There are two secondary schools in Folkestone, Pent Valley and Folkestone Academy, which opened in 2007 in new buildings, itself replacing the failing Channel School, when Pent Valley was oversubscribed at 242 students entering Year 7. From as far back as 1971 when I took up a post in Folkestone, the two schools have alternated sharply in popularity, usually reflecting the quality of leadership, with Brockhill School in neighbouring Hythe also playing a significant part attracting students away from the town, most strongly in recent years.Pent Valley was given a potential boost in 2011, when initial approval was given to demolish its buildings and rebuild on the same site, although this was subsequently placed on hold following a Government Spending Review and never revived. Certainly the premises were quite run down, with another major problem being the restricted site on which the school was based, making redevelopment or enlargement (when the school was popular) difficult.
Folkestone Academy has however, been in the ascendant since its opening, often heavily oversubscribed, increasing its intake from 210 to 240 a few years ago which hardly helped. Pent Valley became dependent upon those students unable to secure places at the Academy, with just 31 families seeing the school as their first choice in 2015, the smallest number for any school in the county. These decisions will have been influenced strongly by the poor academic performance of the school which has been in a nose dive since 2012, when 48% of students achieved 5 GCSEs Grades A* to C, down to 15% for 2015, third worst in the county, ahead only of the now closed Marlowe Academy together with St George’s CofE school in Broadstairs, and way behind the now closed Chaucer and Oasis Hextable.
As we have seen with other closures, it is the financial consequence of small numbers that deals the fatal blow, as schools are not allowed to run at a long term deficit, and have to cut staff and resources in an attempt to balance the books, setting up a spiral of decline. The current forecast is for an unacceptable accumulated deficit of £1,318, 707 by 2016.
One enigma was the OFSTED Report in January 2013, which found the school to be Good, with praise for nearly all aspects of the school, including leadership, a marked discrepancy with the views of parents in the town, who were even then strongly trying to avoid it as a school for their children. Subsequent academic performance of the school suggests, as so often, that parents called it right!
The final straw came in 2013, when the two Folkestone grammar schools introduced their own selection tests, and started admitting additional pupils. In 2015, Folkestone School for Girls offered 118 places to children who passed their own test, with just 62 qualifying through the Kent selection test, along with another 29 girls on appeal. a Local Authority Review in 2014 judged the school likely to be found Inadequate by OFSTED, unless immediate action was taken to improve the school. As a result the Local Authority issued a Formal Warning to the school requiring specified actions to bring about improvement. It is not clear how the school responded but, given all these dire facts and statistics it was no surprise when the Principal and his two deputies 'left' the school last Easter. KCC placed the school under the control of the Swale Academies Trust, who had recently overseen the closure of Chaucer Technology School in Canterbury, after a similar rapid decline. The Swale Trust has also taken over Meopham School, then in Special Measures, which has proved a success, and the North School in Ashford, although the latter has also been in sharp decline in popularity and academic performance since the takeover. Swale Academy Trust, who appear to be experts in raising funding, soon reported that they had attracted potential financial capital to improve the premises. An article in the Folkestone Herald, end of April, had Kent County Council's head of school improvement Nigel Blackburn insisting that the authority, school governors and staff are committed to the cause, adding: "If communication is not as good as we would like, then parents tend to end up with misinformation. I can confirm that there are no plans that this school will close. No plans at all.The current school website certainly projects a very active school, marred only now by the projected closure notices.
Just two months ago, KCC carried out a Teaching and Learning Review which produced positive results, the summary reading: “This is a much-improved school, the impact of Swale Academies Trust and the newly led governing body in transforming leadership is very clear. New leaders have demonstrated the capacity to drive improvement. The school is still vulnerable to a judgement of serious weaknesses if inspected as achievement data remains a concern and, although improving rapidly, the proportion of lessons where students do not make good progress is too high.” That potential judgement of vulnerability to “serious weaknesses” may have been the last straw.
The biggest problem will come with the 185 students in Years 7-9, including 79 in year 9, together with another inevitably bewildered group who have already applied for Pent Valley for entry in 2016, with Folkestone Academy and Brockhill both being close to capacity in all three years. Any vacancies at these two schools will be snapped up very shortly, as parents take pre-emptive action which of course has the effect of further lowering numbers at PV in the current school year. KCC is reported as stating that “Pupils in Years Seven to Nine will be offered places at other local schools”. This will certainly be a challenge for KCC to resolve, and with Folkestone Academy being built to a capacity of 240 students, pressure will mount on Brockhill to absorb many of the students, although with a considerable transport bill to pay for transport to Hythe for years to come.
No final decision will be made until at least April, so the potential Year Seven students will probably find themselves being offered places at Pent Valley, and only subsequently be able to look for places elsewhere, with the help of KCC who experienced an almost identical situation at Chaucer in Canterbury. Not surprisingly, this lengthy uncertainty caused a lot of grief and difficulty for Chaucer families, and Pent Valley families will endure the same.
Sadly, whilst places at other schools will eventually be provided for all current students, the fact remains that ‘their’ school will have been closed about them, and the disruption to education and bitterness about the whole situation can have an incalculable effect, integration into a school not of their choice often proving difficult.
As for the site, KCC makes clear in its letter to parents that, as numbers of secondary aged children in Folkestone continue to rise and with no vacant spaces at all in the Reception Year this year in town primary schools, the school site will be mothballed until demand rises, possibly for September 2017. As with previous examples this will prove a very expensive way to remove the management and governance of a failing school!
The closure and rebirth would have the effect of wiping out the deficit with the new school starting from scratch, the burden being wiped out by deduction from the overall budget of Kent's schools (excluding academies).
Is it too late for the current Year Six?