St Christopher’s School was founded postwar in 1945 by Catherine Grace OBE, a medical secretary, as a residential Steiner school for children with learning difficulties. It began with only six pupils and expanded over time to a peak of 50 children and young people, most of them from the Bristol area. This is important because of where the site stands now in the eyes of Bristol City Council.
Catherine Grace was close to the founder of Camphill, Dr. Karl König, and she gently argued with him that the live-in co-worker model was needed in an urban setting. Visited by the Queen Mother, in 1966, Grace House was built with specially-designed classrooms along the architectural principles of Rudolf Steiner. In 2019 it was listed, one of only four of its kind in the UK. Over seven decades it educated thousands, employed many Bristolians and trained a number of special needs teachers. With its beautiful grounds and donated Grade 2 listed buildings, it was beloved of the city of Bristol, inspiring many volunteers and saving many families who struggled under the weight of raising their severely disabled children at home.
In December the school’s trustees announced that they had arranged to sell the school to the Aurora Octopus Group, a US multinational property company. Aurora promised to keep the ethos intact. But the day after they took over, staff described being devastated by the tearing down of all the Steiner paintings and of pianos being left on the front lawn. But Aurora’s worst act was the immediate sacking of the two nurse night managers, who were so crucial to the care of of children who often needed 3-1 care. This led quickly to serious safeguarding concerns by Ofsted, which Aurora ignored, and eventually in 2019 to allegations of child cruelty. In August The Guardian reported that “Parents were called at work and summoned to pick up their children… were handed their children’s belongings in black binbags, while some children were bussed to emergency placements around the country. Other parents, who have not lived with their children for years due to their extreme, challenging behaviour, had no choice but to take them home.”
Our 2019 Rescare AGM featured former NHS commissioner, economist Esther Giles, who explained what may have been a plan by the property giant to allow the school to run down. In any case, Octopus Aurora sold it to FORE developers, without informing local residents, and submitted plans to build high-rise flats as a gated so-called “residential extra-care community” for the wealthy elderly. Rescare and the Alliance for Camphill then began to work in partnership with the very high-profile St. Christopher’s Action Network (SCAN) to oppose the plans, partly on the grounds of FORE’s refusal to offer any substantial SEN provision on site, as requested by the council.
Inspired by a local Forest of Dean buyout of a Camphill Village Trust former cafe and gallery, in Newnham-on-Severn, we applied for the site to be declared an Asset of Community Value (ACV). The first application was turned down on technical grounds, as well as assertions that St. Christopher’s “didn’t serve the local community.” When the first site plans were also refused by Bristol’s planning committee, so a second application for an ACV was made after extensive research into many former Bristol pupils, families and staff. This was turned down for the same “localism” reason.
A second set of plans in August 2023 was debated at a public planning committee and turned down unanimously because the plans had not changed substantially and took out mature trees, with no place to replant them nearby. Importantly for our continuing campaign, FORE offered to build an £500,000 extension to a local special school, basing it on a figure of 7.5 Bristol pupils in the last five years. SCAN and the St. Christopher’s SEN Alliance has spent months trying to get accurate figures to make a third application for an ACV. 7.5 pupils, plus all the staff and affected families surely should make this accepted by a shadowy, unelected committee as a local asset.
As of this writing, we cannot reveal our legal strategy to challenge this. But rest assured, that we are confident that our next application will receive a much better hearing. And in that case, we will have six months to raise the money to bid to buy St. Christopher’s School back for affordable housing, and for the benefit of the hundreds of children in need, both of an education and of respite for the families.
With all thanks to our SCAN friends Francesca Kay and Robin Hambledon, and to the Alliance for Camphill’s star researcher, Rebecca Woodward, herself a Camphill co-worker child.
Written by Anita Bennett
Chair of Rescare