Elliott School R.I.P.

This article appears in Issue One, which is available to buy in bookshops and online.

On the 11 March, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, turned down an appeal to halt the building work on Elliott School’s playing fields. The appeal was a last ditch attempt to reverse the decision made by Tory-run Wandsworth Council to build luxury flats on the site. According to Mr. Pickles, the council’s decision ‘[did] not appear to be grossly wrong and … no damage is likely to be done to the wider public interest’. These are the words of a coy technocrat. Only the appearance of wrongdoing is denied, and damage to the public interest is termed in probabilities.

Selling off public assets to private developers is depressingly common in contemporary London. Still, Pickles’ qualified evasions show an awareness that even the bluest Wandsworth voter might be sensitive to the privatisation of playgrounds. But there’s more to Elliott than this. The school’s transformation brings to the fore the many horrors of Tory Britain, where austerity, localism, regeneration, and class war combine into one big ‘Big Society’ nightmare.

The story begins in 1957, when Elliott was built. A product of architectural and educational radicalism in the London County Council, Elliott was one of the capital’s first purpose-built comprehensives and served as a model for post-war inner city schools. Elliott represented an explicitly socialist project: non-selective universal education to rid Britain of the class segregation implicit in the 11+ Tripartite System, which divided students into Grammar Schools, Secondary Moderns, and Secondary Technical Schools. This progressive pedagogy was matched by progressive modernist architecture. Elain Harwood, of the English Heritage Trust, described Elliott as ‘perhaps the finest of the large comprehensive schools built by the London County Council Architects’. The design sits between the charm of the Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall and the radical new brutalism of the Alton West Estate, which the school served.

The school’s subsequent timeline reflects the intertwined post-war narratives of comprehensive education and modernist architecture. Elliott experienced waves of educational success but, as the years went by, the school began to look its age and the list of repairs it needed grew. So too did the challenges of the comprehensive project. As is well documented, the failure to implement a fully comprehensive system in Britain saw the re-emergence of the Secondary Modern-era divide, where schools like Elliott became the last resorts for those who couldn’t afford private and didn’t get into selective schools.

In 1993, Elliott became a Grade II listed building because of its historical and aesthetic importance to the modernist movement. This placed a burden of responsibility on Conservative Wandsworth Council to maintain and repair the school in keeping with its original design—a duty that was contested from the start. Edward Lister, the Thatcherite head of Wandsworth Council, wrote a letter to the Secretary of State for Environment, complaining about Elliott’s ‘unfriendly 1960s design’ (it was built in the 50s) and the economic consequences of the listing, which would prohibit demolition or cheap bolt-on repairs.

Nevertheless, the council continued to neglect its responsibility and ignored the needs of the school. By the 2000s, Elliott had fallen into disrepair and disrepute; still a grand and monumental building, it was marred by prejudice. A rumour spread among pupils that it had once been council housing—an ironic myth given its meticulous purpose-built design. A huge, crumbling, modernist public building, Elliott became associated with dilapidated sink estates and fell victim to the same classist sneers. Serious structural issues with the roof, as well as the need for a general renovation, became pressing. This, coupled with a series of bad Ofsted reports, made the situation worse. Along with the school’s reputation, pupil numbers began to decline.

The school was finally granted £40m under Labour’s ‘Building Schools for the Future’ (BSF) initiative, which aimed to build new schools but also renovate older ones. In Hackney, Grade II-listed Haggerston School was refurbished by Avanti architects under BSF. The original Haggerston School was built by Ernö Goldfinger (of Trellick Tower fame) and, like Elliott, had suffered from the neglect and prejudice that trails modernist design and multi-ethnic inner-city comps. The transformation was a triumph: cost-effective compared to demolition and critically acclaimed, it made the shortlist for the 2012 Royal Institute of British Architects awards. Elliott was looking forward to a similar makeover.

All that’s solid melts into air. BSF turned out to be one of the first casualties of the coalition government’s cuts. The school and community were offered an ultimatum by Wandsworth Council: sell off the school’s land to private developers to pay for the refurbishment or face closure. In austerity logic, if the council couldn’t afford to renovate Elliott, sacrifices needed to be made. Since pupil numbers were declining, the council argued Elliott had more land than they needed.

There was uproar in the community, and a group of ex-students, teachers and parents (led tirelessly by ex-pupil and architect Ed Lattimore) began a campaign to halt the sale. They argued that this was public land that, once gone, would never be replaced. Large, open playgrounds and sports fields are rare in London and need to be protected. Elliott had beautiful grounds that flowed from the west of the site underground through the main building and out into multi-level playing spaces with concrete tennis courts, sports fields, and an outdoor stage. Selling the land compromised this historic design. More importantly, it would steal these assets from future generations forever. The proposed land sale would also reduce the school’s playgrounds to below the minimum standard set by the Department of Education.

The argument for selling off land in light of the pupil intake was circular and short-sighted: student numbers had declined precisely because the school needed renovation. The sell-off would simply ensure the school never reached capacity again. And what would happen the next time Elliott needed maintenance work? Melt down the window frames to pay for paint? Leader of Wandsworth Council Ravi Govindia noted that while ‘responsibility for major structural repairs currently lies with the council’, neither the ‘council nor school budgets were ever designed for refurbishment works on the scale needed’. The bizarre reasoning here is that the council’s sustained negligence relieved them of their duty. On top of this, Wandsworth failed to apply for some of the £2bn in funding from the ‘Priority Schools Building Programme’, which was set up to service those schools in desperate need of maintenance after BSF was cut. The council’s defence was that Elliott was a listed building—a fact that was irrelevant to the application process.

The maximum refurbishment cost was formally documented as £33.6m, although other figures as low as £22m and £24m were cited by both the school’s executive and individual councillors. No condition survey or formal tender documents were made public so nobody could actually work out how the council arrived at these figures. The contract was not put to formal tender but handed to a preferred contractor, restricting the number of potential purchasers. This meant the site was sold at an under-value rate. Barratt Homes, the development group that got the contract, paid £33m for the site, almost the exact amount needed for repairs. Campaigners requested a Quantity Surveyor’s report to get answers; this document, funded by council taxpayers, should have been in the public domain but was withheld at the council’s ‘discretion’. If austerity was the real issue, why did the council not try and get the most money for the land through a bidding system, instead of giving preferential treatment to Barratt Homes? The fact that Barratt is a Tory donor is one troubling answer.

The council’s refusal to consider alternatives to selling the land makes this more alarming. At all the public consultations, it used gerrymandering and vetoes to avoid discussions with the public. Campaigners took time off work and turned up to the Town Hall only to have public discussions voted down by the Tory majority. Numerous other possibilities were offered to raise the money, like an opt-in Council Tax Levy. Wandsworth has the lowest council tax in the whole country, 41% below the London average. They’re enjoying self-described ‘boom times’, with £200m in reserves, but the austerity argument survives. Wandsworth presented Elliott’s sports grounds and land as an undeserved luxury, unaffordable in the modern era. Yet, when campaigners got in touch with the council, their response was always that ‘none of [the land] is used for sports purposes’, which is the kind of bare-faced lie you expect from evil fuckers like Monsanto, not elected representatives in London.

The council treated the Elliott campaigners with the kind of scorn reserved for radical grassroots movements. On the other hand, another group of concerned citizens, the Neighbourhood School Campaign, were welcomed with open arms. This group was made up of a very different coalition: middle class parents emboldened by Michael Gove’s new Free School ideology. The campaigners were from Northcote (one of the most affluent areas in London) and wanted their own nice school for their own nice area. Members included 25 local bankers in top city firms like JP Morgan and RBS. Despite the surplus of state school places in the borough and the desperate need for funding in the existing state schools, Wandsworth decided to give them £30m to convert the recently closed Bolingbroke Hospital. The justification for the Neighbourhood School Campaign was that ‘at the moment, local secondary schools don’t exist in south Battersea’—an interesting observation considering that Chestnut Grove School is less than half a mile away from their site. Wandsworth legitimised its plans on the basis of needing more school places for the future; by 2020, London needed to create 80,000 more school places to meet demand. Yet the land sale at Elliott would reduce the student capacity by almost half. Why was Elliott an exception to this policy?

To anyone from the borough, it was obvious that none of these parents would send their kids to those kinds of schools. What happened to Elliott was out-and-out class war: take the money allocated to the big state school in dire need of repairs and hand it over to the wealthiest parents in the borough to build their own school in their own area. You couldn’t make this shit up. The council sold off the playgrounds of a big comprehensive in the name of austerity, while handing the needed amount to a group of bankers for a Free School. This new school’s site is in the closed down Bolingbroke Hospital, a victim of the council’s ‘closure by stealth’ years earlier. So, the purpose-built modernist landmark Elliott is unfit, while a Victorian hospital counts as good school architecture. Of course, the new Bolingbroke Academy doesn’t even have a playground; they are taken to the local park at break.

Why was Wandsworth Council so adamant about selling off public assets in one case but investing in another? Because who the fuck cares about the school none of their kids or friends’ kids will ever go to? Why would rabid Thatcherites want to renovate a school that stands as a relic to the welfare state dream? Rather than being proud of one of the largest school playgrounds in London, it’s a burden, something to be sold off, not maintained and protected. This is austerity Britain, where we are fed a narrative of expediency and efficiency. But cuts are chosen, they are selective, they are political.

Elliott’s grounds and playing fields were sold off, despite 95% local opposition. Michael Gove had to overrule his educational advisory panel to make the sale, which he would do more times between 2012 and 2013 than any Secretary of State for Education in the previous 9 years. While Boris Johnson babbled on TV about the Olympic legacy, Barrett Homes brought in the diggers. Elliott has been renamed ARK Academy Putney. ARK is a charity set up by hedge fund mangers; it now runs 31 schools previously governed by local authorities. Big society, eat your heart out.

—Aydin Emre Osborne Dikerdem

5 Responses to “Elliott School R.I.P.”
  1. Mohammed Zuhair says:

    This is one of the most uninformed articles I have ever read. I am not sure how I came across it (some post on Facebook). The author states that the council took a failing school and it got turned into an Ark network school, which the author claims was set up by “hedge fund” managers. A quick google on my part showed that Ark academies is a publicly funded school that serves the poorest 10% of London’s population and more than 90% students are ethnic minorities. This school also now has some of the highest GCSE scores in the UK—a failing school no longer.

    Also, as for being set up by hedge fund managers—it is also clear from the internet that the network has been set up by leaders from one of the most successful government school systems in America. The only “class warfare” going on is people from Oxford writing like some modern Kipling as if they know what is best for Londoners whilst they soon are likely to go on to some advertising or Deloitte job. I usually don’t get so angry at internet postings, yet this one got at me since it seems particularly misguided/myopic/factually incorrect.

    • Matteo says:

      1) Please see: “Ark was co-founded by a group of hedge fund financiers” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ark_%28charity%29
      2) Of course ARK Academies are publicly funded… All academy schools are publicly funded that’s how they work. The point is about where public money is directed
      3) ARK Putney’s most recent Ofsted rating was Good, not clear where your claim that it has “some of the highest GCSE scores in the UK” is from…

      • Mohammed Zuhair says:

        Re: 1) Fair enough. Although really financial underwriting is hardly a rarity in this underfunded conservative government. Though, the non-financial founders are those who I mentioned before.
        Re: 2) Yes.
        Re: 3) Sorry I was referring to the overall Ark network which after now having to do research about actually has incredible results. The Ofsted results which you mentioned are from only after six months of having been opened (there are no new results yet), and the other schools in the network are doing very well, one of which is in the top ten in the country.
        4) Don’t you think the article is just angrily un-nuanced/uncomplicated? Maybe I wrong on this one. I am not going to check this site again, but respond as you wish.
        5) Finally, thank you for fact checking.

    • Aydin says:

      The author was born and raised in South London and went to Elliott School whilst it was in decline and under Ofsted’s ‘special measures’. The author does not want to work for Deloitte.

  2. Richard says:

    A well informed and justly angry article. Shame on Pickles and his cronies.

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