On 17 January, Tory Hammersmith & Fulham Council announced that it was giving the Bryony Centre in White City to the West London Free School for two years until Palingswick House in Ravenscourt Park was ready. In doing so, it dashed the hopes of some of the borough’s most vulnerable children. This is what we gather happened.
Until Michael Gove cancelled the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme last July, Hammersmith’s Cambridge School, which educates children with special educational needs, was expecting to move out of its current, insufficiently accessible building into the Bryony Centre, which was going to be rebuilt and made fully accessible. In preparation, the existing adult education courses were relocated out of the Bryony, which was left empty.
The received wisdom has been that the end of BSF meant the end of all of Hammersmith’s £207 million plans for 13 schools across the borough. But this was not the whole story. As the council explained at the time, "Town hall education chiefs will now begin to work with schools and the Department for Education on a revised affordable capital programme for primary, secondary, special and post-16 provision in the borough".
For Cambridge School, we understand this meant the opening of behind-the-scenes discussions with H&F education officials on developing a lower-cost scheme to enable the move to the Bryony still to go ahead.
Discussions were continuing and hopes were still high right up until 17 January, when the council took the sudden decision to offer the Bryony to the West London Free School for two years instead.
The latest issue of H&F News (25 January) confirms this. Not directly but clearly enough. A front page piece refers to the free school being “temporarily based” at the Bryony Centre and makes the apparently innocuous comment: “The Bryony is earmarked for development as the new home of Cambridge School in Hammersmith.”
Note the phrase “is earmarked”, not “was earmarked”. Anyone who claims that the plan to move Cambridge pupils into the centre died with the ending of BSF is quite simply wrong.
It is perfectly reasonable to assume that, under the new plans, the scaled-down building work to adapt the Bryony to the Cambridge pupils’ needs could still have begun later this year. That work now cannot start for at least two and half years because for the next two years from this September the free school will be occupying the building.
We have no reason to think the free school realised that taking the Bryony meant they were elbowing aside children with special educational needs. On the information the council gave them, they may well have thought that the centre would otherwise remain empty.
We hope the free school will give local kids of all backgrounds an excellent education. But that is not the point. If we are correct – and we have every reason to believe we are – Hammersmith council has given the Bryony Centre to the West London Free School at the expense of the Cambridge School’s vulnerable pupils. And that just doesn’t seem right.
(A further twist is that the national free schools' budget comes out of the cancelled BSF programme. Michael Gove made this clear before the election when he told The Independent that the capital cost of free schools would be met by reducing spending on BSF.)