The Search for a home for Abacus Belsize Primary School
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Delivering choice and meeting need
The need to create a secular community school for Belsize was established by local families and campaigners eleven years ago. There is not a single non-faith state primary school in the whole of Belsize – and there never has been.It was on the basis of both choice and need that the Department for Education gave the go-ahead to open Abacus Belsize Primary in 2013 with a catchment area, agreed with Camden Council, that avoided any undue impact on the catchment of other state schools in the area.
After six years serving the children of Belsize, first from a temporary home in the old Town Hall on Haverstock Hill and now at the Jubilee Waterside Centre near King’s Cross, the founding families will be moving into Year 6 this September. For the third year in a row, we will welcome a new Reception class entirely from within the catchment area.*
Despite being in temporary accommodation from the start, we are consistently in the top performing group of schools in Camden – our Outstanding Ofsted rating, with the second best results in the whole of Camden, testifies to why we have become the ‘go to’ school for Belsize Park families.
Now, more than ever, it is hugely important for the school to be able to create a permanent home within safe walking distance for the young families from the community it was founded to serve.
It is entirely appropriate that everyone feels confident that the permanent home chosen for the school will be the right one. The founders began the search for a suitable site well before the school opened and the search has continued for much of the past eight years.
An uncommonly thorough investigation that tested 76 potential locations over the years, more recently as part of collaborative efforts with Hampstead residents, has given everyone a rare level of confidence in knowing that the former Hampstead Police Station on Rosslyn Hill is indeed the best new home for the school.
In the beginning ...
Initially focused on the catchment area, the school founders vigorously assessed a number of potential locations over two years, but none provided the space the school needed to accommodate it or were affordable within the available budget.
In late 2012, The Education Funding Agenda (EFA) took on the task, using a commercial estate agent. Several more sites within a mile of the Belsize catchment area were identified and their suitability tested for a 210-pupil, one-form entry school. Only one met the requirements – the disused Police Station on Rosslyn Hill. The Department for Education acquired the site from the Metropolitan Police for Abacus Belsize Primary School in June 2014. It remains a building in public ownership.
Not the end of the story …
Following an unsuccessful planning application in 2016, which included extensive additions to the building to encourage the school to expand its intake, leading property and planning consultants Jones Lang LaSalle began further searches for a site that could accommodate the original one-form entry school. Once again, none of the sites it reviewed were suitable, on the basis of their failure to meet government criteria.
In January 2017, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (formerly EFA) commissioned LocatED, the government owned property company, to pursue further options but none of the additional sites it investigated met requirements either. At the request of some Hampstead residents, following our consultative workshop sessions in the spring of 2018, the LocatED search was reopened again, but the former Hampstead Police Station remained the only suitable location for Abacus’s permanent home.
The school passionately wants to see Abacus’s outstanding educational opportunities brought closer to the area it serves and we very much want to work with local people to achieve that. The continued search for an alternative site, more recently with the help of a group of Hampstead residents, has left the school and its families, the vast majority of the community, the Department for Education and the professional planning team more convinced than ever that the former Police Station will be the perfect home for Abacus Belsize.
An extensive programme of community engagement and consultation has explained how Abacus will remain a single-form entry, 210-pupil school, allowing it to overcome the earlier planning objections. We have been pleased that many in the community have taken up the opportunity to contribute to the evolution of the new proposals over the past 18 months. It is now very clear from the feedback that a large number view the new proposals positively.
Some of the children attending Abacus Belsize Primary have now been in temporary accommodation for five years. It is not a new school. It is an exceptional and popular local school that nearly 180 families rely on. It is time that we removed the uncertainty for those families, and the many more who hope to send their children there in the years to come, and enable the school to move to its permanent site. It would be an insurmountable challenge to find places elsewhere for an entire school’s worth of children in a part of the borough where there are not enough spaces. Instead, even if spaces could be found in every year group, everyone would have to make long, counterproductive and unnecessarily disruptive journeys to the far corners of the borough or beyond. This would undoubtedly increase traffic journeys, congestion and pollution. No one wants that.
Not only is Hampstead Police Station on Rosslyn Hill the ideal location for Abacus Belsize, it is also the only suitable site available**.
* Of the 90 children who started their education at Abacus in 2017, 2018, and again in this coming September’s intake, all are from our Belsize catchment area with the exception of four who are siblings of children already at the school.
** A comprehensive document cataloguing the extensive site search for suitable locations for Abacus Belsize Primary School forms part of the formal planning application.