£18m plan to plug school places shortfall in Leighton Buzzard as debate over possible age range change continues

Vandyke Upper School
Vandyke Upper School

Moves are underway to plug a shortage of school places in Leighton Buzzard and Linslade, as talks continue about a possible move to a two-tier system.

New schools are planned as part of major housing projects in the area, but are not due to be completed in time.

Gilbert Inglefield Academy

Gilbert Inglefield Academy

So contingency measures are being planned by Central Bedfordshire Council to address the current shortfall.

Gilbert Inglefield Academy and Vandyke Upper School in Leighton Buzzard are set to expand, with 60 extra pupils each, spread across two forms, by September 2020.

A report to the council’s children’s services overview and scrutiny committee said these measures would “meet a forecast deficit of school places”.

And it explained that the recommendation is in line with the local authority’s Schools for the Future strategy.

The report confirmed that no new school sites are currently “in a position to be progressed”.

The expansion costs are estimated at £7m for Gilbert Inglefield Academy and  £11.2m for Vandyke Upper School.

Conservative Stotfold and Langford councillor Steve Dixon said: “There’s no net cost to this authority for the expansions.”

Schools in Leighton Buzzard are still in talks about possible age range changes.

“Any programme for a change in age range under the statutory requirement is likely to require further executive approval in the future,” said the report.

“But nothing will be in place before the additional school places are required in 2020.

“The council has a statutory duty to ensure everyone who wants a school place has one, and it has a policy principle to ensure these places are in the area of demand,” added the report.

“The school organisation plan (SOP) is reviewed on an annual basis and provides the council with an outline of planned changes for the next five years.

“The SOP identifies areas where additional school places may be necessary.”

There are four middle schools in the Leighton Buzzard area, Gilbert Inglefield Academy, Brooklands School, Leighton Middle School and Linslade School.

Leighton Middle School was expanded in 2017 to meet a shortage of school places at that time.

Of the two upper schools, Cedars is not in the area of demand, according to the report.

Vandyke Upper School was expanded by 200 places in 2014 to meet a similar shortfall then.

Conservative Arlesey councillor David Shelvey said: “This cluster is one of those at the forefront of the Schools for the Future, so by the middle of the year you’ll have a plan.

“Does that mean we might change what we do at these schools?” he asked. “Or are you saying will this expansion plan will happen regardless and it will fit in with what those future plans show?

“A substantial amount of money is being spent.

“I know it’s not out of the council’s budget. But it could be used in a different way if the structure is changed a little bit from what’s happening here.”

Councillor Dixon, who’s the executive member for families, education and children, replied: “We’re doing this with an eye to the future, whatever that will be.

“We’re trying to do the best we can, not prejudicing potential change. We’ve got that double edged sword, slightly.

“This is being mindful of what might come, but also focuses on delivery for 2020.”

Councillor Shelvey, who’s the committee vice-chairman, said: “That’s what concerned me. You’re having to commit to doing expansion when perhaps a site comes up.

“And you won’t have so much funding to build a new school, for instance, on the site.

“I understand the difficulties and I know how long it takes to bring a school forward. It can’t happen overnight.”

Councillor Dixon responded: “It’s for 2020. We’re projecting we need these places in that middle school in that geographic area.

“There are four middle schools in that cluster. This is the one next to where the need is.

“This is short time scales. This is tight. They’re all tight. We’ve got to be that precise.

“As we’ve seen elsewhere, look at Stotfold, 650 houses. Built a school.

“The day the school opened they started building works to extend it. More children were yielded than we expected.

“This isn’t science. It is an art. But this I hope will be mindful of the future, while focusing on the present.”

Committee chairman and Conservative Leighton Buzzard North councillor Ken Ferguson said: “I am aware of a large number of people around Leighton Linslade who are concerned about the educational provision going forward, and the variety.

“I don’t think that’s what this is particularly about because the numbers you talk about we have to accommodate.

“But the whole subject of building, the new builds, the potential demand for education in and around Leighton Linslade is an issue which is being raised frequently.”

Councillor Dixon said: “The first is about the evolving shape of education provision given the growth we’ve got coming in Leighton Linslade.

“This is bums on seats for 2020. And that’s the dilemma we face. Things keep moving.

“We have got to address this in the isolation of those places are needed for 2020.”

Both Gilbert Inglefield Academy and Vandyke Upper School are eligible for financial support through the dedicated schools grant growth fund.

Schools in Leighton Buzzard and Linslade are in talks with the council, the Diocese, academy trusts and governors on the future direction of schooling, according to the report.

This includes a potential move to a two-tier model of primary and secondary schools.

CBC’s executive backed building new schools as primary or secondary at a meeting in August.

The committee agreed to recommend to the executive that it supports the proposed school expansions, and the required funding arrangements.

The projects are also subject to Department for Education approval.

Before any work begins, planning permission will need to be sought from the local authority.