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Peter Read

Sunday, 13 September 2020 19:36

Turner Schools: Update


For the last three and a half years, Turner Schools has been one of my most prolific themes for articles on this website, aided and abetted by its CEO and founder Dr Jo Saxton, whose passion for promoting the Trust (named after her grandmother) and making fantastical claims for its performance and future prospects was simply breathtaking. She departed the Trust in March, after just three years, to become a Political Adviser to Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, whose subsequent gaffe ridden career is well documented, but presumably is coincidental.
Her successor, Seamus Murphy, has wisely not sought headlines in the same way but has still made his mark. Subsequently, school leaders in two of the four Turner schools have bitten the dust, both controversially. Teacher turnover has continued unabated at a high level, well over twice the national average for the past three years. There has also been a high turnover of Trustees and Members of Turner Schools, the two distinct bodies responsible for governance. Mr Murphy still has to manage the legacy of a massive financial deficit left by Dr Saxton.

The EKC Group, which runs Folkestone College, has sensed an expansion opportunity and has opened the Folkestone Junior College this month. This offers a full-time alternative to the Turner Schools monopoly of non-selective education in Folkestone, in Years 10 and 11, surely a major challenge to the Trust.

Saturday, 05 September 2020 18:23

The New No Win Park Crescent Academy, Thanet

Kent County Council has now applied for Planning Permission for the controversial new secondary school in Thanet, exposing further problems with the project.

The background to the new school briefly is that, first of all, KCC overestimated the number of secondary aged children coming through the system in Thanet to justify commissioning a new school. The Council then backtracked, with the 2020-2024 Kent Schools Commissioning Plan explaining (p137) how they could comfortably manage the small long term pupil number deficit by expanding two of the District’s six non-selective schools.

Park Crescent Academy

The real problem is that two of the Thanet schools are so unpopular with some families to the extent that 189 children were allocated to them in March who never applied to either. Others were offered places in Sandwich and Deal schools, some miles away. The full background to the controversy is explained here. When the new school opens, with a planned intake of 180 children, at least one of these schools is likely to become unviable. As a result, KCC’s introduction to the Planning Permission Consultation is quite simply dishonest, as explained below.

One of the problems with the new school, now to be called Park Crescent Academy after one of the adjacent roads, is that the site on which it is to be built is very cramped as can be seen from the projection above, and explained below. The new academy will replace the residential Royal School for the Deaf which was closed down in 2015, see below. One of the consequences of the limited space, set out below, is that the school will have no sixth form.

Update, 9th September: In a sign of the level of crisis at St Thomas Catholic Primary, Dr Simon Hughes, Director of Education and Schools Commissioner at the Catholic Diocese of Southwark, has been appointed a governor at the school with immediate effect. See further details below

The Chair of the Kent Catholic Schools Partnership wrote to parents of St Thomas Catholic Primary School on 17th June to inform them that the headteacher, Mrs Aquilina, was being given ‘special leave until the end of the academic year’. This followed a safeguarding incident which created considerable concern and debate, the absence being widely and reasonably assumed to be a formal suspension from her responsibilities because of the safeguarding issue.

On July 25th, at the end of the summer term, he wrote again ‘We have now reached the end of the academic year and can confirm that Mrs Aquilina will be returning to her role of Headteacher at St Thomas’ Primary on 1 September 2020…. A meeting with parents and carers of St Thomas’ will be held at the start of the new academic year’

Yesterday, 1st September, Mr Powis, the Chair of KCSP, wrote again to parents, to inform them that Mrs Aquilina will now be ‘on special leave for the foreseeable future’. The letter unsurprisingly contains no further explanation of the change of direction and no mention of the meeting for parents promised in the previous letter. This may be because of legal issues. 

 Update: It has been suggested that the fall in take-up for the Kent Travel Pass is partly due to some families deciding not to send their children back to school at this time. It will soon become clear if this is a factor.  

Following on from the TUI holiday flight incident and the failure of passengers to follow rules, it is relevant to note the following

 Government statement: 'We do not expect drivers to police pupil behaviour. Their role is to focus on driving the vehicle safely' whilst KCC considers that 'Children travelling on these services will be required to wear face coverings for those over 11 and without an exemption'.

But from Stagecoach, one of the largest school contractors in Kent:  ‘Our drivers will not refuse travel or apply any enforcement measures, but we appeal to students and parents to ensure that this is taken seriously and that a face-covering is worn at all times when on the bus’.

It is not surprising that, partly as a result of this and partly through matters relating to social distancing, parental caution has seen the number of applications for the Kent travel passes fall by over half for September. Those for age 11-16 are down from around 24,000 normally to just 12,557 for September, with 16+ passes down from around 7,000 to 2,280. Most of the missing families will now be driving their children to school by car, swelling the road traffic considerably across the county at the two peak school times.

There is likely as a consequence to be travel chaos at peak periods particularly in areas where there are several secondary schools close together. Three towns spring to mind: Canterbury, Sittingbourne and Tunbridge Wells, but I am sure there are others. One can also add in schools served by narrow roads as explained in a previous article entitled The Coronavirus Effect on the 'School Run' in Kent, Part 2 which I wrote two weeks ago, and looks at the developing problems of getting children to school.  

I also look below at transport matters contained in new advice published by the government on Friday around 5.30 p.m. This sets fresh expectations for schools from the start of the new term, for many just five days in advance, including a weekend and a bank holiday. It contains 18 pages of advice, some wise and helpful, some very belated, some trivial and some patronising.  Finally, a look at Brockhill Park and Ebbsfleet Green Primary Schools. 

Thursday, 27 August 2020 05:47

Academy and Free School News August 2020

There are just five schools that have converted to become academies in 2020, including the four which came together to be the EKC (East Kent Trust) in March.  These are: Briary Primary, Herne Bay; Bysingwood Primary, Faversham; Holywell Primary, Upchurch; and Queenborough School, Isle of Sheppey. I have written extensively about the new Trust here.  The month before, the failed Sunny Bank Primary in Sittingbourne became a sponsored academy with The Island Learning Trust on the Isle of Sheppey. Background here

I also look below at the new applications to become academies of: Marden Primary, near Tonbridge; Eastchurch Primary, Isle of Sheppey; Holy Trinity VA Primary, Gravesend; Worth Primary, Deal; and Fairview Primary and Oaklands School in Gillingham, two schools converting to become part of the Westbrook Trust. The re-brokering of the failed Delce Academy to the Inspire Partnership Academy Trust has also taken place. Update: 4/9/20. The conversions of Marden, Eastchurch and Oaklands have now taken place. 

There are six new free schools opening in Kent in September including one new secondary school, Maidstone School of Science and Technology.  There are three new primary schools: Bearsted Primary Academy in Maidstone; Ebbsfleet Green Primary in Dartford; Springhead Park Primary in Gravesham; and two Special Schools, Aspire School in Sittingbourne and Snowfields Academy in Maidstone. 

I look at other decisions of the South East and South London Headteacher Board of the Regional Schools Commissioner, relating to the Barnsole Trust, Folkestone Academy and Holmesdale School, along with an item relating to the North West Kent Alternative Provision Service.

Saturday, 22 August 2020 06:00

Griffin Schools Trust: A Danger for Pupils?

I have followed the misfortunes of the Griffin Schools Trust for many years since it took over four primary schools as academies in Medway, then having Wayfield Primary taken away from it in 2016, following a catastrophic Ofsted Report that highlighted 'Pupils’ safety and well-being are at risk; Staff manage pupils’ behaviour poorly; Normal discipline has broken down; On occasion, staff lose control of pupils, who are then at risk of being harmed'  a theme echoed in the most recent Ofsted report on a Griffin school: 'Many pupils do not feel safe attending this school. They feel intimidated by others’ conduct. Pupils are right to be concerned. Leaders have not been effective in managing pupils’ behaviour. It is increasingly rowdy and sometimes dangerous', this time about Stantonbury International, a school which had been the largest in the country when they took it over, although unsurprising it now has numbers falling sharply. Two recent articles in Education Uncovered focus on the Trust, its failures and its control by a small coterie of four individuals, three of whom have run it since its foundation in 2013. 

One is left in bewilderment as to why the Education Funding Agency awarded Stantonbury to the Griffin  Schools Trust in the first place, with their limited experience of running just one other secondary school, which it has now brought down to Ofsted 'Requires Improvement' and why it has not now closed the Trust down. This is what eventually happened with two other notorious Academy Trusts which also operated in Kent

Update 24th August: I am hearing of various schools and at least one FE College which is trying to bounce qualified students off sixth form and vocational courses. One device is to place them on a 'reserve' list. For schools, there should be clear oversubscription rules to decide how places are allocated. If these are broken, then an appeal will have to be upheld, but you will need to work out how to challenge them. I am having difficulty working out the rules for colleges which are not my normal area of interest. Can anyone please advise me?

Update evening of 20th August: Cancellation of those BTec results which have been published and those which haven't even been released. See below in blue. 

First of all, my congratulations to all young people who have achieved the GCSE outcomes they desired and have worked for in this most difficult of years. 

The GCSE results for 2020, out on Thursday, were based on the same formula as the A-Level outcomes finally agreed after several U-Turns. The official GCSE grade is now the highest of the algorithm calculation and the teacher grade estimate for each pupil, but with outcomes now far too dependent on the inevitable variation in the reliability of that teacher estimate. Schools that have worked hard to ensure their estimates are as fair and rigorous as possible will have seen their pupils penalised, as against those which were generous, perhaps acting for the best for their pupils, or else influenced by the nature of their intake. Once again, I fear that when we see the statistical outcome of the new process, disadvantaged pupils will have been penalised and many from the private sector will have benefited as schools responded to the expectations of their paying customers. 

A major consequence of all this is that the considerable improvement in GCSE and BTec grade levels will lead to extra pressure on school sixth form places, and I explore the consequences of this below, including options for students and the pattern of A-Level entry in Kent’s non-selective schools.  

We have now had the inevitable cancellation of the BTec results. Level Three results needed to be lifted so that results are again compatible with A-Level grades. See the previous article for consequences. In the same way, BTec Level Two results will now count as before to be equivalent to GCSE grades for admission to the A-Level Sixth Forms of many schools, producing more students qualified for them. All the places at some schools will already have been awarded first time round and cannot be removed, so there is a big capacity issue here, as explained below, whilst for other schools they simply add to the pressure on existing places. This is surely all now spiralling out of control and one can only speculate what happens next. See the next sentence for one outcome that should happen without delay. 

I believe that in any decent society Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, and Nick Gibbs the Schools Minster,  would and should have resigned without delay. Have they no shame?

You will find my 'Information and Advice' article on school Sixth Forms here, containing considerable additional material. Several years ago I wrote an article entitled Transfer to Grammar Schools in the Sixth Form which surveyed the considerable movement from non-selective schools to Kent grammar school Sixth Forms. I have no reason to think the situation was any different last year, but with the inflated GCSE grades of 2020, the pressure on places will now be considerably greater. I have also carried out a Review of Kent and Medway school 2019 A-Level performance which may be of guidance to students exploring options. 

Update evening of 20th August: Cancellation of those BTec results which have been published and those which haven't even been released. See below in blue. 

It had not been my intention to comment on the A-Level chaos this year, because I had nothing extra to say given the complete dominance of this story across the media since last Thursday, but it is now quite simply too big to ignore.  Like many others, I have listened and watched with amazement as the Department for Education twisted and turned in its feeble and unsuccessful attempts to correct the initial blunder. This was caused, I believe, because the algorithm used to allocate results had not been properly tested, if at all, in the months leading up to their publication. As a result, the large scale anomalies which have featured in so many news stories and distressed and angered so many young people were not picked up. This is not the first such revolt by young people in this country bringing about change (Greta Thunberg, Black Lives Matter) but the first to be directly brought about by the incompetence shown by government. And make no mistake, it is this which has brought about the U-Turn. I suspect that, as a direct result of the government's ineptitude, it will not be the last such insurrection. 

We now have the inevitable cancellation of the BTec results, Level three of which needs to be upgraded so that results are compatible with A Level grades. When these are revised they will produce more students qualified for University places, although the places on many of the courses for which they are entitled to places will now be full. This is surely now spiralling out of control and one can only speculate what happens next. See next sentence for what should happen. 

I believe that in any decent society Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, and Nick Gibbs the Schools Minister,  would and should have resigned without delay. Have they no shame?

Update 20th August: KCC has released a guide called: Returning to school using transport which summarises much that I have written below. Good news is that the Council:  have also been given funding to provide extra buses where we are worried about social distancing space. From the start of the new academic year, we expect over 80 extra buses to be running with fewer children on board. Therefore we are confident that there will be enough space. If there are any problems, then we will work to fix them by providing alternative transport (not quite the assurance given below)The Council will also be changing the classification of some services from public use to dedicated school transport (see below). 
This article builds on one I published on the same theme last week and follows the subsequent publication of yet another government policy document, as the government attempts to head off the coming crisis in school transport. It is becoming ever clearer that Kent is at the sharp end of this with its many rural, faith and grammar schools requiring an unusually large network of school transport. Parents, please note this article does not contain advice on what to do if you have problems with securing appropriate school transport - I am sorry but I am not able to provide any at present because of the lack of hard information. However, I would welcome any examples of potential problems. 

The A-Level and GCSE exams fiascos are already highlighting considerable incompetence at the Department for Education. The same department is exacerbating the transport issues by having too many vague, unrealistic and unexamined ideas being pumped out at short notice for others to implement, in an attempt to head off the crisis. This latest government document shows that the load and responsibility on school leaders to deliver all they are required to do is out of all proportion to the resources they have available, although I am sure they will give it their best shot. The large majority of parents whose children need to travel on school transport will be dismayed to see the inevitable gap between government pipe dreams and practice. My previous article referred to the knock-on traffic problems of a large increase in car journeys as families switch away from public transport, but the proposal for  ‘implementing ‘safe streets’ policies outside schools’, whilst welcome to many,  is surely fraught with difficulties if introduced in time for the start of term. 

At the other end of the scale: ‘At a national level, at least 50% of journeys to school of 2 miles or less, and which are currently undertaken by public bus, need to switch to cycling and walking in order to make capacity available for those with longer journeys’, which arrives from the ivory tower without any clues as to how the obligation is to be achieved. 

Further article here following new Advice from the Government

Updated again 14th August, looking at the provision of bus services for 'The School Run' - and probably more to come in a fast-changing situation.

Government Policy
'It is our plan that all pupils, in all year groups, will return to school full-time from the beginning of the autumn term'.

Government Advice
'We expect that public transport capacity will continue to be constrained in the autumn term. Its use by pupils, particularly in peak times, should be kept to an absolute minimum'. 
' I am asking every staff member and student to plan now how they will get to school or college. If it is possible to walk or cycle, please do' (Secretary of State for Education)

I wholeheartedly support the government policy principle of encouraging all pupils to return to school in September, and those schools are working incredibly hard to deliver it. However, one of the many intractable Covid-19 related challenges facing some secondary schools and families when re-opening in September is that of pupil transport. Many Kent schools are especially vulnerable, for the county is rural in places with pupils having to travel long distances to their nearest school, and faith and grammar schools will also have pupils who travel considerable distance by public transport. Most readers will have seen or encountered the publicly accessible double-decker buses packed with pupils on their way to and from school in the past, but this won’t be the situation in September. For social distancing rules reduce the number of passengers on each bus by up to two thirds and there are not the spare buses at peak school times to compensate by increasing numbers.

We are now just three weeks away from the start of term and there is no sign of a solution to the potential transport chaos from too few buses and too many cars on the road at peak times. The government has recently released two documents covering the challenges, but with few solutions apart from £40 million in new (?) money mainly to enable students to use unidentified alternatives to public transport (answers on a postcard please!), and keeping fit by cycling, walking or using a scooter. KCC considers that: ‘the financial impact on bus services and operators has been significant so it could be that more services than usual are subject to change or cancellation. In addition, at the moment, operators are only able to let about half of the usual numbers of passengers on their buses and if this remains the case, then providing enough space for all passengers could (!) be a problem, and so students that can travel in a different way should do so at the moment’. This will inevitably have major knock-on effects, with a sharp increase in private traffic on the roads at key times. I have looked at several possible flashpoints below.

There is no doubt that unless there are considerable improvements to what is currently on offer, too many pupils will regularly miss large parts of the school day, with some not being able to make school at all.  It is difficult to see what they can do in the face of government threats to fine families whose children do not attend. However, they will not be alone as others will be in quarantine, or come from families simply frightened of the consequences of children mixing with others during the pandemic, which can of course peak again by then perhaps in local clusters. 

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