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Friday, 03 August 2012 08:36

KCC ordered to reinstate intake of 60 at Bishops Down Primary School - Heavily criticised over Tunbridge Wells primary admissions policy


(Updated 13 August) Kent County Council has been heavily criticised by the Schools Adjudicator for failing to provide reliable information on admissions arrangements at schools in Tunbridge Wells from year to year, for failing to consult parents on changes and for using practices and criteria to decide Planned Admission Numbers which are not clear, consistent and objective. A debate I had on Radio Kent with the KCC Cabinet Member for Education did not see him disagreeing with my view that the situation is the shambolic conclusion of past mismanagement by KCC that has now left the Local Authority in an impossible situation. For, following a complaint by a parent, Kent County Council has been required to change back the Planned Admission Number for Bishops Down Primary School from the published 30 it imposed on the school this year, to the 60 it had been for the previous three years, although it claims this is impossible to implement. 

KCC  is now questioning the school adjudicator’s power to instruct it to reverse the decision to reduce the intake of Bishops Down from 60 to 30. If it should be successful, It is clear that that few local children are likely to be offered places at the school for the next four years unless they are siblings, and even then some siblings may miss out in some years. The reason for this is that there are now three large year groups of 60 children working through the school for the next four years. From experience of sibling patterns elsewhere, and indeed Bishops Down itself, with 22 siblings in at least one recent admission year even before the expansion, one can project that there are likely to be more than 30 siblings applying for the school in several years. 

The Determination is particularly scathing about KCC policy in its new draft Commissioning Plan for school places, which states:.......

We are committed to ensuring that every parent can choose a good or outstanding school for their child. There is therefore a strong presumption in this Plan that successful and popular schools will be supported to expand”. The adjudicator notes that according to the plan “Popularity with parents is a key factor to be considered”. The Draft Commissioning Plan published just three months ago actually records that the admission number for Bishops Down will be kept at 60 for at least two more years. It is in this light that the Adjudicator is then highly critical of KCC’s proposals to increase capacity in Tunbridge Wells, and at the same time reduce that of the oversubscribed Bishops Down, found ‘Good’ by OFSTED earlier this year. It comments that “the history of repeated temporary expansions at Bishops Down does suggest a piecemeal approach to what has clearly been an issue in the area since 2009

The Determination criticises the Council for failure to keep governors at Bishops Down informed of the facts behind its decision to reduce the intake at Bishops Down from 60 to 30 for 2013 entry: Minutes of governing body meetings “make it clear that governors only had limited information about the Council’s plans and intentions for the School and that such information as they did have was rarely timely”. The Determination describes the history of KCC's actions in this case as “deeply troubling”. It describes a feasibility study on admission numbers which found an intake of 60 was reasonable, but was then replaced by a second which recommended a maximum of 30 – a change in policy that the Adjudicator politely notes “may lead to questions about objectivity”.

It criticises KCC for ‘losing’ paperwork from a consultation about maintaining the intake at 60, and its failure to record any adverse comments about this. “Despite their best endeavours, Council officers have not been able to provide detailed information on the consultation. It appears that ‘some links have been lost or deleted in error’”. It notes that governors were in favour of retaining the intake of this heavily oversubscribed school at 60, and as there was no consultation on reducing the intake to 30, it makes clear the actions were outside the rules of the statutory Code of Admissions. However, it also notes that “even if this sequence of events had accorded with the letter of the Code, it would have sadly failed its spirit which stresses clarity and the importance of parental preference”.

The council expressed concern about traffic if the Planned Admission number was retained at 60. It failed to notice either that the larger number would lead to a higher number of siblings (requiring no additional transport), or that a reduction to 30 would see the intake becoming almost entirely siblings (from the previous intakes now in the school of 60 children), so local children would not be offered places and would have to travel to more distant schools increasing traffic.

I could go on, as there are additional criticisms of the KCC management of primary school places at Bishops Down and in Tunbridge Wells generally, a view I have repeatedly reported on in the pages of this website over the past two years. The final paragraph of the Conclusion reads: “The school’s governing body has lived with uncertainty about the intentions of the Council with regard to its PAN and its temporary or permanent expansion over the past three years. It was led to believe that permanent expansion was, at the least, likely. The history raises questions as to why the Council has acted as it has done over recent years in relation to the school and local parents.”

In her Determination the Schools Adjudicator therefore upholds the parental complaint about the admission arrangements determined by KCC for admission in September 2013 and requires the Council to revise its admission arrangements as soon as possible. You can read the full Determination here

This report is a complete vindication of the views I have been expressing about the lack of planning of places in Tunbridge Wells over the past two years. KCC has more than once denied my charge of last minute planning, for example in the case of Claremont Primary School in 2011. In 2010, the situation at Bishops Down first came to my attention when KCC increased the PAN from 30 to 60, after the closing date for applications. As a result, parents who had reasonably calculated they would not be in the top 30 did not apply, whereas others who lived further away took a chance and were surprised to be successful, thus of course increasing the number of siblings who would not otherwise have gained places. The Determination is probably written without knowledge of the ridiculous decision by KCC to reduce the intake of St James Infant School by 20 this year to 70 children (again without consultation!), on the grounds there were additional places available in other local schools, when the school was happy to keep the intake at 90. At appeal, not surprisingly, a KCC Independent Appeal Panel upheld 20 appeals – what a farce. Back in April I wrote an overview of the situation in Tunbridge Wells ) but this has now been overtaken by events.  I hope shortly to publish here a roundup and update of the Tunbridge Wells situation, including KCC decisions to ‘increase’ provision in the town, mainly by confirming increases in previous years.

The Determination makes clear that, once again, KCC  can treat school governors with contempt when it is determined on a course of action. Why would any one put themselves in this position? 

According to the Determination KCC reports that there are 18 siblings already likely to apply for 2013 entry, and 24 in 2014, although I don't see how they can determine this to be the final number coming forward. I am sure there are likely to be more who do not for example attend the Nursery School at Bishops down. . The situation is complicated by the school being a designated and well equipped school for children with physical disabilities; and can take in those who are statemented and name the school as the first priority. In recent years, there have been an average of two such admissions.  A parallel situation has arisen at Sevenoaks Primary this year, when there after a temporary expansion to 90, the school PAN was reduced to 60, with 34 siblings gaining places and the cut off area shrinking dramatically to 0.296 miles. The problems in Thurnham and Bearsted were precipitated by a particularly large number of siblings being admitted at Thurnham CofE Primary School.  

It is worth noting that this whole issue unravelled solely because of a parental complaint to the Schools Adjudicator about the rules for admission at Bishops Down, following the success of parents in securing additional school places in Bearsted. Whilst I cannot see such actions triumphing in more socially deprived areas it is clear the council is being held ot account by parents more often, if they are prepared to make a stand. Please note that the Office of the Schools Adjudicator cannot deal with complaints about individual admissions cases, it deals with general breaches in the rules laid down by the School Admissions Code.   

Interestingly, my first acquaintance with Bishops Down Primary School was in 2009, when I was supporting a parent on appeal  at the school. The intake at that time was 26, and I established that governors held back four places and allocated them using their own judgement, bringing up the numbers to 30. KCC mounted a strong defence of their actions,  even challenging a recommendation by the Ombudsman, before eventually conceding, and offering a place to my client's son. The intake was then increased to 30. 

It is hardly surprising that the Schools Adjudicator finds that "From a parental point of view, the implications of this history are deeply troubling"

Last modified on Tuesday, 04 March 2014 17:05

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