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An open letter from Abacus Primary School's Chair of Governors,

Harriet Nowell-Smith,

to the editors of local media

Dear Sir, 


Re: A permanent home for Abacus


I was very disappointed to hear that Governors of several local Camden schools chose to speak in opposition to our planning application. The reports of their deputation to the Council last week included numerous inaccuracies, and I am writing to set out some facts for your readers in response to these and other comments opposing our planning application. I would also like to provide some context, which seems to have been overlooked.  


Abacus is not a new school. It is not an idea or a proposal for the future. Abacus has been teaching Camden children in our local community for the past six years. These are real children who are members of real families in the local area. We already teach more than 150 children from Reception to Year 5 and in September we will add another 30 in Reception and move our original intake to Year 6. These are Camden citizens – as diverse as the rest of the borough in all aspects of ethnicity, faith (and none) and income – who are receiving an outstanding state education and whose futures are at stake. 


Abacus receives exactly the same funding as the other Camden state schools, on a per-pupil basis (it is roughly one-third of the cost of private education, and we care as passionately as other local schools about the need for this level to be higher). The main expense of any school is the staff.  We have the benefit of a staffing model that employs energetic, enthusiastic, brilliant Newly Qualified Teachers who are supported by experienced senior teachers to use top teaching methods, and we are led by an outstanding Headteacher. The benefits of this model are clear when you walk in the door:  the staff are delighted to be there and so are the children.  And you can see the benefits in our results, which are consistently among the best in Camden.  


The governors of other schools refer to their concerns about losing pupils due to falling birth rate in the borough and having to restructure around that.  But, even if they had the spaces, forcing Belsize children to attend their schools is not a good policy solution nor practical when you look at the geography.  Their sites are simply too far away.  Camden Council plans school places in six geographical areas.  Belsize is in planning area 3, which stretches from the east to the west of the Borough and is several miles wide.  Belsize children were often offered places at Brecknock Primary, which is as far away as our temporary site on the other side of Kentish Town on the Islington border.  That is far too far for a 4-year old child to walk twice a day, with no tube at the other end for parents to get to work.  Even New End is a 45 minute walk to the very top of Hampstead from our catchment, which goes south to Adelaide Road. 


Let’s not descend into a turf war; other local schools serve their communities and Abacus serves Belsize. Our catchment area was devised so as not to encroach on others and we don’t. Establishing our permanent home at the Police Station on Rosslyn Hill will have no greater impact on the numbers and funding of Hampstead schools because we are already a school full of children of our own.  We are oversubscribed for Reception and Year 1 for September.  It is sad that there is still unmet need in our catchment area.  To suggest that there are empty places in nearby schools for reception is simply untrue, even if parents are given no choice but to see their children educated in a religious faith they do not share.  


Moving close to our community will mean that families can walk to a nearby school instead of walking to a 20 minute bus ride twice a day. It will mean doing away with environmental impact and the unsustainable financial expense of those bus journeys. Parents will feel close to the school, be able to have a casual word with the teacher and enjoy the sense of community and friendships that are born at the school gates. We think it is an important public benefit that children walk to a local school. It has always been an important part of our ethos and always will be. We know that Hampstead has many private schools whose parents drive their children from outside the area. We should not be falsely accused of being part of this problem. 


Building a sense of community is particularly important in Camden because it has some of the greatest income disparity in the country.  The catchment area for Abacus has on average 30% of children on free school meals (much above the national average) and includes the hostels on England’s Lane, the Aspern Grove estate and the tower blocks on Adelaide Road.  We also attract children from wealthier families who would otherwise go to private schools. One of our successes is mixing these children for the benefit of everyone.


Abacus is committed to working with local Camden schools: we attend meetings with Camden schools and wish to collaborate and work in partnership with other local primaries.  I am proud that our Headteacher has forged good working relationships with other Heads and would like to do the same with local Governors.  I invited discussion at a recent Camden Forum for Governors and have extended an open invitation to other Governors to come and visit Abacus and to meet me to discuss the situation. We have also invited local Councillors to visit the school and I would very much welcome that.  


I am disappointed in the tone of the public debate.  It is sad and ironic that this discussion is about a school site, and in school we expect children to learn the basic virtues of citizenship:  how to think clearly and be honest, even when self-interest gets in the way. I have written to the Governors of the local state schools and seek a dialogue with them for the benefit of our community. As with so many things in our world, this is not a time to be squabbling among ourselves but a time to be coming together in the best interests all our schools and all our children. 



Harriet Nowell-Smith

Chair of Governors 

Abacus Belsize Primary School