Supporting Families
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Peter Read

One of Kent County Council’s major responsibilities is education, so I have surveyed the local political parties literature to find out their priorities before Thursday's Council election. Of particular interest to me are the catch-up arrangements for children disadvantaged by Covid, the failed Kent SEND department as described in the 2019 Ofsted Report, the shortage of non-selective places in various parts of the county, the flawed grammar school selection process penalising disadvantaged Kent children, and policy with regard to the fresh government academisation drive.

The Conservatives, in their eight-page leaflet consider that: ‘When development does happen, our infrastructure first policy means that schools, GP surgeries, open spaces and transport links are planned before housing’. Otherwise silence, although I have tried several times without response for more information such as a manifesto. In other words, and sadly, Kent Conservatives do not appear to think education important enough to ask voters to pass an opinion on their past record, nor on any plans for the future.

Wednesday, 28 April 2021 07:57

Further Change at the Top in KCC Education

The following article is based on a contribution from a serving Kent headteacher.

Who’s the Boss? may have been a sitcom from the eighties but, at the moment, we could be forgiven for trying to work out what is happening within Kent Education Leadership. 

Headteachers used to the nature and level of support provided by David Adams whilst he was AEO for the south of Kent were, on the whole I believe, pleased to see him take up the position of Interim Director of Education when Keith Abbott moved on. However, they now have to learn the ways of a permanent post holder in the form of Christine McInnes. Christine, formerly Tower Hamlets Director of Education and Partnerships, with a background in Special Education, formally introduced herself last week along with Mark Walker, ‘recently’ appointed Director of SEND in the first of their joint newsletters.

Please Note: The front page of this website, at the time of publication of this article, contains the usual six articles but all about Medway matters. This is unique and purely a coincidence, with the large majority of items on subsequent pages relating to Kent schools and education issues, the county having six times the population of Medway. 

 The major news is that the new Leigh Academy Rainham (LAR) is opening in September offering 240 places, 60 more than the planned 180, whilst the second new non-selective (N/S) school coming on stream, the Maritime Academy to be based in Strood will, not open until at least 2022, several years behind schedule, see below.

Leigh Academy Rainham 2

As the new Rainham School is not in the Medway Co-ordinated Admissions scheme for its first year, many parents will have applied for and been allocated two schools, so there will be up to 240 vacancies appearing at the 17 existing schools for September, as parents release one of their offers. This is nearly 10% of the total, so that some schools, primarily the least popular and those in the east of Medway will see a large number of vacancies opening up. Add on to that, the 70 or so children likely to be successful at Medway grammar school appeals. What then happens next is what I call the ‘churning’ effect, where the more popular schools that lose pupils then fill up again from ones further down the line, probably working from east to west. It is therefore important that, if you haven't been offered your highest choice N/S school, you apply to go on the waiting list for this and any other schools higher on your preference list than the one you have been offered. Last year there were also 135 admission appeals heard at five Medway non-selective schools, 53 of those being successful, taking pupils from less popular schools

 I understand that Medway Council, which is also handling the process for LAR, has required parents to accept just one offer and is writing to those with two to require them to relinquish one. I believe the current table of offers below, although some way from the final outcome, still gives a reasonable guide to outcomes, identifying the schools at both ends of the range.

 I also look below at a range of other matters that have a bearing on the take-up of places, including ooc offers, appeals, fair banding, and concluding with a look at the outcomes for each individual school.

The pattern of offers at Medway grammar schools for entry in September closely follows that for September 2020, which I looked at previously here. All schools apart from Chatham have filled. The main changes in popularity are the significant falls in first choices at Chatham, Holcombe and Rochester (all regularly featured in news items on this site). Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School (The Math) continues to be by far the most oversubscribed grammar school, turning away 108 first choices. There were also reductions in girls’ places at Rochester Grammar, which took some £3 million pounds from the Government Expansion Fund in 2018, to create additional places in exchange for a greater priority for children attracting Pupil Premium, and Chatham Grammar.

SJWMS1

By coincidence, the number of Medway children found selective after the Medway selection process for entry to grammar school in 2021 was almost identical to that for the previous year with 386 boys (385 in 2019) and 438 girls in both years found suitable for grammar school.  This continues the annual bias towards girls being found selective. In total there are 505 places for girls but only 355 for boys available this year in the five single-sex Medway grammar schools, as well as 235 at the co-educational Rainham Mark Grammar. There are places for every local Medway grammar qualified pupil but, as in previous years, chances at appeal for local boys in any school are likely to be very low. 210 children living outside Medway have been offered local grammar school places out of 1045 in total. This amounts to 20%, a fifth of all the places offered, see below.

Update, 19th April: Welcome news: It appears that Mrs Woolmer,  the much-loved Head of Reception at Halling who left the school at the end of last term, has been persuaded to return by the new management. This morning, the first day of term, she opened the school gate for children. What an important signal that things are changing for the better. 

I begin with an apology to all those followers who have no special interest in Medway primary schools, although my recent articles about Fairview and Halling both have considerably wider implications than for the two schools themselves. At Fairview, as far I can establish, this is the first time that a Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC) has rejected an application for academy status anywhere in the country in recent years. It now looks increasingly likely that this decision was primarily because the RSC recognised a rogue Governing Body, as explained here.

Halling

However, this article is about the second school, Halling Primary, part of the Cliffe Woods Academy Trust. After the RSC had arranged for an investigation into the running of the school at the request of the Trust, this took place in the last week of the Easter Term and, on Friday last, parents were sent a joint letter from the Chairs of the Cliffe Woods Trust and of the Halling Governing Body. This letter informed them that the headteacher of the school ‘has taken some time away from school for personal reasons’, and the responsibilities residing with the headteacher position will be shared, at least through Term Five, by two other primary school headteachers.

I have documented the issues through three previous articles, most recently here, and so this article unpicks some of the content of the letter. It is unlikely we will be told the precise reasons for Miss Selmi’s absence from the school, although we know it will be for at least the next term.

 I have been given correspondence through an FOI request to Medway Council that shreds the competence and integrity of the Governing Body (GB) of Fairview Community Primary School. It shows that this would have been the central problem with the Fairview application to become an academy, as part of the Westbrook Trust, last year.

This is best illustrated by the report of a School Challenge and Improvement Visit in March 2020, conducted by a Medway Council officer, although the issues recur in various emails. You will find the full report here, with a major excerpt below but, in summary, a meeting with 17 members of staff raised multiple issues about relationships between them and governors. These demonstrated that the GB was failing them, the school and the local community on all counts.

Other correspondence covers matters such as conflicts of interest, failure to follow procedures to the extent that the Chairman was wrongly elected at a meeting that was improperly convened, and evidence of members of the GB trying to force the school to join the Westbrook Trust, all with an evident complete lack of interest in the views of staff and the local community. I have never before come across such a siege mentality, arrogance and level of incompetence as in the Fairview governing body. The continued failure to communicate with parents as promised emphasises this failure.  

Remarkably, the school appears to continue to operate successfully and smoothly, run by its three leaders from the Compass Partnership of Schools, independently of the Governing Body, although all three are scheduled to leave in the summer when the Compass contract expires. 

There is good news for most Kent families applying for reception class places in primary schools this year with 89.2% of families offered their first choice school, slightly up on the 2020 figure. Whilst, sadly, there are still 398 children with no school of their choice, this is the lowest number for at least the last ten years.

97.7% of families have been offered one of their three choices, the same percentage as in 2018, but higher than other recent years.  Most of these details are contained in the 2021 Kent Primary Press Release.  However, one factor behind the good news is the fall in the number of Kent children offered places at a Kent primary school down to 17,116, the lowest figure since 2014.

In Medway, more than 91% of children have again been offered their first choice school, the highest percentage for at least eight years (surely worth mentioning in the press release!) with over 97% being offered a school on their application form. In total there was a fall of 148 in the number of pupils offered places from 2020, with a total of 3491. Every child from Medway who applied on time was offered a place. There were 112 applicants from outside Medway. Most of these details are contained in the  2021 Medway Primary Press Release, very thin as usual on detail.   

You will also find below information and advice on possible next steps, together with appeals, also below and here. In summary, if your school is one of the overwhelming majority where Infant Class Legislation applies, I am afraid that chances of success are negligible. 

There was only a small increase of 37 in the number of Kent primary pupils allocated places at secondary schools this year but with 267 additional secondary places created. This leaves 724 empty spaces, a 5.1% vacancy rate overall, well up on last year's 3.5%. As a result, across the county, there were few extra pressure points in Non-Selective (N/S) schools. Key areas were Canterbury, Gravesham and Sevenoaks which had just five vacancies across their 15 schools, but Ashford, Dartford, Swale and Thanet all have localised problems created by polarisation of choices. Unfortunately, misleading information by KCC appears to hide a large shortage of places in Tunbridge Wells (TW). The converse problem exists in Thanet, where KCC is promoting an unnecessary new school in Margate.

The unpopularity of Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey with its 108 Local Authority Allocations has propelled Fulston Manor and Westlands to the top of the oversubscription table.  These two schools are followed by Knole Academy, Meopham School, St George's CofE Foundation (Broadstairs) and the recently opened Stone Lodge School. Most of the others were also present in the table last year, apart from newly arrived Canterbury Academy, the new School of Science and Technology Maidstone (SSTM), The Lenham School and Skinners Kent Academy

There are 393 OOC children offered places in non-selective schools across the county, Knole Academy, Homewood School and Bennett Memorial Diocesan School all offering over 50 places to OOC children, with 252 travelling the other way 

The schools struggling to attract pupils are also broadly the same as last year, in most cases propped up by Local Authority Allocations of children who have not been offered more popular schools. 

I explore all these matters further, below, together with a survey of allocation patterns in each of Kent's Districts.

Update 18th April: The Disgraceful Behaviour of the Governors of Fairview Primary School (Part Two)

This article considers the appointment of a new Headteacher for Fairview Community Primary School, a process that is lasting for just three and a half weeks, from posting the advertisement to concluding the interviews at a school whose status in September is unknown. The only way this is not madness is if Medway Council and the Governing Body already know who they are going to appoint. Why would anyone else apply?

In my previous article about Fairview a month ago, I reported on a letter from the Board, dated 24th February, that ‘Governors will now carry out a ‘period of reflection in which they will take this opportunity to respond to the most frequently raised themes highlighted, including Academic Standards, transparency and the question of why The Westbrook Trust with more regular communication’. 

This regular communication amounts to a brief letter from the Chairman of Governors, dated the last day of term, informing parents that a permanent headteacher is to be appointed, without mentioning any of these promised themes. The job advertisement fails to mention the rather important point that the school is planning to academise with the Westbrook Trust and so the successful candidate could be removed if their face doesn’t fit. This is either gross incompetence or alternatively, with interviews set for just three days after the closing date for applications, the whole thing is a disgraceful fix! This article finishes with four important questions to which parents need to know the answers. 

Update, 26th April: This article has attracted enormous interest including enquiries from national media!  I cannot, therefore, resist adding two additions below.

Daniel Smith, the controversial new 'tough-love' Headteacher of Pimlico Academy appointed in September and now engaged in a battle attracting national media coverage,  was previously employed at the notorious Ebbsfleet Academy in North Kent for four years from September 2013, ending as Associate Principal. This was also a tough-love school, under its Principal Alison Colwell, who made the school’s approach crystal clear when she left the school in 2019, publicly blaming white working-class parents for her difficulties.

By coincidence, I also wrote about Mr Smith back in 2013 when he was an Assistant Principal at The Quest Academy in Croydon, on the occasion when he sent an email to a parent at Swan Valley School (subsequently Ebbsfleet Academy). The parent was politely questioning Swan Valley about the principle of a very restrictive home school agreement insisted on by the school, the email  (excerpt reproduced below) unlawfully threatening her with the possibility of applying for a court-imposed parenting order under the Academy’s Code of Conduct if she would not sign it. The school was not even an academy at that time so could not have had such a Code of Conduct. 

Mr Smith subsequently took up a post at Swan Valley, which continued the policy of threatening legal action for ‘difficult’ parents as it developed its tough-love policies. The unfortunate consequences of these are outlined in various articles, typically here, which also demonstrate that the many claims about its success were false and that confrontational leadership does not work, as is also apparent in the current drama at Pimlico. A recent letter to parents underlines the warning signs seen even before the start of the Autumn term when he took up post: 'We were suspicious when we received Daniel Smith’s new policies a week before the start of autumn term, but curious to see how they would be received. As the first isolated showers of exclusions turned into a storm, we started to get very worried….'

If Mr Smith is forced out, as seems increasingly likely, it will not be the fault of the students, but of those who mistakenly appointed him. 

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