EXCLUSIVE: MARLBOROUGH'S NEW PRIMARY SCHOOL - Part 2: how governors and heads won the battle for a single storey school
It has now been agreed that Marlborough's new primary school will be a single storey building. This decision was not reached easily and the governors and heads of St Mary's and St Peter's voluntary controlled Church of England schools were instrumental in achieving this victory.
The Department for Education's mandatory 'baseline design' for a new and normal primary school is a two-storey building.
One of the basic reasons that St Peter's School was considered by many to be unsuitable as a modern primary school was that it is on three storeys with many steep staircases. This made the proper teaching of SEN and disabled children difficult if not, sometimes, impossible.
Both the present schools have specialist provision with specialist teachers for a number of children with complex needs for whom a single storey design is certainly beneficial and in many cases probably essential.
It is then somewhat surprising to find an email in August 2014 from pointing out documents showing that 'the [Local Authority's] application included the Specialist Learning Centre provision - they are an integral part of each school and were opened through a statutory proposal. Let me know if we need to discuss further."
Documents released to Marlborough News Online under a Freedom of Information request show that on 7 November 2014 St Peter's and St Mary's New Build Joint Working Party wrote an impassioned plea to the Education Funding Agency (EFA) for a single storey building.
"The [specialist facilities for SEN and disabled pupils] are," the letter said, " an integral part of both schools and the children are nurtured and supported by the staff and other children."
"The new school will have two Complex Needs Resource Bases, one for Key Stage 1 and one for Key Stage 2. The provision for SEN children needs to be at the heart of the school and our desired option would be for a single story building with two wings, one for Key Stage 1 and one for Key Stage 2 with the Complex Needs RB cited centrally between the two key stages."
This letter reinforces its argument by noting that the nearest alternative SEN schools are in Salisbury and Swindon. And it emphasises that Marlborough infant and junior schools currently take SEN pupils from a wide area of Wiltshire - a convincing reason not to disrupt or interfere with the expertise of an established and valued service for these children and their families.
The letter ends with the suggestion that the new school should be considered not as a 'standard' primary school, but rather a hybrid school which provides typical primary education alongside a large proportion of integrated SEN provision: "We feel that the unique challenges faced by St Mary's and St Peter's Schools would justify consideration of this project as a unique case."
The letter was signed by the two school's head teachers - Ann Schwodler and Caroline Spindlow - and by their chairs of governors - Amanda Carver and Simon Taylor.
Interestingly on 3 November 2014, an officer at Wiltshire Council had written to the EFA: "Perhaps the new building should be regarded as a hybrid? Not a standard primary school, not a standalone special school, but a combination of the two, with the accessibility modelled on SEN schools."
An extra element in the debate was that the Department for Education (DfE) wanted some of the site (known as Van Diemans Land and owned by Wiltshire Council, while Salisbury Diocese owns the land St Mary's stands on) to be sold off for housing - to help defray the building costs to be covered by the Private Finance Initiative funding.
The switch to a single storey building did, of course, alter the amount of land available for a plot fit to be sold to a developer. There were fears at the DfE and the EFA that the land left over "...is considerably smaller than you anticipated, and may not provide you with either a capital receipt needed or indeed even be marketable."
It turned out that that the 'land available for development' had shrunk from 1217 square metres to 302 square metres. Marlborough News Online is advised that the smaller plot could take a detached house of reasonable size. But its viability for development depends on many factors besides its size - including the shape of the plot and whether it has a road frontage.
Always in the background to the negotiations over the one-versus-two storey debate were the rules on maintaining sufficient playing fields.
The DfE's current guidance says that a local authority may not erect a new school or other buildings on or change the use of playing fields "...without prior consent under section 77" of the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998.
However, in some cases the Secretary of State has consented to the use of playing field land at schools being developed under the Priority Schools Building Programme. But he insists that there is no disposal of playing field land and the new school must have 'at least the same size and quality of playing fields as it had before - there must be no net loss.'
It is clear that sticking to these rules is vital if Sport England is to support the scheme.
Until the planning application is lodged, we will not know what the final division of this large plot of land will be between the new school, playing fields and - possibly - a plot for a developer to buy.