A whole class of London children began school last week in a converted church hall because of a shortage of school places in a London borough. Twenty-three four-year-olds in Camden began their journey through more than a decade of formal schooling in a temporary classroom that isn't part of a normal primary school, but situated in a two-storey brick building alongside the imposing Victorian edifice of All Hallows Anglican church in Gospel Oak. A similar number of children are due to form a second class in another room in the same building in January next year.
The church hall was hurriedly refurbished and equipped for teaching during the school holidays, after numerous primary schools across Camden rejected last-minute requests from the council to take an extra class of children this term. Teaching staff and assistants had to be hastily appointed in July and August.
The council was forced to resort to this unusual solution after several months of pressure from parents, whose children faced starting the autumn term without a school place in the borough. At one point, there were 110 children with nowhere to go, a figure that gradually shrunk, as some parents apparently decided to pay for private education, and others received places in schools that had earlier appeared full.
The situation in Camden is mirrored in other parts of London, where a mix of three factors is responsible for the shortfall of places: a rising birth rate five years ago, unpredictable numbers of immigrant families arriving in the capital; and a rise in the number of families using state rather than private education. In other boroughs, additional numbers are being accommodated mainly in portable classrooms on existing sites.
The stop-gap nature of the Camden measure is underlined by the name being given to the hall, the Courthope Education Centre, named after the road it's in. The aim is for the arrangement to last just one school year.
Parents of children starting last week voiced a mixture of emotions: relief at having somewhere for their children to start; anger at the way the council has handled the issue; and fear for the future.
"It's been totally mishandled and very distressing for all the parents," says Leila Roy, who is acting as co-ordinator of a parents' support group, and whose four-year-old son Anton began at the centre this week. "This centre would never have been found if it hadn't been for parent pressure. The council were telling us to send our children outside the borough, to Westminster or Islington, which is much too far away."
But officials say it's been a joint achievement. "We're very proud of this development, because we have worked very closely with the local parents," says Richard Lewin, Camden's assistant director for schools. "Everything we are doing is to make sure that the children get the educational experience that parents would expect if their children went to any Camden school."
A central concern among parents is the location: up to two miles from where some of the affected families live.
"It takes me 40 minutes to get to the centre," says a working mother, who asks not to be named. "This gives me a problem with pre and after school care, because friends I could call on aren't anywhere near the school. But the council still hasn't said if there'll be a breakfast club or after-school activities."
The facilities inside the hall are impressive, however. A total of £145,000 has been spent on the refurbishment, creating an environment far superior to the condition of the hall under its previous occupants, ironically a fee-paying pre-prep school.
Now, the bright and colourful classroom bristles with brand new equipment and resources. An interactive whiteboard and two computers line one wall; arts and craft materials surround a new sink across the room; and comfy cushions sit in a well stocked book corner. The quality of the re-fit has clearly met many parents' early concerns. "I think they've done a really good job," says Stephen Joseph, father of Spencer, who started this week. "If they hadn't done it, the children would have nowhere to go"
The outside play space is, however, limited to a small paved area between the hall and the church. "The playground is not the best," says Roy, "but we have been guaranteed that the children will be taken to Hampstead Heath at play time."
Other parents are worried that their children, in this isolated location, will miss out on something essential to the school experience. "I feel that it's a bit of a setback for my son," says Renee Horsford. "I feel he was ready to start school, and this is not a school. It's more like a nursery. He won't be mixing with older children and he won't get the feel of school life."
But the teacher in charge, Troy Sharpe, says he hopes it'll be possible to establish regular links with a primary school about a quarter of a mile away. "We've only had eight weeks to get ready, so at the moment we're concentrating on getting things started," he says, "but there are several ways we hope to link up with the nearby school. The head there has said we can use their playground; we've talked about some of their older pupils coming here to become reading or play buddies with our children: and we might try to have a joint sports day in the summer."
These assurances aside, parents remain unhappy that it has come to this temporary measure at all. "I'm confused," says Horsford. "Our children were born in 2004, we registered their births, the council have known about it for this long and still they can't provide a place in a school."
Camden's officials argue that their planning was based on figures jointly provided by the Greater London Assembly and central government. "Our long-term planning indicated that we wouldn't have a problem – borne out by the Government figures," says Lewin,
However, Alexis Rowell, Liberal Democrat Councillor for the ward where most of the affected families live, and who has supported the parents campaign to pressurise council officers to come up with something, offers a more straightforward explanation.
"In Camden we've cocked up," he says. "There's been a huge black hole in the Belsize ward, where there are no state primary schools, which we've known about for ages."
The looming question is what will happen to these children next year. Camden say they will try to transfer each class, as a job lot, to another school, creating what's known as a bulge class that works its way up the school until the children reach secondary age. But this is exactly the arrangement it failed to secure this year, and there's no guarantee that schools will be prepared to come to the council's rescue next autumn.