THE headteacher of Gillotts School has defended a decision to fence off land which residents have been using for walks for decades.
Catharine Darnton says the land was signed over to the Henley secondary school by Oxfordshire County Council in January last year when it became an academy and left the control of the local authority.
She says it was fenced off in May for the safety of pupils and to keep out trespassers and dog walkers.
But residents including former town mayor Barry Wood have accused the school of “land-grabbing”.
The scrubland, known locally as the copse and spinney, is behind the school’s playing fields.
Mr Wood, who lives in Blandy Road, said: “Nobody disagrees that the field is Gillotts’ land. What’s disputed by many people is that the copse and spinney were never in use by the school.
“There are people who have been round here for 30 years and to their knowledge the copse and spinney were never registered by the school.
“They have been handed across to the school by Oxfordshire County Council and the school has fenced it off. They had no right to do this without consultation because it’s the people’s land.”
Mr Wood also complained that a sliver of land about 10 to 15 yards wide which runs along the boundary of Lucy’s Farm had been fenced off, even though it didn’t belong to the school.
The wooden fence runs along the boundary of the school on a bridleway between Gillotts Lane and Peppard Lane, a popular route for ramblers and dog walkers.
It has been vandalised four times since being erected, prompting Ms Darnton and the police to put up notices.
The headteacher wrote: “There have been several incidents of criminal damage to the school’s new boundary fence and gate security.
“These incidents have all been logged by Thames Valley Police and the local officers will be visiting this area at random times.
“As most neighbours to Gillotts know, the school is fully responsible for safeguarding our students and the maintenance, safety and security of all areas of the school site, including the wooded areas.
“We have erected a low-level, boundary-indicating fence and signage to show clearly the limits of the school’s land is private property, with guidance from a tree management specialist and using a professional groundskeeping company.
“Dogs are excluded from the school grounds and playing fields for health reasons and it is important the public is aware that all land belonging to the school should not be accessed.”
Mr Wood called notices “quite officious”.
He said: “On a country walk you don’t want to be approached by police signs — that’s not in the Henley spirit. This has antagonised a lot of local people. There was absolutely no consultation by the school until it was done and dusted.
“Lots of people who walk along the bridleway will say ‘this is not fair’. What I’m saying is not only is it not fair, it’s a land grab.”
Bill Parrish, who also lives in Blandy Road, said: “The letter from the headmistress is written in pretty uncompromising terms and is supported by police forms.
“When you are walking through a tranquil setting like this that’s quite offensive.
“I’ve lived here for 30 years and others have lived here even longer. We can all say we have walked along that bridlepath into the copse and field many times.
“I think the school is out of order by denying public access to that land, which we have enjoyed for many years.
“When I first moved here I went to see the headmaster for my own children and he was proud that the field around it was community-owned. He encouraged community activity when the school wasn’t using it.
“Since Gillotts has become an academy it has become much more governed by conventional business attitudes, driving them down the path of protecting their assets.
“It’s very valuable to them as there’s the opportunity to sell the land.” David Grubb, a former Gillotts headteacher who lives in Belle Vue Road, said: “For so much of the year these public places are left vacant and when I first went to Gillotts I was very pleased to think that members of the local community would use it.
“We had to put up notices to stop dog fouling but in general people respected the area.
“I don’t know a great deal about the current situation but whenever there’s fencing put up you need members of the public to be given an accurate reason for what it’s about or people become suspicious.”
Ms Darnton told the Henley Standard: “The land is private property. We have simply marked our boundary.
“We have a responsibility to safeguard our children and fencing off the school to restrict access is an important part of that.
“We are not trying to do anything but keep our children safe. As the landowner, we are responsible for the land and if a tree falls on someone’s head we are responsible.
“We have had continuous problems with trespassers on our site, notably dog walkers. Dogs are not permitted on any school playing field for reasons of health and safety.” Ms Darnton said that when the school sought academy status the consultation document was sent to representatives of the county, district and town councils, parents, staff and pupils, staff unions, other local schools, Henley MP John Howell and local charities.
It was also placed on the school website and publicised in the Henley Standard.
She added: “The school’s land, including the copse, has always been private property and there is no public footpath across the site.
“The boundary of the site was unchanged on transfer from Oxfordshire County Council to Gillotts.
“With the agreement of Lucy’s Farm, we have extended our new fence on the northern boundary to meet the existing fence of Lucy’s Farm in order to make it clear that there is no public access to either property.
“The farm owner has written to us confirming he understands that we are making no claim to the ownership of his land, which has now been fenced into the playing field.”
* What do you think? Write to: Letters, Henley Standard, Caxton House, 1 Station Road, Henley, RG9 1AD or email firstname.lastname@example.org