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Friday, 03 April 2015 11:12

Kent Secondary School Census 2014 - Pressure points: Kent on Sunday January 2015

In 2013, KCC closed Chaucer Technology School in Canterbury, as it had sharply falling numbers and a forecast intake of just 57 for September 2014. The school had already reduced its capacity from 235 to 150, but this would still leave 62% of places empty. I now have school census figures for September 2014 showing four secondary schools in an even worse situation than this. In 2013, these four schools again had the highest vacancy rates in Kent, 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. However, they will all have problems of viability, as low numbers work through. OFSTED previously placed all three in Special Measures, and although improved, they are still suffering from their reputation. The fourth is Pent Valley School, Folkestone which possesses a ‘Good’ OFSTED assessment, but whose troubles include expansion by more popular neighbouring schools.

Unsurprisingly, heading the list is Marlowe Academy whose predicament I wrote about  at www.kentadvice.co.uk a few weeks ago. It now has just 32 students in Year 7, leaving vacant 83% of its 180 places.  Realistically, it will be impossible for the academy to offer a differentiated and appropriate course for students at GCSE in three years’ time.

Next is Pent Valley Technology College in Folkestone, with 68% of its Year 7 places vacant. The school has fallen annually in popularity, in spite of a ‘Good’ OFSTED in October 2013 with just 58 students in Year 7. There are major contributory factors out of the school’s control, as explained below.

High Weald Academy in Cranbrook has had difficulty in attracting students since it went into Special Measures in 2010, in spite of becoming an academy sponsored by the Brook Learning Trust, and two improved OFSTEDs.  This year’s total of 61 Year 7 students, leaving 66% of places empty, is similar to previous years, so one wonders what else the academy can do to attract numbers.  

Oasis Academy, Hextable, has 63% of places vacant, but is the only one of schools to picked up, rising to 55 students from a low of just 38 in 2013, again following a failed OFSTED.  The improvement was mainly due to a temporary Executive Head turning the school round and earning a positive Inspection Report in preparation for a takeover by Oasis Academy Trust. However, the school’s situation is still precarious and like the others, 2015 admission numbers will be critical.

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 as the low year groups work through, financial pressures increasing and the curriculum offering trimmed.

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 been classified “Requires Improvement”. It has 60% of its places vacant, losing 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 can now increase their Planned Admission Numbers without regard to the effect elsewhere. There is a strong argument by many that poor schools that fail to improve should go to the wall, but this does not take into account the effect on the unfortunate students caught in the middle of closure, as seen at Chaucer and Walmer Science College. When the latter closed in 2013 (failed OFSTED and low numbers), its remaining students were transferred into Castle Community College, Deal, only to see Castle plunge from Outstanding’ to Special Measures seven months later, the school and its new students going through turmoil as it attempted to recover,

Government argues that failing schools should be turned into academies whose freedom from Local Authority control will see them get stronger, but what if they are already academies? More important than the status of the school is its leadership; and there are many examples of schools that have been rescued from 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 appeal panels. Folkestone School for Girls increased its capacity by 15 places to 180 for 2014 entry, absorbing 77 girls who passed the Shepway Test alone with a further 44 girls on appeal. One group with whom this policy will be popular are the families of the girls accepted by Folkestone Girls, but Pent Valley’s future is now in threat as a consequence.

Folkestone Academy was one of the most popular schools in Kent in 2011 but has since been falling in popularity. However, for 2014 entry, it still decided to increase its intake by 30 children to 270, potentially damaging Pent Valley further.  In the end, FA started in September with 20 empty spaces in Year 7, the very real problem for both schools being Folkestone School for Girls.

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 mainly from the potential of Towers School, Kennington, 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 90 places. The third Free School, Hadlow Rural Community School, with its agricultural focus, initially planned to offer just 30 places, but then took 50 students from across a wide rural area.  

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