I grew up, were not allowed to read. This dictatorship was so all-embracing even for a little boy, that it was certain to me that these far away lands, these exciting thoughts, those different lives I discovered in all those books, would always be as far away as the back of the moon for the human eye.

At the same time I was busy absorbing those forbidden thoughts, the dictatorship put my uncle, who was almost a boy, not much older than me, into prison. For what? For nothing else than that he dared to call for "freedom" on a public street. At the same time, my father who was active in the church and the later president of their Synod, was monitored at every turn, and my mother was pressured almost daily to divulge him to the regime. At the same time my grandfather drove all sorts of "western goods" across Europe for the dictators and played some pranks on them and for us children we had chewing gum and colourful candies too, which were actually intended for the little princes, of the Workers- and Farmers paradise. My grandma was politically active in a party that wasn't the unity party SED and as if that was not enough, I made things even worse for my parents at school.

I remember, the little boy I was, sitting in the front row of the class room when our teacher asked, "Children what is a kolkhoz". I raised my arm in the air as high as I could, our teacher called me up and I responded, "a sickness", what a drama followed and fight my parents had to endure. I do not want to imagine what my parents had to suffer when I then also refused to attend pioneer afternoons. To avoid that compulsion I thought to take advice from the '"Secret Library". I decided to ceaselessly and endlessly scream like little Oskar Matzerath from Günter Grass' novel "The Tin Drum", until the teachers gave up. And then the wall fell.

It finally happened for so many people who bravely and with risk for their lives had fought. I sat on my bed 30 years ago, my mother came in and said "the wall has fallen". I lay down on my bed, looked at the ceiling and saw the world before my eyes in which I will participate, which I will experience and of which I will be a part of now. I can't accept that 30 years later Brexit will put me again behind just behind another version of a wall. Freedom never exists behind walls, it is waiting for us outside of them. I still lie on my bed quite often and look at the ceiling.