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Monday, 22 September 2014 00:00

Shortage of Primary Places in Kent: KOS 23 Sept 2014

This newspaper article is an expanded version of a news item elsewhere on this website, looking at the pressure on primary school places in Kent.

There has been much comment in the national media on the growing shortage of primary school places and Kent is no exception. I am now receiving concerned enquiries almost daily from families who have moved into or are planning to move into the area and are finding no suitable school, or in some cases no school at all being offered. Others have been allocated schools they didn’t apply to and are now finding out the reasons for the lack of popularity of some of these. Key pressure areas include: Sevenoaks, Gravesham, Dartford, Tunbridge Wells, Thanet, Maidstone and Tonbridge in Kent; and much of Medway, especially Chatham, Rainham and Rochester. 

 The problems of what are called In Year transfers are exemplified by an email circulated to primary school headteachers in Gravesham at the beginning of September by the Local Authority desperately seeking places for 23 children in the Borough (9 in Dartford) in Years 1,2 and 3 without a place........

Many of Kent’s problems were created in previous years when resources were available, but primary places were not seen as the priority, and I have written extensively about those failures from 2009 onwards. However, the past few years have seen a much greater and concerted effort to plan and create new places. In 2012 KCC drew up a Commissioning Plan that outlined a strategy for creating the 10000 new places needed in Kent by 2016. I wrote at the time: “I believe this is an essential document; it is just regrettable that when it was proposed in 2009, on the back of warnings about school place shortages, no action was taken, resulting in some of the temporary fixes we have seen in the past two years”. Unfortunately, the plan, creaking at the seams, is now out of date as shown by the examples below and a draft update for 2015 to 2019 has just been published. I am not aware that Medway has such a plan.

This positive initiative by KCC is in spite of Local Authorities having now lost the power to build schools being able only to commission new academies, voluntary aided schools and Free Schools to set up schools outside KCC control. Both versions of the Commissioning Plan also include some “over-arching principles” to guide its decision making, of which more later.

As a result, schools are having to be expanded far beyond Kent’s own recommendation of two forms of entry reducing “the efficient deployment of resources”, KCC’s own words. In other words, undermining the quality of education on offer. 

Some of the current pressures come from families moving in to Kent or Medway, often from London and by returning expatriates , who are attracted by the “good grammar schools” available. They are frequently horrified when I explain that the problems of securing a good, or indeed any primary school places for some, are likely to be the major problem. Others come from inward migration from other parts of the UK and from abroad.

It is evident that Kent County Council sometimes tackles short-term problems by enlarging primary classes to over 30 children without the need for an appeal (this is not a criticism!). Indeed, I heard this week of one family living in rural West Kent where this has happened because siblings were going to be separated by a wide geographical split. However, this is a very difficult tactic to adopt for infant classes.

Infant Class Legislation prohibits class sizes of over 30 for Years R, 1 & 2 where there is only one full-time equivalent teacher, apart from some very exceptional cases. The relevant exception states that amongst the children who can be excepted are: children who move into the area outside the normal admissions round for whom there is no other available school within reasonable distance”.  The issue here is the interpretation of “reasonable”, with no guidance as to what this means. Sometimes a case will go to appeal and very occasionally an Independent Appeal Panel will decide in favour of the child. However, for entry in 2014, just 5 out of 535 appeals where Infant Class Legislation is relevant were upheld in total.

KCC has interpreted “reasonable” several times in the interests of individual children, in ares of greatest pressure, for example in the Holborough Lakes area north west of Maidstone. Here, several additional infants have been added to take classes over 30 at nearby Snodland and St Katherine’s Primaries. Holborough Lakes is a major new housing development, for 1250 homes, 500 of which were already occupied in the summer of 2013. A KCC Impact Assessmentof July 2013 explains that a new one form entry primary academy (sponsored by Valley Invicta Academies Trust) will be opened in September 2015, by which time there would be insufficient spaces in the two existing schools. Unfortunately, there appears no assessment of where the additional children without schools should go between 2013 and 2015! I have talked with several families who have given up hope of a local school and gone private until the new school opens. At least one Holborough Lakes child has been offered a place at Burham Primary, only 1.7 miles as the crow flies, but with the River Medway proving a bit of an obstacle (!), 9.6 miles by road.

KCC has also commissioned other new build primary academies in an attempt to meet demand, each with a Unit catering for children with disabilities at Folkestone, Kings Hill, Leybourne and Sheppey.

For one family of a Year 1 child in a rural village near Gravesham, there was no concession for reasonableness this summer, and the child was offered a place in an OFSTED failing school on the other side of town, 7.9 miles away by road. As there was no public transport, KCC offered to provide a taxi. I advised the family to fight this and it may well be that a place has been created more locally for this child, but what about others who meekly believe there is no alternative to the offer? 

There were just two vacancies in Reception classes in the whole of urban Gravesham on allocation of places in April, with another twelve vacancies in the far south of the District at Vigo Primary. This in spite of the expansion of Chantry Primary Academy, from one to two forms of entry (recently out of Special Measures). Kings Farm Primary, currently a disaster area, has also been expanded again. Almost 10% of the 1339 children offered places at Gravesham primaries have been allocated to schools they did not apply to, nearly half of these to two very unpopular schools, one in Special Measures. As I live in Gravesham, I have been approached directly by parents whose children have been allocated to these two schools, several planning to refuse to take up their places. Others are remaining in Nursery Schools for up to another year, in the hope (I suspect vainly) that a more suitable place will come up. I well remember having a blazing row with the Area Education Officer some years ago in the presence of the Cabinet Member, warning of the coming problems, a warning that was ignored. He also decided against the opportunity to have a new school built in Northfleet with developers funding, on the grounds that it might draw children from another school (OFSTED failed) that then had to be expanded. The new Commissioning Plan records: “Forecasts for Gravesham show sharply rising birth rate and birth numbers from 2002 to 2012”. Too late!

There is much better news in Thanet, where a new Free School, working title the Ramsgate Free School, is planned to open in 2015, initially admitting up to 60 children into each of Years R and 3. This appears to be an imaginative and proper use of the Free School concept in a District where there is a severe shortage of primary places and is to be sponsored by Chilton Primary School, currently a Community school under the control of KCC. The two schools will be led by the headteacher of the heavily oversubscribed Chilton.

Meanwhile, in Broadstairs, in another imaginative move to ease pressures, St George’s Church of England Foundation School has opened a Consultation on extending its age range from the current secondary provision to include a two form entry primary section from September 2016. There are just four schools with vacancies in the district, all with a history of underperformance, so these initiatives are likely to prove popular with parents.

Medway Council is still haunted by its decision to close Ridge Meadow Primary School in Chatham in 2010 although a fall in pupil population was on the turn and rising, with subsequent need to find additional primary school places in the district. This year, 76 of the total 79 Chatham Reception Class vacancies occurred in a new academy being built with a capacity of 90 Reception places to alleviate the pressures. Elsewhere Medway, in Rainham there were no vacancies whatever; and in Rochester, all 17 vacancies occurred in one failing school. Of course, there has been subsequent movement and only this week I heard of one child being offered a place at a popular school.  

Elsewhere one can find problems in Tonbridge, which had NO vacant spaces in any of its Reception classes; Sevenoaks with just 10 places available in two of its 27 schools, both in the rural West of the district (but here the situation will have eased as a number of families choose private schools if they haven’t been allocated the schools of their choice); Dartford with no vacancies at all in the western half of the district and town.

Under this intense pressure on places, the overarching principles laid down by KCC to determine where new primary school places are to be sited, whilst laudable appear wholly unrealistic. They include:

  • We will always put the needs of the learners first.
  •  Every child should have access to a local good or outstanding school, which is appropriate to their needs.
  •  All education provision in Kent should be rated “good” or better, and be financially efficient and viable.
  • We will aim to meet the needs and aspirations of parents and the local community.
  • We will promote parental preference.
  • If a provision is considered or found to be inadequate by Ofsted, we will seek to commission alternative provision where we and the local community believe this to be the quickest route to provide high quality provision.
  • In areas of high surplus capacity we will take action to reduce such surplus.

One further planning priority worthy of note:

  • Over time we have concluded that 2fe provision (420 places) is preferred in terms of efficient deployment of resources.

The reality is that pressure on places is such that more and more schools are being pressured to expand from this ideal of two forms of entry to three and even four forms of entry so, presumably, the efficient deployment of resources on offer in these overlarge schools is declining.

I can only see the situation with regard to primary school provision in Kent and Medway deteriorate in spite of the efforts of the Councils to keep up with demand and feel so sorry for those families whose children started school last week in schools that are a severe disappointment to them. A child only has one realistic chance of a good education and too many are now not being given that chance.

Last modified on Tuesday, 23 September 2014 07:54

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