UCL chief faces parents’ fury over school plan
An artist’s impression
• University told new academy is on the wrong site • ‘Don’t blame us’ pleads top prof • Campaigners say: what about Wren St?
PROFESSOR Michael Worton began with a boast about the expertise and importance UCL holds in the world of education and how its proud record makes it the perfect sponsor for a new secondary school.
But by the end of another skirmish with parents less than enamoured with attempts to open Camden’s first independently sponsored academy in Swiss Cottage, the university’s vice provost was on the back foot.
While he wanted to talk about the wonders of teaching history in Spanish, his audience in a UCL lecture room on Thursday night was more interested in grilling him on the new school’s location.
The line from the angry mob: If you’re so good, why didn’t you use your oh-so-great influence to help us and build your new school south of the Euston Road?
The confrontation came as UCL began its consultation exercise on the academy, the first of a series of meetings.
Prof Worton admitted UCL had wanted to open a school close to its campus in Bloomsbury but the idea was not taken up by the council. And that was it. End of story.
According to Prof Worton, the university, which moved up to seventh in one set of world rankings published this week, could not have pushed the issue any further.
He said: “We said we will do it anywhere in Camden but we want to commit to Camden. It was up to the council to procure the site and from our point of view, it’s this or nothing.
“The decision on location is Camden’s. We wanted to do it in the south of Camden, that was our starting point, but the only site available is Swiss Cottage.”
Prof Worton repeatedly turned to that now-familiar council line about there being no identifiable site in the south.
It’s a view that irritates parent campaigners, mainly because through their own research – and not the “exhaustive” search completed by education chiefs – a largely cost-free opportunity of acquiring a row of council lock-ups in Wren Street, Holborn, has been suggested.
Prof Worton, a highly respected linguist who is considered one of academia’s good guys within higher education, has been tasked with ensuring UCL’s smooth progress through a potentially consultation period.
An unenviable job maybe, but he is clearly not short of enthusiasm for the project.
He said: “There is a complaint winging through universities that students are coming up with the wrong maths, or the wrong kind of English and geography.
“We want to offer our expertise. We want to grapple with these crucial areas. We want to move to a more integrated approach.
Prof Worton told the meeting that UCL would join in with a boroughwide admissions policy.
“Our hands will be tied by what Camden decides,” he said. “We have indicated our preference for a fair banding system, but you would need it to work across the borough.”
But every time he strayed even close to subject of admissions and geography, the parents and campaigners bit back.
Emma Jones, from the Where Is My School? campaign, said: “You talk about how you want to enrich Camden’s schools but if you draw a circle around the site you have chosen, you’d actually be going into Westminster. To enrich Camden, you need to look at where the greatest need for a school is.”
David Bieda, from the Covent Garden Community Association, said neighbourhood “cohesion” was harmed when children were sent off to different schools at secondary school age.
“Our young people are displaced all over the place and it has a negative effect on the communities of central London,” he said.
And Labour leader Councillor Anna Stewart added: “UCL is involved. It is a player.
“It should be thinking more about the community it is within and taking more interest in location.”
Bumped again onto the defensive, Prof Worton told Cllr Stewart: “Our influence has been exaggerated. We are merely the sponsor.
“We have to work with democratically elected bodies.
“I like to feel that we have a vision but we do have to be pragmatic.”
’t settled yet.
Barbara Ward, former Labour councillor, said:
“UCL have an enormous influence south of the Euston Road and you would have thought UCL would want to wield that influence much more strongly in terms of location [of a new school].”
Emma Jones, from the Where Is My School? campaign, said:
“Whatever admissions policy the UCL academy has is kind of irrelevant when we have no access to the school at all. For there to be a fully fair system, there needs to be equal provision for everyone.”
Councillor Anna Stewart, leader of Labour group in Camden said:
“There is a duty incumbent on UCL to take part in the debate, to think of the
community in which it is located and involve itself in the discussion.”
David Bieda, community campaigner in Holborn and Covent Garden, said:
“You have a moral educational duty to look at the question of location. The one thing we lack is proper education for our communities. It would maintain the cohesion in the area.”
PLANNING chiefs will tonight (Thursday) discuss the next steps in Camden’s plans to build the UCL Academy in Swiss Cottage.
Councillors on the Town Hall’s planning committee will consider an outline application for the Adelaide Road site. If all goes to plan, Camden would see its new secondary open in 2011.
The blueprint involves the eviction of Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children from its current home and the redevelopment of the land on the corner of Harley Road, also held by Swiss Cottage Special School.
Twenty-nine letters of objection have so far been sent to the council’s planning department with complaints ranging from fears about increased traffic and noise nuisance.
While being located near to a new school is usually part of estate agents’ sales patter, one letter complains that there will be adverse effect on property prices.of the new academy in Swiss Cottage