One thing that we’re sure of, when Boris attaches himself to some whizzy innovation, it’ll usually end up costing a fortune in public money and suffering a variety of easily predictable snags caused by overconfidence and arrogance. To a list that includes cycle hire, cable cars, Lardbuses, electric cars, etc. etc. we can probably load up our traditional quill pens and start scratching in the name of the West London Free School.
Opened, by Boris, in 2011 with the promises of lashings of Latin, classical liberal education (whatever the hell that is) and discipline this establishment seems never really to have settled down – the first Head, Thomas Packer, was kicked upstairs to become Education Director at the start of 2013 and shortly afterwards left completely, accompanied by an FoI request from Helen:
Both Thomas Packer and Janet Packer left the employment of the Trust on 31 August 2013. Thomas Packer’s responsibilities changed from being Headmaster of the West London Free School to being Education Director of the Trust between 1 January 2013 and 31 August 2013. Janet Packer’s salary was varied whilst employed by the Trust.
He was succeeded by Deputy Headmaster Sam Naismith (who personally signed off the FoI, I note). This gentleman is noteworthy for a lack of senior leadership experience, never having run a school, merely having been Director of Sport at Langley School for Boys in Bromley. He’s also notable for having hired straight from university a sporty young man called Sam Druce who’d been a pupil of his whose LinkedIn profile reads:
My principal duty is managing and maintaining the image of the Headmaster and the school. This involves liaising with governors and staff on a day-to-day basis as well as school events management. I schedule and oversee the Headmaster’s diary in order to respond to the changing demands of each day. Within my role, I update and maintain the contracts for all staff and all policies for the school. I am responsible for the organisation and management of the school budget; working closely with the Business Manager and respective Subject Leaders. I lead sport in the P.E. Department, and am the Head of Hockey for Y7 girls, and Y8 boys. Balancing these two roles requires excellent time management and effective prioritisation of tasks.
Do they really let 24 year olds manage school budgets?
Druce’s Twitter account @sdruce17 is sadly protected, so we only have occasional mentions to go on. Such as this one, which was surely was made up by his mates as a jolly good bit of banter:
Headmaster Sam Naismith left abruptly last week with no warning, the deletion of his LinkedIn profile and no explanation from Toby Young, who is not normally this shy. Cat got your tongue? Or a lawyer?
All this, plus local rumour (heard from three sources) of high staff turnover and unhappy parents has led me to have a good look at their arrangements, and it appears they also have some site and building issues. This isn’t rare in the Free School movement, particularly in London where property is insanely expensive and Free School proponents often rather naive and optimistic when dealing with estate agents and other sharks. Toby’s original plans to open in Ealing, where he lives, were stymied when they couldn’t find a site and the council, having been the subject of regular Toby smears against their mostly perfectly decent schools, refused to help. Toby’s ideological fellow-travellers, the libertorians at Hammersmith and Fulham were only too glad to help. So it came about that this pioneering school, set up free from the shackles of local authorities, has been liberally provided with help by a local authority, including the run of the Town Hall when setting up – the address to write to for Headmaster applicants was Hammersmith and Fulham Town Hall.
The council duly helped out with sites including an old special school of 1960s vintage on Cambridge Grove (forcing the incumbent Cambridge School to shift north to a site apparently rejected by the precious WLFS lot), and Palingswick House, a nice but unlisted Victorian pile on King Street. This latter was formerly occupied by volunteer groups, immigrant help charities and similar riff-raff who were promptly kicked out in February 2012, with the council coughing up a fairly miserly £330k in ‘compensation’. The net worth of the site, of course, is considerably higher than that, although the actual figure raised is curiously hard to find…
The original intention was that, having got planning permission in 2012, a relatively short building period would see the first kids transferring to Palingswick in time for opening in September 2013 – this LBHF webpage says precisely that:
The school is currently located at the former Cambridge School site on Cambridge Grove in Hammersmith and is due to move to its permanent site, Palingswick House on King Street in 2013.
They haven’t. The current pupil population are all on the Cambridge Grove site, to which we have to add the new WLFS Primary, 60 kids starting Reception in 2013. That’s added to 120 2011 intake Y7 and presumably the same again in 2012 and 2013 for a total of 360 Y7/8/9. Are they really squashing 420 kids into that site? And why haven’t the 360 secondary kids decamped to Palingswick yet? And why has the Trust spent an eye-watering £9.25m buying a recently refurbished and extended office block further along King St.?
It’s time to find out what’s going on here, and the council’s online planning archive is a rich source of all sorts of interesting stuff. First, Cambridge Grove – note that the 420 figure is also what you get with a seven year 2FE primary school (Years R123456). The Primary website, in between plugging Toby Young’s books, says:
The plans include building a new five-classroom annex to the rear of the current site, bordering Banim Street and extending some classrooms to meet the requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage.”
The planning documents concur, with the following approved 13/3/2013:
“Erection of a two storey classroom building (south west corner of site); erection of three single storey extensions and a refuse storage block at ground floor level; erection of a single storey link block at ground floor level; erection of two extensions at first floor level (including one fronting Banim Street); erection of, and alterations to, fencing within school grounds, in connection with the continued use of the premises as a school.”
To sum up: they’re extending the existing 1960s building with three rooms added to the existing structure and a pair of Reception classrooms on part of the playground.
However, in addition a planning application 2013/01902/FUL was made dated May 2013 for three portable classrooms on the playground. This mentions:
The proposed development involves the erection of three temporary classrooms, in a single temporary portakabin along with reconfiguration of the grounds to encompass this. The purpose of
this application is to allow the school to continue in the eventuality that the programme of annexe works overruns into term time. The lawful planning use of the site is as a school (D1). The school will have an eventual roll of 420 pupils (2 form-entry primary). It is proposed that the temporary classrooms be for a strictly limited period.
So this was a contingency in case the main works overran. This appears to have come to pass, as the school website says:
For the current academic year 2013-2014, the primary will be housed in its temporary site on Bradmore Park Road and will move into its permanent home in Cambridge Grove in September 2014.
What? Where? From the planning documents:
As a contingency while the permanent annexe is being constructed, the primary school pupils will occupy the Bradmore Centre, with the 360 secondary school pupils being placed in Cambridge Grove. The existing buildings allow eleven classrooms along with the temporary conversion of the library which along with the three additional classrooms allow the new years intake to occur should the annexe building not be completed in time
All of which probably explains a local parent’s comment a few months back to me that the library at WLFS is smaller than our primary’s library.
What’s this Bradmore Park Road building, then? The Primary’s website’s contact address until July 2014 is:
32 Bradmore Park Road
This is the address of the Bradmore Children’s Centre, owned by, yes, the council again. Three sites now. Hang on. Wasn’t Palingswick House supposed to be finished by 2013? What’s going on?
The Palingswick plans were announced in this school blog (full of praise for the ‘Conservative Council’, who just turfed out all those community groups) on 14th June 2012, with a link to a blog post called ‘palingswick-house.html’. This is now deleted, the only blog post existing at the time that is no longer on the site. Wayback Machine might have it? Yup.
I am delighted to report that, after a long delay, the builders have moved onto the Palingswick House site and will start demolition of the annex shortly. In the coming weeks and months, you’ll start to see a lot of activity around the King Street site as it is extended and refurbished so it can become our permanent home. It has been a long journey, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Sam Naismith, Headmaster
Why delete it? Why no explanation of the ‘long delay’? Well, subsequent to that yet another planning application 2014/00963/FUL has gone in, this time for yet more portable classrooms, this time at Palingswick. They’re whoppers, too – a double-height portable in the front yard of the building housing 240 pupils:
The goal is to redevelop the site to use as a secondary school; the current proposal is renovate the Lodge building and provide new two storey temporary Portacabin classrooms until a full remediation strategy can be agreed.
In order to meet the Schools proposed opening date we are planning to commence site construction activities as early as possible following a successful Planning application
The proposed development involves placement of a two storey portakabin on site to provide 9 classrooms to accommodate 240 pupils for 1 academic year (2014/15). The accommodation is needed to enable the development of the scheme granted permission on the 17 December 2012 under application reference 2012/02503/FUL.
Remediation strategy? That suggests that they’ve found something unexpected during the refurbishment or demolition which is going to delay completion of the main building. Since the temporary 9 classroom installation is a 16 week project involving removing three trees whatever’s come up is potentially serious and possibly expensive. In addition this new portable occupies the site previously identified as the main entrance for construction traffic, the site offices, fuel stores, waste disposal areas and COSHH store and one of the two bases for cranes:
This application went in at the beginning of March and has not yet been approved – if the school is to open on site in September 2014 the latest construction can start is around the beginning of June, so they really need that approval sharpish. As a mark of how far things have slipped the original project schedule is on one of the documents and shows site work starting in July 2012 and continuing to completion at the end of August 2013, just in time for last September’s intake. They therefore seem to have started work when they should have finished it, about 14 months late so even if it doesn’t now slip any further it’ll be October 2014 before it’s ready, presuming that having a portable school blocking one of the entrances doesn’t mean a total recast of the project timelines (it will, I’m certain of it, the contractor isn’t an idiot).
With the 9 classroom portable in place the school would obviously only be able to hold 240 pupils, or two of the three years currently at Cambridge Grove. The delay also means we have another 120 Y7s to cope with in September 2014 for a total of 4*120 = 480 pupils across Y7-10, so where do the other 240 go? Tim Fenton has the answer:
the WLFS has just committed to blowing a sum in excess of £9 million – you read that right – of taxpayers’ money acquiring a recently refurbished office building in Hammersmith that is definitely not Palingswick House.
Yes, faced with having nowhere to put 240 13-15 year olds Toby Young, who continually lectures us on the evils of public spending, has conjured up £9.25m of public money from somewhere (us) to buy an office block, 2 Bridge Avenue, thereby neatly driving up office prices and crowding out the private sector in an already tough area for business to find accommodation. Very Stalinist, Toby.
This acquisition has naturally resulted in yet another raft of planning documents, which give an insight into the latest iteration of the school’s ever changing accommodation plan:
The application would enable WLFS to use the building initially, between September 2014 and July 2015, for education accommodation for 240 Secondary School pupils aged 13 and 15 (years 9 and 10). From September 2015 it is proposed for the site to be used as permanent accommodation for 240 Secondary School pupils likely to be aged 14 and 16 (years 10 and 11). It is understood that there would be no more than 240 pupils occupying the site at any one time.
Summing up, the current state of play appears to be:
- 360 Y7/8/9 in Cambridge Grove, which is being extended for a 420 place 2FE primary
- 60 R in Bradmore Children’s Centre
- 0 in Palingswick House
- 240 Y7/8 in a temporary two storey portakabin in the front yard of Palingswick House
- 240 Y9/10 in an expensive converted office block at Bridge Avenue
- 60 Reception and 60 Year 1 at Cambridge Grove, possibly, depending on how the building work goes there
- 360 Y7/8/9 at Palingswick House
- 240 Y10/11 at Bridge Avenue
- 60 Reception and 120 Y1/2 at Cambridge Grove
Clear? One thing that stands out there is that Palingswick House is somewhat underused, given that it was presumably meant to be a 600 pupil capacity school. The Travel Plan for the original application actually says 360 pupils, but that’s the figure on opening in September 2013 so it’s not conclusive, and the four storey block proposed for the site is surely enough for 600. The LBHF puff piece for the planning approval agrees:
West London Free School, which is currently based in Cambridge Grove, Hammersmith, will turn Palingswick House in King Street into a new 4,300 square metre school for 600 pupils, aged 11-16.
So what’s changed such that 240 of them have to be moved permanently to a hugely expensive building down the road, duplicating things like kitchen facilities and complicating staff rostering to allow for what is a fair old walk between sites? For that matter, why does the March 2014 application for the temporary classroom still give the building’s owner as ‘Hammersmith and Fulham’…
‘The Owner has agreed to purchase the Site from the Council’
Why was the S.106 agreement signed only by Toby Young, with no countersignature by another Director or the Company Secretary, merely a ‘witness’ called Grant Berry?
Why do I keep finding new questions, but no answers?
P.S. A handy website gives a list of known DfE funding to WLFS:
- £472,881.05 pre-opening (secondary)
- £1,012,000.00 agreed post-opening (secondary)
- £708,000.00 actual post-opening (secondary)
- £220,000.00 pre-opening (primary)
- £373,000.00 agreed post-opening (primary)
- £95,500.00 actual post-opening (primary)
We can presumably add several hefty capital sums for the various portable classrooms, rebuilds, office blocks. Now, how can we go about finding those out? Ah, there’s a gov.uk site giving finalised capex up to the middle of 2013. Which has no entry for WLFS, one of the first to open and with, as we’ve seen, considerable capital investment going on. That’s amusing.
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