Why a state primary school may lose its playing fields to fund Dulwich College (and Alleyn’s and JAGS)

An aerial view of the site in Herne Hill that Dulwich Estate wants to give over to flats.

An aerial view of the site in Herne Hill that Dulwich Estate wants to give over to flats.

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

11 comments on “Why a state primary school may lose its playing fields to fund Dulwich College (and Alleyn’s and JAGS)

  1. Krishna Datta on

    This is utterly disgraceful. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.
    I am appalled by the mean and mercenary attitude of the Dulwich Estate, and I am writing as a former pupil of JAGS! 60 years ago. Even then it was a snobbish school and the outrage when Labour built council houses in the area was palpable. So I am not surprised. Just disappointed. Because in the end I got a pretty good education there. Education should be able to to make people more empathetic and less mercenary. Let’s hope the Judith Kerr School is given more land for outdoor playing space-not less!

    • James Roberts on

      Dear Krishna
      As a parent with two children at JKPS I implore you to contact the current head teacher and the old girls network to voice your concerns. Its sickening that DE have pitted an Almshouse charity against our children’s physical and emotional wellbeing.
      We have set up a save the green space campaign to explain everything on more detail (and also where you can also find a link to the trustees of DE) :
      We very much hope the DE will do the right thing and find suitable accommodation elsewhere on their vast estate.

  2. Elisabeth Oygubwe on

    Talk about blame shifting. The school should never have been set up there if that green space was apparently so crucial to it. It’s pretty obvious from a number of things written about this school and the contract that the playing field was only ever a temporary part of the school and explicitly set out to be such in the original lease. How can it possibly be right to take on a site with a “this bit is temporarily leased to you” clause and only a couple of years later start whinging that this is unfair?

    It’s a state school. State funded. Not a school funded by the charitable trust. The school isn’t entitled to just grab the land and say, “we’re education too, yah boo sucks, you owe us”.

    • Vicky on

      I agree that the argument that land is being taken from this state school to fund the private schools is a rather large leap. However saying that the school should not have been built there because they need playing fields is, quite frankly, a steaming pile of bull faeces. Good state schools are sorely needed, the population is climbing and not every child can go private. If you have a suggestion for a better site for this school, please enlighten us.

      This is not a question of blame, it is a question of what is right. Maybe the school was wrong to build there, maybe it wasn’t. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that children are now being deprived of space they sorely need for their own development, at the point in their lives where they are most in need of proper stimulation.

      As the article outlined, there are other sites where this development could take place. Especially since this housing development is for the elderly, it would be better to build closer to shops and other amenities.

      Just because something is legal, that does not make it right. Tax avoidance is legal – does that make it morally fair for large corporations to shirk their contribution to the country while those with much less money pay their part? Legal or not, this action is wrong. Plain and simple.

  3. Janet Plowright on

    Having “educated ” Nigel Farrage you would have thought Dulwich College would have been only too keen to make amends!!! How come these “public” schools, that are not for the public at all but for the richest elite, get to be “charities” and to gain, in this instance, from sale of lands used currently for a state primary school with truly deprived students [one assumes] amongst their number? There must be a way to buy the grounds concerned by public campaign and donate them for the use of local primary school children? They really would be a charitable donation then!

  4. Mrs.Margaret Felgate on

    Once again Dulwich Estates have shown how obnoxious they are. To deprive local children at Judith Kerr School of the playing field they are using at present is hardly charitable.I agree with Janet Plowright that a public campaign to try to raise money to buy the field with an awful lot of publicity to go with it to raise awareness of this situation is vital.There must be a lot of celebrities in the area who could be brought on board to help.

  5. Brian Roberts on

    Thank you Jay for highlighting this … a recent consultation on this proposal Dulwich Estates didn’t even send a representative but had a media consultancy firm to talk to people on behalf of Dulwich Almshouse …..when we spoke to one of the residents of the Almshouse they were not very happy to be used as a pawn in Dulwich Estates profit making enterprises…..if Dulwich Estates really believed this was the right thing to do morally why didn’t they turn up to the consultation ?

    I agree with Janet Plowright ….a high profile fund raiser to buy the land might be the only solution as appealing to Dulwich Estates moralality seems less attractive to them than their financial needs

  6. Jackie Yap on

    We are raising funds! Go to this website to donate please.

    Its not quite at the 2k mark yet, so a far cry from what would be needed to buy the space outright. However, something doesn’t seem right about buying our way out of this… not that I wouldn’t welcome any resolution which would allow the children to keep their beloved green space. Just seems that DE would be enriched, thus achieving their aim of having the most profitable solution. I guess a win-win, but it would be a very bitter pill indeed… and a moral defeat

  7. Florian Vogt on

    The Dulwich Almshouses claim that they can’t redevelop the existing houses. But where is the evidence to support this claim? No planning application has ever been submitted for a re-development of the existing houses, let alone be dismissed. In the absence of such evidence it seems the claim might simply be dishonest.

  8. Sophie Scott on

    Signed. ‘Hear, hear’ to all that Jay Rayner has written above.

    This is an appalling, selfish, shortsighted proposal.
    “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.”
    All children deserve a good start in life, with the benefits of space to breathe and roam, great teaching and play. Those who have means must not take from those who do not.
    Kindness and generosity go a long way to building a great, healthy, joyful society – for everyone. I imagine Judith Kerr would be as horrified by Dulwich Estate’s behaviour as I am.


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