Leeds City Council’s children and families scrutiny board discussed plans to extend Moor Allerton Hall School from a two to three form entry to meet needs for an area of the city known as a “black hole” for school places.
However, the city’s Schools Organisation Advisory Board (SOAB) – an independent panel of education experts – advised against the move at a meeting in the summer, calling the expansion “risky”. It was also pointed out that the school was not directly in the area of need, and it was listed as “requires improvement” in its last Ofsted inspection.
Despite this, the council’s executive board approved the expansion from 420 to 630 pupils at a meeting last month.
The decision was “called in” by Conservative councillor Dan Cohen to be scrutinised by the panel this week.
Coun Cohen told the meeting: “I recognise Moor Allerton Hall are working incredibly hard to work on the improvements. They are all working their hardest to work for the best possible outcome for their children.
“Schools in north Leeds have been facing immense pressure on places for years.”
A new free school application for Roundhay was approved in 2015, and due to open in September 2017. The meeting heard this proposal ended in January 2018 as no suitable site was brought forward.
This led to a proposal to merge Moor Allerton Hall and Allerton Grange. The merger plan was abandoned and instead plans were put in place to expand Moor Allerton Hall school. Coun Cohen said: “It is a bad decision for the city and for our young people. This decision needs to get the proper scrutiny.
“It provides just half of the places the council deems is needed for the area.
“The school is continually under-subscribed and requires improvement, the expansion would put strain on the school leadership team.”
“The administration decided to wholly ignore the (SOAB) recommendation. They are entitled to ignore that advice. Dentists tell us to brush our teeth every day, we can ignore it, but it’s not advised.
“The conclusions of SOAB are treated as a passing inconvenience – it is at best dismissive, quite offensive, to an independent advisory board, just because we don’t like its advice.
“This is a very risky strategy. The expansion would put strain on the school leadership team.
“The SOAB advice is ignored at the city’s peril.
“In north Leeds it is the case that far too many young people do not get any of their preferences.
He added it would have long-term impact on local traffic.
“Surely there are better solutions,” he said.
“North Leeds needs school places, but it needs the right school places, and ones that will be taken up. It needs to deliver those places in a sensible manner.
“Once embarked upon, it is an irreversible decision. I urge the board that this decision be reconsidered by the board.”
Coun Jonathan Pryor (Lab), the council’s head of learning, schools and employment, said: “I do think it is incorrect for councillor Cohen to say we ignored SOAB. There are concerns from SOAB addressed in the report.
“We may have come to a different conclusion but it’s false to say it was ignored.”
“Moor Allerton Hall is a school that fills every year. For the past five years, the number of preferences has increased. This reflects the improvement journey the school is on.
“In the latest school census, the school was full or almost full in every year group.”
Moor Allerton Hall School headteacher Lesley McKay told the meeting: “The reputation of our school has been growing.
“We know where we are going with our school. We have worked very hard on that and our results have improved over the last two years.
“We think this is going to make a difference.
“This whole process is causing disruption to that reputation. We have tried to support the council in providing extra places. We know local children need a school.
“We are not a failing school. Some of the publicity is causing parents to question this.”
A council officer said the school was “well on its way” in terms of improvements since its last Ofsted inspection.
The meeting heard that the current reception and year one year groups were “bulge” cohorts, meaning the school was already accepting larger year groups.
Lesley McKay added: “We have managed that quite well and parents have been pleased with the way we have managed it, but we would much prefer to have a planned long term solution, than to go through these temporary measures.
“At the moment, we are surviving with temporary blocks.”
Coun Pryor added: “This is a formalisation of what the school has already been doing and gives them the resources to do that.”
Coun Cohen summed up: “It sounds like we’re having a dig at (the school), the school has accepted itself, but the school is on an improvement journey.
“Our concern is that to formalise the school taking on more and more students may impact on that journey.”
Members of the board voted in favour of releasing the decision for implementation.
The expanded school is expected to be ready by Autumn 2019.