Neighbourhood Plan Governance Meeting – Gillotts School Land

GillottsFrontLast Friday (1 May) Nick Walden (Governor) and Catharine Darnton (Headteacher) from Gillotts School each made a statement in the public participation session of the Neighbourhood Plan Governance Committee.

The paragraphs below summarise the key messages, though not the exact words used.

‘I have been a governor of Gillotts since 2003 and was Chair of Governors for 8 years until December 2013.  I am passionate about education and I think it is very disappointing that there is no mention of education in the local election literature distributed by either the HRG or Henley Conservatives.

You should have seen the state of the school buildings when I became a Governor.  I am very proud of what we have achieved in improving both the buildings and, more importantly, the school’s performance over this period.  Last year Gillotts was the best performing state secondary school in the county, but we want it to be one of the best in the country.

We will only achieve that if we are allowed to realise the plans we have.  These will benefit the whole community.  There is no alternative to what we propose.  It is absurd to suggest that these sums of money can be raised by fundraising, and investing in good schools in affluent areas is unattractive to all governments.

We therefore need your support by including the school in the neighbourhood plan.  I have worked on this for 10 years and I will consider it a personal tragedy if we fail at this point, and I will not let that happen.’

Nick Walden

‘I have been Headteacher at Gillotts for almost eight years.  Throughout this time, despite my main focus being on teaching and learning, improving results and providing all all-round excellent education, I have worked hard to get the school rebuilt.  When Gillotts first began, we were lucky enough to be given much more land than is required for a secondary school.  What we now seek to do is to swap some of that land, that is remote from the school and used less frequently, for improved buildings that will be used every day.  (All the pitches that are on the land proposed for sale can be re-provisioned within the remaining land.) If you ask students at the school, they understand the logic of this and they agree with the proposal to sell.

Our results in 2014 put us in the top 3% of schools nationally.  People from across the county are still queuing up to get their children into our Year 7 in September.  Any community would be proud to have a school of this calibre – surely you will now support us?

We receive £4000 per year for each child at Gillotts.  Those of you with connections to the independent sector will understand what a small sum this is.  Oxfordshire is also one of the 40 worst funded authorities in the country.  We have engaged fully with the Neighbourhood Plan process, but this has been done on a shoe-string, in order not to take funding away from the students’ education.  This has been through the work of volunteers, notably our governors, and by extra hours worked by me and other school staff.  We have communicated as well as we can given our limited means – for example, through a donation, we paid for a colour flier to go out in every copy of the local newspaper, and we held two public consultation meetings at the school.

We are not a developer.  We would be ecstatic not to have to sell the land and if anyone could give us £14 million through another route, we would not sell.  SODC’s Core Strategy makes a commitment to support Gillotts to meet its accommodation needs but, throughout the Neighbourhood Planning process, no-one has come forward with any other viable alternative.  I have previous experience of school fundraising and have seen schools realise £0.5 million – £1 million with very hard work over a period of a couple of years.  Fundraising is not going to bring us £14 million. So we need the support of Henley Town Council.

We offer to meet with you if this would be helpful in clarifying our plans and explaining our absolute need for inclusion in the Neighbourhood Plan.  This is an opportunity we cannot miss out on.’

Catharine Darnton

Trevor Howell who is lobbying against the sale of the land also made a speech:

I want to talk briefly about the inclusion in the Neighbourhood Plan of Gillotts playing fields behind the Wootton Estate.

If you were to ask me the following questions:

  • Do you agree with building houses on a green field site? I would say no
  • Do you agree with the disposal of school playing fields? I would say no
  • Do you want Gillotts Academy to have new buildings and facilities? I would say absolutely, yes.

And that is the nub of the problem. We have different responses depending on the question. So, what I believe has influenced the public to come out against the site in the latest NP consultation is their response to a fourth question, which is:

  • Should the school’s playing fields be sold in order to finance the school’s building programme?

The majority of those consulted have said no, have they not? And I suspect it’s because they simply don’t believe that the ends justify the means, whether they are directly affected by the proposals or not.

Had the recent consultation gone the other way and resulted in a majority in favour of housing on the site, I would have accepted this as the will of the people. So, by the same token, I think I have a right to expect a vote going the other way also to be honoured.

As I have been advocating for nearly 18 months now, it’s time for the whole community to take responsibility and to be creative about finding alternative sources of funding so that the school can be modernised and give the town something to be proud of.

Trevor Howell