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Wednesday, 09 January 2013 23:13

Wye Free School Debacle

A new Free School in Wye, catering for secondary school pupils, was approved in principle by the Department for Education back in July. The Department of Education and United Learning, the Academy Group which has taken over the development of the Free School, have now destroyed the rationale for its existence. The proposal for a Free School was based on a vision that saw a College in the centre of the village, founded in 1447 for training the priesthood and which had served as an educational institution almost continuously since that date until 2009, be resurrected to serve the children of Wye.

By all reports, Imperial College who owned the premises, was sympathetic to the project which was to be run by United Learning, a charity already running 20 academies and 11 private schools, including Ashford School.  One can catch a flavour of United Learning in an analysis by the admittedly critical Anti-Academies Alliance, here. I see no flavour of any appreciation of heritage here, and can do no better than quote excerpts from the excellent response by Wye and Hinxhill Parish Council to United Learning's consultation document.......


"The Council was dismayed when they learnt that United Learning - an education provider that operates many academies and independent schools including Ashford School – had agreed that the school would not be based in the old Wye College campus but on a new site next to and including the Kempe Centre library. The idea of a new building was proposed by the Education Funding Agency despite the completion of professional feasibility studies showing that the Edwardian buildings and laboratories on the Wye College site would work well as a modern school after conversion and represent good value for money – their refurbishment is estimated as costing less than the new build option. The original bid was conceived by the local Free School Committee as a brilliant and beneficial re-use for the now deserted College’s Edwardian campus. The project has generated a lot of local support and ideas about how the school would be able to interact with the Wye community in a two way exchange of activities. The community, working through the Parish Council has also offered to take on the older Grade 1 listed Tudor buildings on the site, thereby facilitating the school’s development in the inspirational, Edwardian parts of the campus. Sadly, United Learning and the Education Funding Agency have failed to put together a proposal to use the Edwardian site, even though English Heritage have strongly supported such an approach. As a result three of the original Free School Committee have resigned and the Parish Council has passed a resolution stating its strong opposition to any new building next to the Kempe Centre. The chairman of the Parish Council said: “It is very perverse to decide to build a new school building when there are marvellous buildings sitting there waiting to be used and which are easily adaptable.The village is anxious that on top of a new school in a smallish village, there will now be further users for the campus buildings in due course as well. A second high intensity activity would be too much for the village to absorb. We will be consulting all the residents of the parish on whether the new build option is what they want or not, and this will influence our position on any future application for planning permission.”

What a tragedy that neither government nor United Learning have the vision, the imagination, any sense of heritage or community, or the simple common sense to see that United Learning’s proposal of an unwanted set of new premises instead of an imaginative use of historic buildings destroys the whole purpose of the project, developed by villagers to serve their village. And for what? Merely to promote a political imperative that needs to find sites for Free Schools to serve government dogma, even when it destroys much that is good, or in this case an exciting and visionary proposal. You will find United Learning’s vision of the Wye Free School here, along with details of the required Consultation now being carried out.  A local organisation website, Wyeweb, carries a number of comments about the new and original proposal. Last night a Wye and Hinxhill Parish Council meeting debated the issues, although details of this are not yet available.  

I must confess I have always had doubts about the viability of the project, as demand for places was never likely to be high if the main student body was to be drawn from the village of Wye and the intake was set at 120, which I for one considered too small to offer the curriculum and breadth of opportunity envisaged by the proposers. You will find these views elsewhere on this website. Nevertheless one can see the attraction, and it would see pupils looking locally rather than the large secondary schools in neighbouring Ashford.

However, what we now have is a proposition for unnecessary multi-million pound new buildings, to be built next to the historic site, for which another purpose will need to be found. Wye College became a prestigious agricultural college in 1894, until it was closed in 2009 by its present owners, Imperial College London. There is no doubt that this proposal is already highly controversial, but if it goes ahead in whatever form, it is likely to attract the numbers filling up from neighbouring Ashford and Kennington, increasing traffic in an already busy village. If it is to be a new building, then the old one will also have to be found a new role, which will no doubt exacerbate the problem further.

On a personal note, I was probably one of the last hand hop-pickers in the country, working on the Wye College farm in my school and university vacations, long after machines had taken over the role in commercial hop gardens, as the College was a world leader in hop research and needed its hops handpicked in order to carry out its work. Whilst I therefore only have a tenuous link with the project, I can’t help believing that the original dream offered a far better future for the historic premises and the village than what now becomes another political football

Last modified on Tuesday, 04 March 2014 17:57

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