How I debunked 'sports' pitch against school expansion

This article originally appeared in the Herald Newspaper on 25th September 2019.

As the population of the local area increases so does demand for essential services.

Key among these is the demand for excellent schools which must be able to expand to meet the expected increase of population.

Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) predicts that primary schools across the county will require an extra 25,000 places by 2031.

I was therefore dismayed earlier this year to hear that schools across Oxfordshire were having trouble expanding their facilities, in particular classroom space, to meet the increase in demand.

Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) had asked the Department for Education (DfE) for permission to expand their classrooms and they were refused, on the basis that the sacrifice of playing field space at the schools would be too great.

It was clear that OCC and the DfE had found themselves in some sort of bureaucratic Mexican stand off: OCC maintained that the permissions they sought were very much in the scope of the regulations and DfE maintained their position that outdoor space should not be sacrificed in order to expand classroom facilities.

Neither position was strictly wrong however the only losers in the scenario were the schools and their pupils, for whom expansion was becoming an urgent issue.

I was asked to intervene by parents and staff of schools in my constituency. I visited one of the schools myself, Marcham Primary, to see whether playing fields would have to be sacrificed in order for the expansion to happen: it was clear to me that the areas proposed for expansion were simply areas of tarmac, car parks at best, and certainly not suitable for physical education or outdoor activities for the pupils.

Having visited the school I spoke to Lord Agnew, the Minister at DfE and arranged a meeting between him, his officials and OCC, represented by Ian Hudspeth and members of their education & children’s services team.

This meeting took place at the end of July and was incredibly productive: Each side was able to clearly lay out their broad concerns and further meetings to cover technical detail were arranged. These took place in August.

After a successful intervention by MPs across Oxfordshire I was delighted to receive news last week that the applications for expansion across the county have been approved.

Once again it goes to show what can be achieved if communities, local councils, MPs and Government work together to achieve the best outcome.