The New Harpenden Secondary SchoolMay 5th, 2015
I am deeply aware of the extent to which the Harpenden Secondary School issue is dividing the community and the level of heartache and anger that is felt. It has become increasingly apparent to me that, as a local political representative, it is crucial that I listen to all sides and seek to bring the town together.
In the last few days, I have spoken to parents in Redbourn, Kimpton and Whitwell. Our rural communities are perhaps most severely affected by the shortage of school places because they are furthest away from the existing schools. Parents in Kimpton and Whitwell want the school built in Batford because it would be closest to them and their children would qualify for free bus services. So, the school issue affects families in different places in different ways and it is important that all voices are heard. Some of our farming families even struggle to secure places at their local village primary school.
I have learnt that there are contributing factors, such as the reduction in school bus services that limit the potential locations for new secondary schools. The secondary school I attended was outside a village with a population of 600, it served 12 feeder village primary schools and almost all of us caught the bus to school. So, for a long time, it was a mystery to me why Redbourn and Wheathampstead couldn’t have their own secondary schools. There are several reasons, including the reduction of school bus services which means that most parents would have to drive their children to such schools and this fails on “sustainability” criteria.
Having said all that, I am firmly of the view that a school needs to be built as a matter of urgency and that the interests of Harpenden’s young people must the absolute priority. I said as much at the hustings at Roundwood Park School on 25th March and in the most recent editions of the St. Albans Review and Herts Advertiser.
At the Harpenden Society hustings I said in my speech that a new secondary school needed to be constructed before new houses were built because Harpenden is struggling to cope with existing demand – let alone any future demand. Indeed, had the school issue been resolved first, there might have been a greater choice of sites. The Bloomfield Road site, for example, has “hope value” because it is being considered for new housing so it is too expensive for the council to purchase the land for the school. In response to a question in respect of speeding up school construction, I said that if I was elected as the MP, I would consider one of my first tasks to be to request the direct involvement of the Secretary of State for Education in resolving the matter. What I didn’t mention at that hustings was that I had already raised the issue with Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Tristram Hunt.
That said, genuine concerns have been expressed to me and many of my Harpenden Labour colleagues about the various proposed sites that I think do go beyond simple NIMBYism. For example, the proximity of the Batford site to the Lower Luton Road has the potential to cause real problems in respect of pedestrian safety and also traffic – in a town that already has serious congestion issues. I know that there are some proposals to mitigate this problem but it is important that they are workable. Also, the possibility of archaeological remains could grind the planning process to a halt and cause unforeseen delays. It is important this doesn’t happen and that the council has strategies for overcoming every conceivable obstacle.
Many people have said to me during this process “the Batford site is not perfect but it’s adequate: we just need to build a school” and I completely sympathise with that viewpoint. What I don’t want is for construction on the Batford site to be subject to delays because of failure to address the very real issues with that site.
Every parent I have spoken to in Harpenden and the surrounding communities has given me new insights and perspectives on the new secondary school issue and I have been keen to listen and learn. I think it’s fair to say that the more people I speak to, the more apparent it becomes to me that the school should be constructed as a matter of urgency.