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Monday, 23 October 2017 22:51

Free School Policy failures create secondary school places crisis in both Thanet and Tunbridge Wells

Update: An article written in March, entitled 'Oversubscription and Vacancies in Kent Non-Selective Schools on Allocation for 2018' takes a closer look at the issues in Thanet and Tunbridge Wells, the latter being especially alarming.

Update 7 November
This article triggered a wider and more general look at pressures on school places across Kent and Medway on BBC SE this evening 

The problems in both areas have been caused by the failure of appropriate sponsors to come forward to adopt planned new schools. This is happening because of the seriously flawed government Free Schools process, which is now required to deliver all new schools.

Large temporary or permanent expansions of other local schools in these two Districts are now necessary to meet the shortfalls, which will inevitably cause a change of character in them, if indeed they give approval. The independence of academies means that KCC has no power to force them to take additional children, although it is legally responsible for the provision of sufficient places!  

Neither District had a single vacancy on allocation of places last March, in spite of Thanet schools managing to creating an additional 71 places to meet requirements, with a further estimated 183 places needed for 2018. New plans for a proposed Free School include a possible temporary base in Deal, 16 miles along the coast from 2019, if other places cannot be found locally for that year.  

In Tunbridge Wells, 190 temporary places have been proposed for 2018 if agreed by the schools concerned, with ongoing discussions for subsequent years. Unfortunately, the site for a proposed new Free School in TW has now been lost, and a replacement cannot be delivered until at least 2021, so the future looks very unclear.  

I expand on the proposals for the two Districts below….

Kent County Council has a rolling five year Schools Commissioning Plan, which sets out all its plans for new school places across the county, including the planning basis for these two Districts. One critical issue that is not discussed in the Plan, and which I don't look at below except for the Maidstone situation, is that of school transport. Many of the roads in both Districts already become completely clogged with traffic at school opening and closing times, and any expansions can only add to the difficulties. This has also led to Council Planning Approval delays in other parts of the county with several new Free School proposals.

Thanet (Cabinet Meeting Agenda, Reports Pack, Page 17).
Just two potential sponsors applied to sponsor a new Six Form Entry (6FE) Free School, planned for the site of the now closed Royal School for the Deaf in Margate for September 2019, but neither was approved by the DfE. The project has now been postponed until at least a 2020 opening.

For entry this September, the additional places provided were at: Royal Harbour Academy, 31 places; Ursuline College, 30 places; and St George’s CE Foundation School, 10 places. For Royal Harbour, 89 of the total 231 places offered were for children who hadn’t even applied for the school but were unable to get places elsewhere, as described in my previous article on allocations, where I described Thanet as ‘The most problematic district in Kent by some way’. Whilst the school was given an unplanned monitoring Inspection because of reported concerns, this gave it a clean bill of health. Confusingly, Royal Harbour Academy is not an academy, but a school managed by the Coastal Academies Trust. 

For 2018 entry, a 2FE Permanent extension to Ursuline College, the smallest of the Thanet non-selective schools with an admission number of 150, is being discussed, after two other schools had backed away from the idea. KCC will need to agree with other local schools for temporary expansions, but has no enforcement power, and one can think of at least one which could be severely damaged by being overextended.

For 2019, even if the Ursuline College proposal is approved, another 5FE of temporary expansion is needed, the KCC Paper describing this as ‘high risk’.

Alternatively, if approval for the new Free School were given for a date between 2019 through to 2021, the first cohorts could be housed in the now closed Walmer School premises, at the southern end of Deal, 16 miles along the coast. The concept of transporting the whole cohort daily for at least a year is likely to have a large and unpredictable effect on the ethos of a new school, let alone the significant transport costs. An additional problem is that according to the Code for School Admissions, the likelihood is that local Walmer children would have first priority, which may be attractive to them, given the unpopularity of the local SchoolsCompany Goodwin Academy. This would further undermine the project.

One potential problem with the Royal School for the Deaf site is that it is of limited size, so there would be no room for a Sixth Form. In one sense this is decreasing as an issue, as confirmed at the Cabinet Meeting by Mr Leeson, Corporate Director of Education. For small school Sixth Forms are becoming increasingly financially unviable, with a number of other non-selective schools having already closed down their Sixth Forms, although this surely damages their attraction for some families.  

None of these proposals fully address new housing developments already in the pipeline, that can only increase the pressure on places, so that KCC is already exploring possibilities for a second new Thanet secondary school, even though the first one is not yet confirmed.

Tunbridge Wells (Cabinet Meeting Agenda, Reports Pack, Page 31).
Planning for secondary school places in West Kent is especially difficult, with children crossing the County boundary in both ways. 105 out of county children were offered places in TW schools for this September, mostly to The Bennett Memorial Diocesan School (religious selective school) and The Skinners School (super-selective grammar), and around 80 crossing the boundary in the opposite direction to local East Sussex schools.

Plans for a new Free School in TW to open in September 2019 included the stage of a site being identified, but fell because there were no applications at all for sponsorship. Government policy on land acquisition changed and, as a result the proposed site was lost, putting plans right back to the beginning. Further delays in the government programme mean that a new school cannot come on stream before September 2021 at the earliest, leaving a massive hole in provision.

Whilst no extra places were needed for September 2017, every TW school was full on allocation, omitting High Weald Academy in Cranbrook, but technically in TW District.

For September 2018 the following arrangements are proposed but are not all necessarily finalised. 

Temporary Places 2018
Bennett Memorial 60
St Gregory's Catholic 60
TW Grammar for Boys 60
Skinners 10

As noted above, there is no guarantee these places would all go to Kent children. The hope for Tunbridge Wells Boys Grammar is that they don’t fill the extra places with out of county children, as each year there are a good number of successful local admission appeals, with some strong cases always getting through - 34% of appeals being upheld in 2017.

For 2019, 4.3 FE permanent places are needed and proposed, some of which would consolidate the above temporary expansions, which will all mean a commitment to permanent building. In addition, a further 120  temporary places are needed. 2FE of the permanent expansion is likely to be at Bennett Memorial, already under consultation, but which would certainly dilute the current strong Christian requirement for most admissions. Any new building is of course not just to cover the Year 7 intake, but over time needs to take in seven years of intake to cover the whole time students may be at the school. In this case it would amount to around 14 new classrooms along with specialist rooms, which requires considerable land although it does bring the opportunity to provide new facilities for the school without the need to find additional funding.

The Paper is silent on any other thoughts for the next two years and, with just three non-selective schools in the town, all Academies, one can only speculate which of these schools will agree to contribute to a further major expansion year on year, which will inevitably change their character.

In nearby Tonbridge the Judd School, a super-selective grammar, which just five years ago had an Admission Number of 120 boys, is taking an additional temporary form of entry this year, taking it up 180.  (Please note the next sentence contains a correction on the original version, as I double counted the temporary expansion). It is proposed this becomes permanent in 2019, seeing the size of the school increase by 50% over this period, but with a permanent expansion comes capital funding for the  expanded school. It has already changed the character of its intake to give priority mainly to Kent boys, each expansion inevitably seeing the high level of selectivity decrease a little. The three increases to the West Kent boys' grammar schools will both keep the ratio of selective to non-selective places close across West Kent, but also right the balance between boys’ and girls’ grammar provision after the opening of the Sevenoaks Annexe for girls this summer. Is it an acknowledgement that, given the current weakness of government, it may now be impossible to force through a change to expand the Sevenoaks Annexe to become co-educational? 

Maidstone School of Science and Technology (MSST)
Most of the above proposals fall under the government's Basic Need funding scheme, which is badly behind schedule. However new Free Schools can also be funded outside this scheme under a separate competitive funding mechanism. One such is the proposed MSST, originally planned to be opened in September 2017.
This proposal has been put forward by the Valley Invicta Academy Trust, which runs Valley Park School and Invicta Grammar School on adjacent large sites at a right-angled bend on Huntsman’s Lane in Maidstone, a not particularly wide residential road. The plan is for the new school to be on the same site, which would mean some 4,000 children converging on this spot daily when the school is fully occupied. It is not surprising that Maidstone Council has serious issues with granting Planning Approval as described by the Trust in a recent letter to prospective parents earlier this month. This informs them that the proposed opening date has now slipped to at least September 2019. Unsurprisingly, the planning issue is to do with traffic and access, with Maidstone District Council estimating the cost of new infrastructure at some million pounds to be paid for by the Trust. The Trust’s position is explained in the letter.


Last modified on Friday, 27 April 2018 12:02

1 comment

  • Comment Link Monday, 30 October 2017 17:36 posted by Donald

    So by 2020 there will be a shortage of places in the three NS schools in Tunbridge Wells and little prospect of sufficient extra places. What happens then? PETER: Indeed! KCC has responsibility but does not have the powers to resolve this.

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