New school plan is ‘pie in the sky’
FEARS have been raised over rising demands for pupil places after the prospect of a much-needed new high school opening by 2020 was branded ‘pie in the sky’.
Altus Education Partnership, which runs Rochdale Sixth Form College, has applied to the Department of Education (DfE) under its Wave 13 programme to create a new free-school on grazing land in Bowlee, Middleton.
The new school is needed as pupil numbers in the township are rising significantly and a shortfall of up to 201 school places is predicted by 2021 - while pupil numbers across the borough could be as high as 365 by 2023.
But a government decision on whether to fund a free school at the site - and to which provider - is not now due until after Christmas.
And it may not agree to a school opening until 2021 - or later.
Fay Davies, schools organisation manager at Rochdale Council, told a cabinet meeting that the DfE will only grant a free school if that school can be filled - a requirement that won’t be fulfilled by the proposed 180-place-peryear Bowlee school until 2021.
She added that Altus - which is understood to no longer be the only provider showing interest in the site - had been advised by the DfE to apply to open in 2021 as it was ‘more likely to be given the go-ahead’.
Councillor Sara Rowbotham, the deputy council leader who represents North Middleton, voiced her concerns over the delay.
She said: “I’m worried that classroom sizes will be absolutely enormous for however long it is, it’s not just us that are being held to ransom, but the children, families and teachers held to ransom by the government in this situation.
“It seems to be there is going to be an awful lot of pressure in those school environments for anything up to three years.”
Councillor Neil Emmott, who represents West Middleton, echoed her remarks.
He said: “What does concern me, which is an issue raised by people in community, is the inordinate amount of time this seems to be taking.
“We have been working towards having a school on the site by September 2020, but if I’m honest that’s pie in the sky.
“We are nearly at the end of 2018 and we are going to have a decision in the New Year on land that needs to be cleared, built upon, all kinds of things we will have to do.”
He added: “What safeguards do we have in place to ensure children reaching secondary school age will have a school place in Middleton?”
Ms Davies told the meeting that the council had already embarked on a school enlargement process, expanding Middleton Technology College and Cardinal Langley RC High School by 60 and 30 places respectively, as well as creating 60 new places at Siddall Moor from 2019.
She added that there was also a shortage in the Pennines and Rochdale township, with Kingsway Park High, Falinge Park and Matthew Moss high schools also increasing their places.
“As a council we have expanded all the schools we can,” she said.
Gail Hopper, director of children’s services, added that work was going on behind the scenes in case the DfE did not agree to fund a new school in Middleton.
The council had previously named Altus as its preferred provider for the Bowlee site, as well as a site at Littleborough Playing Fields, which Wardle School Academies Trust has now expressed an interest in.
But under the Wave 13 rules, the cabinet has had to agree to provide a letter to the DfE confirming it will lease both parcels of land to whichever bidder is successful.
Coun Emmott said this was necessary but was done with some reluctance. He said: “I would be disappointed if someone other than Altus can sweep in and build a school there because they are a valued partner we’ve worked with for many many years.”