THE REFUSAL of a desperately-needed new school in Oxford could jeopardise its opening date and see other schools drafted in to meet a shortfall in places.

A shock decision on Wednesday night saw Oxford City Council’s planning committee refuse plans for the Swan School in Marston, defying advice from council officers who backed it for approval.

Supporters of the 1,260-pupil secondary school argued an urgent need for pupil places amid ‘soaring’ pupil numbers, warning there could be a ‘crisis’ if the Swan School does not open next September as planned.

River Learning Trust wants to build the free school in place of the current Harlow Centre, but several councillors sided with critics about harm to the Green Belt and safety of the access road, which cuts across the busy Marston Ferry Road cycle path.

The trust’s chief executive Paul James said the decision was ‘extremely disappointing’.

He said: “There is no getting away from the fact that the vote has thrown into doubt the plans of families, our trust, the county council and the government to tackle the crisis in secondary education in Oxford, which is due to arrive in 12 months’ time.

“Nobody wants to see children from the city being bussed to schools outside the city, or squeezed into schools that are already due to be full in 2019.“

Despite the decision, the trust is still planning for September 2019 opening and said an open day for prospective Swan School families is scheduled for early October.

But the Oxford Mail understands that Oxfordshire County Council is now rallying other city schools for a back-up plan, asking them to consider taking on more pupils than usual next year if the Swan School does not open on time.

A county council spokesperson said: "Oxfordshire has an excellent track record of helping parents and pupils to get their first choice of school as a result of rigorous forecasting and forward planning.

"However, there are significantly more Oxford pupils transferring to secondary school next year, and The Swan School is necessary to ensure as many parents as possible are able to get their children into a preferred school.

"We will be working with local education providers to minimise the impact if The Swan does not open.

"To meet the need for places without The Swan, existing schools would need to take additional classes. However, the size of classes will not necessarily change."

Mr James has not confirmed if his team will appeal the committee’s decision to the Planning Inspectorate, but did note that planning officers’ approval usually made a ‘strong basis’ for doing so.

He recognised the importance of the democratic process, however, adding: “It was a very difficult decision - it was emotionally charged and took two-and-a-half hours to decide.

“Councillors displayed an obvious passion for their role and their constituents.”

Concerned Marston residents in the audience applauded as the vote unexpectedly swung in their favour, with four councillors rejecting the plan and three voting to approve.

The school has already been delayed from September 2017 due to the government’s struggle to find a site, and will initially have to open in temporary buildings.

Mr James said: “This decision obviously means that the construction team cannot roll on to the site tomorrow, so there will be a delay in construction starting.

“It does not inevitably mean that the first cohort of students will be educated in high-class temporary accommodation for longer than 12 months, but it is undeniable that it is now more likely.”

At the meeting at Oxford Town Hall, a statement read to the committee from Simon Hunt, chairman of Oxford cycling group Cyclox, said he 'strongly objects' to the disruption of ‘one of the best cycle tracks in the nation'.

Swan School representatives and council officers stressed there would be strict limits on when cars can enter and exit the site, and wardens would be in place at peak times to manage the intersection, but councillors remained concerned.

Speaking at the meeting, the county council's pupil place planning manager Barbara Chillman said: "Soaring pupil numbers will make it harder for pupils to get a place at a school of their choice.

"This extra pressure will be felt most acutely in Oxford from September 2019, and this [the Swan School] is how we avert it."

Regardless, refusal was agreed for two key reasons: benefits not outweighing the harm to Green Belt, and risks to pedestrians and cyclists caused by the crossing.

Secondary school applications for next year will open to Oxfordshire parents on Monday, and Swan School will soon post an application form – to be completed alongside the county council’s admissions form - on its website.