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Monday, 26 January 2015 17:24

Empty desks in Kent Secondary schools: four schools in trouble

In 2013 KCC made the decision to close The Chaucer Technology School in Canterbury, as the intake had fallen sharply every year but one since 2009 from 202 to 85, with a forecast intake of 57 for September 2014. During that period, the school had reduced its capacity from 235 to 150, but this would still leave at least 62% of places empty in Year 7.  I now have the school census figures for September 2014 and this shows four secondary schools in a worse situation than Chaucer with regard to empty desks.  What is more alarming is that that in 2013 all these four schools again had the highest vacancy rates, all more severe than Chaucer, whilst  in 2012 the only school that separated them was Walmer Science College which KCC closed at the end of that year because of falling numbers.

 Three of these four schools, Marlowe Academy, Oasis Academy Hextable, and High Weald Academy, are probably safe from direct KCC intervention because of their academy status, but must all have problems of viability, including financial pressures and the ability to offer an appropriate curriculum - for example a proper range of courses at GCSE, as the low numbers work through. All three have previously been placed in Special Measures by OFSTED, but have now earned their way out, although still clearly suffering from their reputation.  The fourth is Pent Valley School, Folkestone which actually possesses a ‘Good’ OFSTED assessment, but whose troubles include expansion by more popular neighbouring schools......

Unsurprisingly, heading the list is The Marlowe Academy, about whose predicament I wrote a few weeks ago, but which still appears unwilling to even acknowledge its disastrous OFSTED last November, and now has just 32 students in Year 7, leaving vacant 83% of the capacity of 180 places.  Realistically, it will be impossible for the academy to offer a differentiated and appropriate course for the students of this Year Group at GCSE in two and a half years’ time.

Next lowest for 2014 admissions is Pent Valley Technology College in Folkestone, with 68% of its Year 7 places vacant. The school has been falling in popularity annually, in spite of being awarded a ‘Good’ OFSTED in October 2013 and also reducing its Planned Admission Number (PAN) from 240 to 180, the current 58 Year 7 students being just over a third of the 165 in Year 11. There are major contributory factors out of the school’s control, adding to its problems, as explained below.

High Weald Academy in Cranbrook has had difficulty in attracting students for each of the past four years, ever since it went into Special Measures in 2010, in spite of having been taken over as an academy by the Brook Learning Trust, and two subsequent OFSTEDs that found it first ‘Satisfactory’ then ‘Requires Improvement’.  This year’s Year 7 total of 61, leaving 66% of places empty, is similar to the previous three years, so one wonders what else the academy can do to attract numbers.  

Oasis Academy, Hextable, is nearly at the same place as Chaucer was when the plug was pulled on the latter, with 63% of places vacant in Year 7, but is the only one of these four schools that has picked up this year. 2015 entry will be make or break for the school as it is for the others. For 2013 entry there were just 38 students admitted following a failed OFSTED, just keeping Marlowe out of the bottom place.  A subsequent “Requires Improvement” assessment  was achieved  after Alan Brooks, Executive Head of Fulston Manor School in Sittingbourne, had overseen improvements at the school. This, and the subsequent takeover as a sponsored academy, will have influenced an improvement to 55 students this year, but the school’s situation is still precarious.

Any school can cope with a sharp fall in numbers for one year, but what sets these four apart is the sustained low numbers, in schools that will shortly be over half empty throughout as the low year groups work through, financial pressures increasing and the curriculum offering having to be trimmed. I would expect that even the Academy Sponsors must be wondering what the next step is to be to avoid bankruptcy.

The other school with over half its Year Seven places empty is St Edmund’s Catholic  School in Dover, in trouble since its failed OFSTED two years ago, although  it has recently passed a subsequent Inspection with “Requires Improvement”. It has 60% of its places vacant, having lost over half its intake over the past three years, but is seeking salvation by becoming a Sponsored academy in the Kent Catholic Schools Trust. It also suffers from a similar local problem to Pent Valley.

The pattern of secondary admissions in Kent is changing fast as academies schools are allowed to increase their Planned Admission Numbers without regard to the effect elsewhere, reflecting their popularity, so the importance of a ‘Good’ OFSTED and good GCSE results has never been higher. League tables for the latter are out on Friday and we are warned that some schools  have performed baldy in 2014. There is a strong argument by many that poor schools who fail to improve should go to the wall. Government argues that a preliminary step is to turn them into academies whose freedom from Local Authority control will see them get stronger, but what if they are already academies who refuse to face up to facts? What is clearly more important than the status of the school is its leadership; and this website contains many examples of schools that have been rescued or kept in a good state in difficult circumstances by outstanding leaders.

The second major factor for change in Kent is the expansion of grammar schools, some of whom are setting their own tests, or else finding higher proportions of children to be of grammar school ability through decisions of independent appeal panels. The extreme example is Folkestone School for Girls, which increased its capacity by 15 places to 180 for 2014 entry, absorbing 77 girls who passed the Shepway Test alone. Not only this, the school’s independent appeal panel then offered an astonishing 44 further places to girls who had not passed either test on appeal, taking the school over its increased PAN, many of who would otherwise have been found places at Pent Valley. One group with whom this policy will be very popular are the families of the girls accepted by Folkestone Girls, but Pent Valley’s future is now in threat as a consequence.

The Folkestone Academy, which in 2011 was one of the most popular schools in Kent turning away 66 first choice applications on allocation, has been falling in popularity ever since. However, for 2014 entry, it still decided to increase its intake by 30 children to 270, which would potentially damage Pent Valley further.  In the end, FA started in September with 20 empty spaces in Year 7, so the effect on Pent Valley was limited this year, the very real problem for both schools being with Folkestone School for Girls. Folkestone Academy is run by The Roger De Haan Charitable Trust that also sponsors The Marlowe Academy, so it is well aware of the problems of struggling schools.

In the Canterbury District, apart from Whitstable Community College, the seven other schools are all bulging at the seams, the non-selectives having picked up following the closure of Chaucer, with Canterbury Academy having increased its intake temporarily by 50 places, and Spires Academy by 30. One wonders what 2015 has to offer the district.

In Thanet, apart from The Marlowe, and Hartsdown Academy suffering in spite of its ‘Good’ OFSTED, from its poor premises in competition with so many schools that have been rebuilt, all the non-selective schools are full.

 The Dover Grammar Selection Test has been in place for at least ten years, although for the girls at least, very few who have not passed either this or the Kent Test succeed at appeal. Nevertheless, in spite of over half the girls admitted having qualified on the Dover Test alone, Dover Grammar Girls is consistently amongst the top performers of Kent grammar schools. Folkestone School for Girls is also there at present; it remains to be seen if they can continue to perform at the same level when the first new intake arrives at GCSE in three years’ time. Along with St Edmund’s, Dover Christ Church Academy also struggles for numbers, but manages to fill 61% of its places.

Maidstone District, has four of its academies with over a quarter of their places empty, The Malling School (66% filled, in spite of its ‘Good’ OFSTED), Holmesdale (68%, falling rapidly in popularity having been oversubscribed a few years back), New Line Learning Academy (68%, its biggest intake ever!); and St Augustine’s Academy (71% again despite a ‘Good’ OFSTED).

In West Kent, the big issue is with the grammar schools, five of whom have expanded by 30 places in recent years, to absorb the pressures. The biggest increase however, is at Weald of Kent Grammar, which admitted 48 girls on appeal, nearly all initially non-selective, taking its total up to 211 this September, 36 above its PAN. The big issue here is of course the imminent decision on whether Weald of Kent will be allowed to open a grammar school annex for 90 girls in Sevenoaks, which will certainly need to draw on girls from across the county boundary to fill up numbers.

The national controversy over Free Schools failing to fill their places hardly applies in Kent. Both Wye school and Trinity School, Sevenoaks, are full, Wye drawing, I suspect, mainly from Kennington where it has hit the Towers School, leaving the latter with just 135 of its 243 places filled.  Trinity has a wider catchment because of its church requirements for 45 of its 120 places, but will have had an intake on the Tonbridge non-selectives, Orchards Academy in Swanley and the Oasis Hextable Academy. The third Free School, Hadlow Rural Community School, with its very specialised agricultural focus, initially planned to offer just 30 places, but took 50 students across a wide rural area, taking in the normal catchment of a number of schools, likely to affect none of them significantly.  

Last modified on Sunday, 07 June 2015 19:57

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