UPDATED: 20th February 2015
The Oasis Academy Trust has agreed with government that it can close the Oasis Hextable Academy because the school is failing to attract numbers. The reason it is failing to attract numbers is that the two neighbouring and competing schools, Wilmington Academy and Longfield Academy to the north and east have been turned round from being very unpopular, and have now become two of the most oversubscribed schools in the county.
In addition, Orchards Academy in Swanley to the south, once the failing Swanley Technology School, has also improved with steadily rising numbers, with Knole Academy further south in Sevenoaks, picking up some aspiring families who can’t get their children into Wilmington or Longfield.
Sadly, Oasis Hextable, for which I used to do admission appeals regularly a few years ago, has gone the other way, certainly in terms of parental perception. I now talk with families for whom Oasis is a last or no choice, across a patch where nearly every other school is full, apart from one with which Oasis vies in unpopularity. There was an upturn in numbers for the 2014 entry, with the school being taken out of Special Measures when a “Requires Improvement” assessment in 2013 was achieved after Alan Brooks, Executive Head of Fulston Manor School in Sittingbourne, had overseen major improvements at the school. Unfortunately for the Hextable children, he left after a year, for Oasis to take over. It appears that 2015 admissions due out on 2nd March, will offer no solace.
Kent County Council has made clear its view that the school should not be closed, as the increase in population over the next few years will certainly increase demand for places across the District. However, KCC has no voice in the decision, nor in the future of the site, with the premises on a 125 year lease to Oasis, who could decide to use them for different purposes........
You will find a statement from Roger Gough, Cabinet Member for Education for KCC, here. The Oasis Academy Trust express their sadness over the decision here. As the Oasis website records: "The work of Oasis Community Learning is motivated and inspired by the life, message and example of Christ", through five principles, three of which are: "a sense of perseverance to keep going for the long haul", "a deep sense of hope that things can change and be transformed" and "a commitment to healthy and open relationships". It is obviously very sad that the Trust decided to make the announcement at the beginning of half-term, leaving parents to be informed at different times and in different ways, but unable to find out any more from the school until the following week.
A BBC item focuses on the special problems to be encountered by children with Special Education Needs who do not warrant a mention in the Oasis statement. It includes a video in which I make a brief appearance! I came close to forecasting this decision in my recent article: Empty desks in Kent Secondary schools: four schools in trouble. I identified four schools, of whom Oasis Hextable was one, whose take up rate of places for 2014 admission was 37% or less. The telling figure was that these four schools, along with the now closed Chaucer Technology School, had occupied the bottom places for each of the past three years. The reality is that such figures mean the school will be financially non-viable as income depends on pupil numbers, and will find it impossible to organise a differentiated curriculum in Years 10 and 11, to highlight just two of their many problems. It is an open secret that the weakest of all these four schools, The Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate, has been in talks about its own future with the Department for Education for some weeks, with an outcome expected imminently. Two of Kent’s secondary academies delivering closure notices in a short period of time would certainly be a discussion point!
Oasis Academy Trust took over the Hextable School in September 2013. The 2012 census figures which were available to them before any agreement was signed included: Year 11 - 140; Year 10 - 127; Year 9 - 102; Year 8 - 83; Year 7 - 68. The October 2013 figures which could easily have been extrapolated from allocations earlier in the year were: Year 11- 126; Year 10 - 101; Year 9 - 78; Year 8 - 68; Year 7 - 37. I am astonished that with these figures and this sharply downward trend, Oasis could reckon on a viable school ahead of them. However, they have actually seen this trend reversed for September 2014, with Year 11 - 97; Year 10 - 70; Year 9 - 67; Year 8 - 38 and Year 7 - 55. For 2015 allocations, I have managed to get hold of the preferences for the school, which look very similar to 2014 entry and much better than for 2013, so one could have forecast an intake of around 50. So where are the unexpected falling rolls that have triggered this sudden throwing in the towel by Oasis? Of course the short term venture whose risks were obvious leaves them with no problems, although I understand they do have a 125 year lease on the premises and land, which until 18 months ago were the property of KCC, as a very valuable bequest. Can we expect them to hand it back to KCC? Pity about the students and staff though!
In one sense, the problem of placement for the Hextable children may not be too difficult, with the main one of the neighbouring schools with vacancies, Orchard Academy less than a mile away in Swanley, able to absorb most of the students into their respective Year Groups. The two schools are similar in size, so this may well be seen as a take-over which, in previous similar cases has proved difficult to bring the two populations together at the beginning, the curriculum problems being their own challenge. Some parents of girls may be tempted to look a little further afield to Dartford Science and Technology College, which has rebuilt its own reputation after a disastrous period, and has some vacancies in all years. Knole Academy, which is technically full, probably has some room to expand further.
The Oasis Hextable SEN Unit
A group of children for whom one can feel especially sorry, are those attending the Speech and Language Unit at the school, which is currently full to the capacity of 20. Hextable has always enjoyed an excellent reputation for Special Education Needs, the 2013 OFSTED Report observing: “Disabled students and those with special educational needs are making good progress because of the high-quality support they receive from teaching assistants and from staff based in the school’s special unit”. As at the other Hextable secondary school whose closure was announced this month, Furness Special School, these children’s families face a challenging future to secure appropriate provision. There are four other secondary Speech and Language Units in Kent: The Canterbury Academy; John Wallis Academy, Ashford; Malling School; and Sittingbourne Community College, none within easy travelling distance and all usually full at the seams. Parents will have to negotiate a new Education, Health and Care Plan (the replacement for Statements of Educational Need), with a named school able to accept them. These new classifications are proving immensely time consuming to agree, and time is not on these children’s side. I fear that many of these children will be shoe-horned into inappropriate provision, unless they are prepared to fight for something that may not even exist. Sorry.
In Kent, Oasis also runs the troubled Oasis Sheppey Academy. It tried to take over the Chaucer Technology School in Canterbury but pulled out, assessing chances of success as low, unfortunately leaving the school further disrupted in its final full year. It was going to take over the new Thistlehill Primary School on Sheppey, but again pulled out, to be replaced by Lilac Sky.
It is interesting that in the case of Local Authority managed schools, there is required to be consultation to explore options. For academies, parents can just turn up one day to be told the school is closing, with no opportunity to express a view on the decision.
Sadly, in this world of Academy Monopoly, children’s futures appear to be some way down the list of priorities. Oasis has chosen just to walk away in spite of the protestations of KCC, leaving the problems for Kent County Council to sort, negotiating with other academies to find appropriate places for the student.