Back in February I wrote about the impact of Dulwich Estate, the huge South London landlord with charitable status, upon the neighbourhood in which I live. It is in the process of ripping the heart out of my local community in pursuit of commercial imperatives that enable it to pay millions of pounds to three well-known and well heeled private schools, Dulwich College, Alleyn’s, and JAGS. I pointed out the irony that all three schools claim a commitment to the local community on their websites. You can read that piece here.
In that piece I briefly mentioned the plight of the Judith Kerr School, a relatively new state primary, which looked like it would be the next to suffer greatly at the hands of Dulwich Estate. That situation has reached an acute stage and is worth looking at in detail.
The Judith Kerr, named after the brilliant writer of The Tiger Who Came To Tea and (many other titles) was established in 2013 on land and in buildings in Herne Hill owned by Dulwich Estate. The landlord has since ‘offered’ a massive slab of the school’s paying fields to another local charity, The Dulwich Almshouses, which wants to build new sheltered housing for the elderly. Dulwich Almshouses, which currently has buildings in Dulwich Village, say they have been looking for a new site since 1931, a mere 85 years.
I have put the word ‘offered’ in inverted commas because it’s quite difficult to work out where the Almshouses end and Dulwich Estate begins. Dulwich Almshouses, which receives over 40% of its funds from Dulwich Estate, operate from the same building as them. Their administration is dealt with essentially by officers of Dulwich Estate. Certainly it was Dulwich Estate who suggested that the land currently occupied by the Judith Kerr be the site of the new Almshouses, should Southwark Council give planning permission. The kids at Judith Kerr currently have only 50% of the recommended minimum outdoor space. If this plan goes ahead it will reduce the amount of open space to just 19% of that minimum.
And why are Dulwich Estate pursuing this plan? They have always been clear that everything they do is designed to realise the greatest commercial return from their assets. They say they are obliged to do so. In short they want to give the land to the other charity to build upon because the financial return is better than leaving it in the hands of the Judith Kerr. And where does that money go? As explained in the first piece, 85% of it goes to fund three private schools.
So just to thump the message home: the plan is to deprive a state primary school of its playing fields to fund three fee-paying schools. Delightful.
Obviously the schools argue that the Dulwich Estate money goes to fund bursaries and scholarships for those who can’t afford the fees. Chapter and verse is in the original piece but a) funding a charitable good is not an excuse for depriving others and b) at least two of the schools use the money for other things.
In June 2016, Joseph Spence, head teacher of Dulwich College, put his name to a letter to The Times, defending schools like his from charges of elitism. The letter claimed that ‘almost all independent schools work with their local communities in a wide variety of ways, sponsoring academies, creating free schools, sharing teachers and facilities, and running programmes in maths, science, languages, sport, music and drama that enrich lives and raise aspirations.’ All very noble, but somewhat at odds with benefiting from a charity that is depriving a state primary school of outside space.
I wrote to the head teachers of all three schools asking them whether they thought the plan was okay, and whether they had expressed their opinion directly to Dulwich Estate. None of them replied. The cruel assumption is that they simply don’t care about the welfare of state-educated children on their patch. Given the silence, the unwillingness to engage, let’s go with that. The alternative is cowardice: they can’t bring themselves to challenge Dulwich Estate because they want the dosh. Maybe you think I’m being unfair. Perhaps I am but nowhere near as unfair as Dulwich Estate trying to deprive the Judith Kerr of its outdoor space. If they do decide to contact me in response to this piece I’ll let you know what they say.
For their part Dulwich Estate claims that they are doing nothing illegal; that the rights to give the land to another body for development were enshrined in the 2013 contract when the Judith Kerr was established. This is true. The Department of Education and the bodies that founded the school did an awful job of negotiating the contract with Dulwich Estate.
This is not a defence. Just because you got away with shoving onerous clauses in a contract doesn’t mean it’s okay to do so. It doesn’t make everything fine. Arguably Dulwich Estate should have seen providing the nascent Judith Kerr with land and buildings as part of its corporate social responsibility. Dulwich Estate are not just landlords. They are custodians of a whole corner of London. They have a responsibility to think broadly about everybody on their land. They shouldn’t just wander off shouting: ‘we are within the law; we can do what we like’.
What of the Dulwich Almshouses? Surely that’s a deserving cause? Well yes, of course, but it’s not as if there aren’t alternatives. Indeed, there is a site in the centre of Dulwich, close to shops and amenities. The S G Smith site behind the car showroom already has planning permission for a bunch of town houses. They could develop that site and leave the school playing fields alone.
But then Dulwich Estate wouldn’t make so much money, would it. And the three private schools would, in turn, get less. And that would never do.
Jay Rayner, SE24