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Friday, 14 June 2013 00:00

Weald of Kent Grammar School makes controversial rival bid for the Sevenoaks Annex

Update 2 Friday evening

In a dramatic development of the Sevenoaks annexe/satellite proposal, Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge has proposed an alternative scheme to the one out for consultation by the Valley Invicta Academies Trust based in Maidstone.

In a letter to parents, Weald headteacher Mrs Johnson stated that........

 

whilst Weald governors considered the original proposal for a four form entry school was not conducive to an effective learning environment, they believe that the new proposal for an intake of 180 children (six forms of entry) makes sense and the "Annex of Weald of Kent Grammar School in Sevenoaks"  is the most viable solution. However, the letter also states: “However, Governors believe that should there be a need for additional places in Sevenoaks the Weald of Kent is best placed to provide this”. Thus in the same letter Weald is arguing both for a six form entry grammar school and querying whether there is a need for any additional places.

A letter written by the Governors of Weald of Kent to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, only yesterday (June 13th) states: “Based on the information that we have been provided with so far, our analysis of the Commissioning Plan (KCC’s commissioning plan for provision of places 2012-2017) indicates that there would be surplus capacity in the Sevenoaks area, as longer term numbers are forecast to fall, whilst provision in Tonbridge would be almost completely absorbed by 2021. However, should additional data (which we understand will be available Autumn 2013 when a new commissioning plan is completed) indicate that student numbers justify an Annex in the Sevenoaks area, we strongly believe that Weald of Kent Grammar Academy Trust is better placed to open this facility”.

In other words, Weald of Kent appears to be saying that there is no need for an annex, but if future figures show this to be wrong, they are best placed to provide it! Perhaps they are just very upset that the very large amount of money KCC will have to pour into an annex in Sevenoaks will be funds unavailable for expansion elsewhere. 

This all leaves KCC with an interesting conundrum. After the original proposed partners dropped out, KCC announced a new partnership with the Invicta Valley Trust which has been working with the Authority on their very public scheme, currently out for consultation in the local community. Now Weald has joined in, in what is effectively the third bid for the annex, they appear to be in direct head to head conflict with Valley Invicta, but without any obvious support from KCC.

What is especially puzzling is Weald's claim to have been talking with KCC  - I am being told from several quarters that no such discussion has taken place recently.

An appendix to this document does identify that Weald was previously in discussion with KCC over a four form entry annex that they considered inappropriate, WOK being particularly miffed in that they were neither invited to consider a six form entry annex nor offered the inducement of additional sports facilities offered to Invicta.

I am in no doubt that if a single sex sponsor for a mixed grammar school grammar school is legally acceptable (and I remain to be convinced), a proposal from Weald would look very attractive to local parents, when contrasted with an annex being run from Maidstone. Further, Weald already draws a large number of girls from the Sevenoaks area, and so is familiar with the territory and expectations of local families.

Certainly new Education Cabinet Member for KCC, Roger Gough, is well placed to absorb local sentiment, as he is a local member for Sevenoaks District itself. What a problem to resolve so early in his new appointment!

Meanwhile, what about Michael Gove and the Trinity Free School? Currently the Secretary of State for Education has indicated his intention to award the Wildernesse site, the focus of attention, to Trinity at the expense of any grammar school annex.

Grammar school places in West Kent

The key question is: if a six form annex were set up, where are all the extra children coming from? For 2013 entry, there are four additional classes of entry over 2012, a permanent one at Weald of Kent, taking it to six forms of entry, and temporary classes at Tonbridge Grammar, The Skinners School and The Judd School. I would not be surprised if most or all of the temporary additional classes become permanent, creating a total of 120 extra grammar school places this year. A new six form entry grammar school annex in Sevenoaks in 2015 would produce a dramatic increase over three years by ten classes of entry and surely lead to greatly increased competition for students by the schools as against last year’s students competing for schools. Indeed an Appendix to Weald of Kent’s letter to Mr Gove explicitly states: “If Invicta Grammar does open a six form of entry school on the Knole East/Wildernesse site in September 2015, its feasibility would be called into question as this would create massive over-provision of Grammar places in Sevenoaks”. This is very difficult to reconcile with the offer to run a six form entry annex!

This year, by the time of the appeals, Weald of Kent had filled just 149 of its 175 places, and there were only 36 appeals, all from non-selective girls. Tonbridge Grammar School has seen its cut off aggregate score for local girls plummet from last year’s 409 to 398, both scores at the time of the appeals (the initial cut-off was higher). Tunbridge Wells Boys Grammar School, which started off last year with 41 qualified first choices turned away and a waiting list of over 90 boys, had just 3 first choices turned away for 2013 entry. The Judd School had a cut off aggregate score of 417 for 2012 entry after the first re-allocation of places, down sharply to 412 in 2013. All these movements were caused by the additional places this year and were excellent news for local children, but could suggest there is limited demand for even more places.

However, there is considerable hidden demand for grammar school places in West Kent which could come from at least five sources:

1)  Too many children of grammar school quality have lost out in a one off exam for understandable reasons, of which there are many types. Where there is such intense pressure on places, winning an appeal for these talented children is far harder than in other parts of Kent. I can see many more of the “borderzone children” being offered places on appeal without diluting the ability range.

2)  The Kent Test selects 21% of the ability range, with an additional 4% being identified through the Headteacher Assessment process. The statistics show that a lower percentage of West Kent children get through Headteacher Assessment than in other parts of the county, as panellists respond to the current pressure on places and may be wary of putting too many children through. If the new forms of entry materialise I can see a higher proportion of West Kent grammar school children being awarded grammar school places through this route.

3)  There is a large untapped pool of grammar school ability children across the county boundaries in East Sussex, Surrey and Orpington. Currently, only the very brightest of these get places in the super-selectives, but if these additional places become available then many more will gain access to other grammar schools where places are left initially unfilled. Successful comprehensive schools in these neighbouring Local Authorities must be looking fearfully at the developments, as they can see many of their brightest students emigrating to Kent, possibly destabilising the whole comprehensive structure.

4) An unknown number of parents send their grammar school ability children to private school as they are unable to access the grammar school of their choice (or sometimes any grammar school). As the school sget larger, this problem shrinks creating an additional flow of potential students. 

5)  I am being contacted increasingly and several times weekly by parents of able children who are seeking advice about moving from London into West Kent to enable their children to benefit from local grammar schools. This suggests that a significant proportion of fresh housing will contain additional potential students for the grammar schools.

Sources one and two will be bitterly opposed by the local non-selective schools as they also see their potentially brightest students being lost to them. It may even be that one or more becomes unviable as a result. 

One can therefore be sure of just one thing: what exists of a cohesiveness between the different types of school and indeed the grammar schools themselves in West Kent will inevitably degenerate into a battle for the ablest students. The key puzzle remains: how, if Weald of Kent Grammar School can’t fill its 175 places with the current cohort, does it expect to fill if an additional six form annex opens in Sevenoaks? Parental choice will rule!

Alternatively, is this proposal simply a spoiler for the Invicta Valley Academies Trust plan to move into Weald territory? At this point Michael Gove may well be tempted to say “a plague on both your houses” which would suit Weald well.

Last modified on Sunday, 16 March 2014 17:21

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