The children of Chipping Ongar are smiling this year. On the website of the Ongar Academy a counter indicates 190 days to go until the first lessons begin. Just three years ago the parents of the area had a dream of a free school and were faced with scepticism and negativity. People said it could not be justified, that they would not find a site or a sponsor, but Essex Council were not providing the secondary school they felt they needed and they were determined. Now that dream is a reality.
Fifteen years ago Derrick Fellowes led a Langdon Hills campaign called CLASS. The Campaign for a Local Area Secondary School in Langdon Hills. It was not hard to justify the need in the area. You just had to add up the number of places in the local primary schools to see that there were enough children in the area to fill the newly formed James Hornsby School plus another for the pupils of Great Berry, Merrylands and Lincewood.
Basildon and Essex Councils did not like the idea one little bit. The merger of Laindon School and Nicholas Comprehensive had been mismanaged leaving teaching at the new James Hornsby school in disarray. In their eyes the solution was to get the children of Langdon Hills to go there. Their reasoning is based on the nonsense idea that your ability to do well at school is determined by the price of your house. It isn't, but people of means will always cluster in areas where the schools are good while those who rely on council housing have less choice of where to live. If your parents dont have a job your aspirations may be lower and education prospects suffer. Sadly the unemployment levels around James Hornsby remain too high and the achievements of the school continue to suffer.
If the Councils had succeeded with their plan to induct the children of Langdon Hills it might have raised the average results of the James Hornsby school, but it would not have helped the people of Lee Chapel North who live nearer. Their problems are already reflected in the poor results of the primary schools in the area. The council poured money into James Hornsby to attract people from further away instead of working to improve aspirations at the primary school level. After a little down-sizing and the building of lots of new homes near the school, it is now full. There is optimism that its results will improve. When it does it will be oversubscribed and the secondary school aged children of Langdon Hills and Laindon Park wards will not be able to get in.
The CLASS campaign won widespread support from MPs and councillors in the run-up to elections. For a while it looked like they had won, but post-election everything evapourated. It is interesting to think about what might have happened if the promised secondary school had been built. With its successful feeder school its academic success was assured. This would have made more families want to live in the area and that could have brought modern, entrepreneurial, high-tech companies to the industrial areas nearby. That in turn would have provided more employment for the region helping to raise the levels of prosperity for everyone in Basildon. The children would see more hope and all the schools would have benefited, especially James Hornsby. Sadly that was never to be the way.
Fifteen years on the councils are revising their local plans but little has changed in their way of thinking. The revised Core Strategy of 2013 proposed several areas for new homes around Basildon, Billericay and Wickford. For an area known as PADC6, the North East Basildon Urban Extension where 2000 homes are planned a new secondary school will be built. For PADC9,10,11, and 12 near Wickford existing secondary schools will be expanded. What about PADC5, the proposed urban extension West of Basildon? What did they say about secondary schools for the largest allocation of 2300 new homes there? The answer is absolutely nothing, not a single word.
Now PADC5 has been joined with a proposal from Brentwood Council doubling its size to 4000-6000 new homes in the new devlopment of Dunton Garden Suburb. This would be sufficient to fill a new large secondary school on its own and three new primary schools. What do Essex Council who provide schools for the area have to say about it now? They point to spare capacity in Brentwood which is largely due to the new free school at Ongar in the North of the Borough, plus there are still up to 1000 places to fill at the Basildon Academies over at Pitsea. Yes you did hear that right. Now that James Hornsby is full the families of the new Dunton Garden Suburb if it is built will be expected to bus their children over to Brentwood on the over-congested roads while the families of Landgon Hills who will no longer find places will be expected to bus their children all the way across Basildon to the academies which are undersubscribed. History is about to repeat itself, but worse this time.
Only one thing has changed that could bring hope. Following the last general election the government introduced a system of "free schools" which could be set up outside the control of the local education authorities by parents who are not happy with local provision. The new school at Ongar is one example of how this can work. All the parents have to do is justify the need, find a site and a sponsor. None of these things would be particularly difficult in the Langon Hills and Laindon Park wards. Already a whole secondary school's worth of pupils is being bussed out to the secondary schools in Brentwood, Billericay, Wickford, Upminster, Ingatestone and elsewhere. New sites can be found when the new local plan regretably changes green belt boundaries. A location such as the fields next to Dunton Park would be ideal. The New Schools Network would help sort out the rest as they did for the residents of Chipping Ongar. All that is needed is for all the families with primary school children at Great Berry, Merrylands and Lincewood to get together and start the ball rolling. Frankly, this should have started happening five years ago when the free school scheme was introduced, but the time has never been better than now to begin. If it is left then the opportunity will pass and all the possible sites will be quickly taken up by developers for new homes.
For many of us it is now too late. Our children went through their formative years losing up to two hours a day travelling to school. In other areas school bus fares are paid for but not for the families of Langdon Hills. The financial cost this implied for us is nothing compared to the harm caused to our children's social lives because they lived far away from the friends they made in school. We tried but we could do nothing to fight it. If you are part of the next generation with primary school aged children and you want to continue to live in the West Basildon wards, the choice is yours. We want to stop the development of green belt land such as Dunton Garden Suburb, but even if we succeed the need for a new secondary school remains and eventually new sites will become available for it. The groundwork has to have been done before the sites appear so that the opportunity is not missed. Your free school is just waiting for you to decide you want it.