Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Bullingdon Fodder, at 'the socialist Eton': the sorry tale of Holland Park Academy

Original design, from 'Metropolis', and school as built

Residents sometimes tell us ‘the Council is pouring our money down a black hole’. Well here above, ladies and gentlemen, is the picture we are supposed to admire, and here below is the very hole our money is being poured down, at the cc£100m Holland Park Academy.
A very expensive hole indeed 
Well, ok, that isn’t the actual hole eating your money, but it makes an eloquent metaphor. For this is the exploratory hole through which engineers and hydrologists and various other highly qualified and very expensive consultants are trying to ascertain the cause of one of the Great Mysteries of the Modern World: why does Holland Park Academy’s brand new swimming pool leak – inwards? In the words of the Head Teacher, it is in a ‘parlous condition’ and ‘we wish we had the answer’.

I had attended the Open Evening to which the governors had invited ‘everyone’, who in this case were mainly the well-heeled and curious long-term residents of Campden Hill with their perms and pearls, and retired banker husbands. I spoke to quite a few. Some had swallowed hook, line and sinker the ‘we spent £80m but it cost nothing’ story put about by the Council, whereas others could see that selling a public asset – a large if ill-maintained playground – and turning it into super-prime property whose empty-eyed penthouses like vultures will greedily overlook Holland Park, is hardly a cost of ‘nothing’.

Head Teacher addressing staff
Back to the pool. Mrs Perm didn’t really care, it was a detail that did not concern her. Mrs Pearl was disdainful of the whole project, and stated authoritatively that several of the new basements in the area have 24-hour pumps working to keep them dry; there are springs, that spring eternally.

Another aspect of this metaphor for our times is the Head Teacher’s desire to change entry criteria. If governors have their way, in future entry to HPA will be not be decided according to whether or not a student went to primary school in the borough, so their family would have contributed to the near £100m the school cost. In future it will be decided by how far you live from the school.

While the HT insists that the new building ‘hasn’t changed the ethos or aims of the school at all’, let’s consider some facts. The current student make-up comprises some 27.5% on free school dinners, many of whom come from the culturally diverse north of the borough. Pass down Campden Hill Road at the beginning and end of the day and you see a representative slice of a population that is ethnically rich. Look at the school website, however, and you see what may or may not be the school’s aspiration of almost entirely white students, and not a hijab between them. Given that some years have up to one third Muslim students, with a Kensington mix of black African, Afro-Caribbean, Asian and others, what is this telling us?

Whether this was deliberate or accidental, we can draw our own conclusions.

NOT the HPA prom pic, but could it be?
One of the photos shows two young men togged up, possibly for the sixth form dinner, which is held, we are told, in a fancy-pants restaurant. The cost of the dinner is £70. I wouldn’t wish to embarrass the poor lambs to slaughter (Bullingdon Club fodder?) further or invite outrage by reproducing the photo, but it is here for all to see:

The actual photo shown here is of cast members of the repellent ‘Made In Chelsea’, possibly a representation of what the school’s future students will look like.

What a terrible waste of human endeavour, and of our money.

We can only imagine that the aspiration of the near £100m school once called ‘the socialist Eton’, paid for by my Council Tax and yours, is to produce a future Conservative Prime Minister.

This is not an aspiration to be proud of.

A word on blame.

When building projects run over cost, it is often the architects who are held to account. Holland Park Academy cost the taxpayer more than double (some say treble) its original estimate. Architect friends find this funny. Let an architect have their head, and an open cheque-book, they tell me, and they will spend and spend. Tell an architect to produce a mind-bogglingly wonderful zero-carbon school for £24m, and they will do it with pride and gusto.

I have interviewed architects charged and found guilty of profligacy (Scottish Parliament, Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences) and they say ‘no one told me to stop’. So who – implicitly or explicitly – sets the agenda?  

The blame lies with those holding the purse-strings; politicians, in this case local politicians. And we all know who was in charge of this reckless and extravagant project. 

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