Leading the field have to be the two Tunbridge Wells church schools: Bennett Memorial Diocesan and St Gregory’s Catholic, both with Outstanding OFSTEDs and both regularly topping the non selective GCSE tables. Bennett has a strong church requirement that attracts many academically able children, as it became one of the most oversubscribed schools in the county, St Greg’s having a more mixed intake but still performing highly. The third TW non-selective school, Skinners Kent Academy is an example of what can be done with outstanding leadership, more important than the excellent new purpose built buildings it has recently moved into. For most of the past forty years, its predecessors, variously named in attempts to shrug off a poor reputation, struggled to attract students, but in the past four years the academy has become the eighth most over-subscribed NS school in the county, its headteacher, Sian Carr, being variously described as charismatic and inspirational.
Otherwise, in no particular order: further north in Dartford is the highest performing academy chain in the county, headed up by the Leigh Academy, until this year the most popular NS school in the county. Its first principal, Frank Green, has gone on to become Schools Commissioner for England. The Academy Trust has taken over two other NW Kent schools, Wilmington Academy which it has taken from Special Measures to Good, at the same time seeing its GCSE results soar to amongst the best NS in the county in 2013, and Longfield Academy, previously an unpopular, struggling school which was one of the most oversubscribed schools in Kent in 2014.
Fulston Manor School in Sittingbourne, is the second most popular NS school in the county. Its Good OFSTED rating (it has also been Outstanding) is in no small part due to its headteacher, Alan Brookes, a fiercely loyal servant of the school, who joined as a junior member of staff 33 years ago and has now been head for 18 years.
John Wallis CofE Academy in Ashford is perhaps a surprising choice, headed up by John McParland, who has the distinction of having also been head of one of Kent’s top performing NS schools, St Simon Stock Catholic School in Maidstone. His move was a surprise to many people as SSS was at the top of the tree, and John Wallis was a struggling school in a difficult part of town. However, SSS continues to maintain its excellent standards under the new(ish) leadership and John Wallis now fills, and has been at the top of Kent’s value added GCSE league table for two years, one of 9 NS schools in the top 20. This measure identifies the progress made by students between the ages of 11 and 16, but is rarely given prominence, although it is the best indicator of the value added to children by their education, irrespective of socio-economic standing.
Third highest NS GCSE performer this year is St George’s CofE School, Gravesend, also second highest across the county for Value Added, apparently on its knees just five years ago, having been placed in Special Measures, and lost the confidence of local parents. A new headteacher, Anne Southgate - previously deputy head, took over the reins and in three years raised the school to Good under OFSTED, saw its popularity and exam results soar, but retired in the summer, although the school still appears in good hands, having again appointed its deputy.
The other six top VA schools are: Bennett; St Gregory’s; St Augustine’s Academy, Maidstone, St Simon Stock, St Anselm's, Canterbury; Hillview, Tonbridge; and Kent Skinners Academy.
The Canterbury Academy is led by Phil Karnavas who has been with the school for 25 years. It has totally changed from the previously troubled Canterbury High School, and includes a primary school, and an enormous range of sports facilities open to the public which have become a centre of excellence. The school is now regularly oversubscribed, and in 2014 took on an extra two classes to cater for all the additional first choices he had unwisely offered places to at the Open Evening that year!
Valley Park School in Maidstone is another centre of excellence, this time in Performing Arts, regularly in the top three most oversubscribed schools in Kent, historically with the tightest catchment area in the county. It has achieved that rarity for a non-selective school, of two consecutive Outstanding OFSTEDs. For 2015 entry, it changed the straight distance admission criterion to one giving priority to children whose nearest school was Valley Park (think about it!), initially confusing, but it makes sense.
My next choice is well outside the conventional view of a good school, except that OFSTED agrees, having found it Good on two consecutive inspections. This is Hartsdown Academy, Margate, led by an inspirational and outspoken Executive Principal, Andrew Somers. In passing, it has one of the best school websites I have visited. Mr Somers has passionately campaigned for improved premises after competing schools were rebuilt, and was rewarded two weeks ago when the school received government approval for funding a significant premises development. Like the Marlowe Academy, Hartsdown has more than its fair share of deprivation, children with SEN, and with English as a second language. The difference is that he makes it work, as OFSTED confirms.
One of the rebuilt schools that competes with Hartsdown is King Ethelbert School, Birchington, although both are part of the Coastal Academies Trust which is led by Paul Luxmoore, previously head of Dane Court Grammar school and the inspiration behind another highly successful academy chain, now absorbing the closing Marlowe Academy. King Ethelbert is the fourth most oversubscribed NS school in Kent this year, having become more popular year on year.
A school very much in the news is Knole Academy, Sevenoaks, led by Mary Boyle. She has overseen the amalgamation of two disparate schools, and has worked through the merger with great success. The school sits in the middle of a political controversy, with the proposed Sevenoaks Grammar School Annexe to be sited just down the road, alongside the new Trinity Free School that has itself established an early reputation. Knole now runs a high profile grammar stream, and Mary Boyle works hard to establish the school as fully comprehensive with no need of extra grammar places in the town.
Just two NS schools have consecutive Outstanding OFSTEDs, the second being Westlands School in Sittingbourne, lead school in the Swale Academies Trust, but although it has suffered a fall in popularity for 2015 admission, it remains oversubscribed.
I was given a generous word limit for this article, but it is apparent there are too many good NS schools in Kent to be covered in detail. Others include: Wrotham school, a pastorally strong, friendly achieving, small rural school; St John’s Catholic Comprehensive in Gravesend –the fifth highest performing NS at GCSE, just behind St George’s CofE, also Gravesend, with every Gravesend NS having a Good OFSTED assessment; Hillview Girls, Tonbridge – always one of the highest performing NS schools – sixth in GCSE this year, and one of the most popular; Sandwich Technology College, about which I know little, except that families think highly of it with the recently retired headteacher, Veronica Gomez, receiving rave reports; Mascalls in Paddock Wood, looked down by some families in West Kent for not being a grammar school, but clearly delivers a first rate education; Abbey in Faversham which has taken years to throw off its dreadful reputation before the current headteacher, Catrin Woodend led it to two Good OFSTEDs; Herne Bay High, always oversubscribed, sometimes heavily, consistently achieving good Key Stage 2 results and Good OFSTED Inspection results; St Augustine's, Maidstone, has quietly become increasingly popular in Maidstone, is now full and has a recent Good OFSTED; and Dartford Science and Technology College, the only Kent secondary school to have improved by two grades in recent years, to Good in November 2012.
My apologies to those good schools I have overlooked primarily because of limited contact with them through parents or otherwise. In the academic year 2013-14, the 19 Kent NS schools inspected by OFSTED achieved an outstanding 79% Good or Outstanding assessments, way above the national average of 67%. They include seven not even mentioned above: Aylesford; Holmesdale, Snodland; Hugh Christie, Tonbridge; Maplesdon Noakes, Maidstone; Pent Valley, Folkestone; and Sittingbourne Community. Oddly, the request from KOS to prepare this article is the first time ever I am aware of media attention being paid to the good work in so many of Kent’s non-selective schools. One has to wonder why?