The Buckinghamshire village that could scupper Michael Gove's free school revolution

The people of Stoke Poges (population 5,000) go to court over plan for new Sikh school (845 pupils) in their backyard

A Buckinghamshire village is threatening legal action over plans to set up an 850-pupil Sikh secondary school in its midst. Residents of Stoke Poges have warned they will seek a judicial review of the proposal after Department for Education {DfE) bought an office block in the village for the school for a reputed £4.5m.

If the legal action went ahead, it would be a test case of new government powers allowing free schools to set up in premises such as offices or even former pubs without planning permission.

Most of the pupils for the school, planned by the Slough Sikh Education Trust, would be bussed into the village of 5,000 people every day after being collected from a primary school in neighbouring Slough. The school is scheduled to open in September and could eventually cater for 845 pupils.

Villagers say they have canvassed opinion among parents and only one said they would consider sending their child to it – but the child then obtained a place at a local grammar school.

Under sweeping powers introduced this year, the Government can commandeer land to accommodate new free schools for 12 months without planning permission. The measure was deemed necessary because many such schools given the green light by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, had to put off their opening dates because they could not find suitable premises.

However, the legislation was invoked in Stoke Poges only after it became clear that the planning authority, South Bucks District Council, was about to refuse planning consent for the school. One of the main grounds was the traffic congestion the proposal would cause in the village. A report to the planning committee said the site was “in an unsustainable location poorly served by public transport”.

Villagers now say they have been told the school may make Pioneer House – the office block purchased for the trust by the DfE for a reported £4.5m – a permanent home or use it for the first year of other free schools planned for Slough, which says it has no room for new school buildings.

County councillor Trevor Egleton told The Independent: “We don’t want a secondary school here. We don’t need a secondary school here. To put a large secondary school with over 1,000 people in it in one of our villages would be an environmental disaster.”

Ralph Bagge, chairman of the parish council, added: “It will be quite harmful to the quality of life here. People who have bought a house here want somewhere where it is quiet and peaceful. They know each other. They will socialise together. They don’t want a large secondary school here, no matter what it is called or who is at it.”

Villagers say they have been branded as “white middle-class NIMBYs or even racists” as a result of their opposition. However, they add that they will lose the free transport provided by Buckinghamshire County Council to their nearest secondary school  because there will be one in the village.

Stoke Poges is now festooned with stickers proclaiming “Say no to new secondary school” and opponents plan to present a 4,000-name petition to David Cameron at Downing Street on Thursday week.

The story has echoes of the proposal by a primary academy in Brixton, south London, to set up a boarding school for mainly black teenagers in the Sussex countryside where villagers are also opposing the scheme on environmental grounds.

Saera Carter, vice-chairwoman of Stoke Poges parish council, said she was telephoned by one Sikh after her number appeared on a leaflet advertising a meeting. The caller allegedly  said: “I’ve been told not to feel sorry for you losing your free transport because you’re all rich and very white middle-class.” Ms Carter added: “There are a lot of wealthy people in Stoke Poges – you can’t deny that.”

Khalsa Secondary Academy will start in September by taking 120 first-year secondary pupils and 60 in the second year, eventually building up to a total of 845. Nick Kandola, chairman of the Slough Sikh Educational Trust, said: “We have been trying to get a site for the secondary school for four years and obviously sought Slough at first, but unfortunately there were no sites available there.”

He said the new school would serve a wider area with pupils from west London and South Buckinghamshire, too. “We have had some applications from Stoke Poges,” he added.

At present, there is only one Sikh state secondary school in the country – at Hayes in Middlesex. Mr Kandola said the academy hoped to close the gap in provision identified by the education watchdog Ofsted earlier this week – that non-selective state schools were failing brighter children.

“If you take the grammar schools out of the equation and just look at the results of the non-selective schools in the area, only half of the children get five good GCSEs,” he said. “We want to take on that challenge and put in a formula that we believe will work and deliver a better outcome.”

It would have three prongs to it: teaching in a spiritual environment, putting a strong emphasis on academic achievement with extra resources and extra coaching for those who need and ensuring that pupils are physically fit as well as mentally fit. The school will have an extended day until 6pm with all pupils doing one hour of sport daily, which would include the option of horse riding, archery and martial arts. Half of the places will be allocated to Sikh children and the rest will be available to pupils of other faiths or no faith. It adds: “In the event that fewer children of other or no faith apply for available places, then the remaining places will be allocated to children of Sikh faith.”

Mr Kandola rejected the idea that the school would cause traffic congestion, saying there was an existing private faith school in Stoke Poges which had a number of coaches coming back and forth during the day. More than 200 Sikhs live in Stoke Poges but villagers said none expected their children to attend the school. “They are the richer Sikhs,” said Mrs Carter. “They would want their children to go to grammar schools... or, if they do not get in, private schools.”

A spokeswoman for the DfE said it had bought the site but added: “The Secretary of State has not yet made a final decision on the use of Pioneer House as a temporary site for the Khalsa free school.”

Battle lines: Other proposals

The battle of Stoke Poges is just the latest in a number of free school skirmishes in which the Education Secratary has been involved. Mr Gove is still at loggerheads with villagers in Stedham, West Sussex, over his support for a boarding school for pupils from Brixton, south London, to be run by an inner-city academy. Like people in Stoke Poges, Stedham residents claim it will cause traffic chaos and be too costly. Mr Gove said villagers were trying to deny the Brixton pupils the opportunity to have an Eton-class education paid for by the state.

Residents in Hove, though, are celebrating after plans to use a treasured playing field for a new free school were dropped by Mr Gove’s department.

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