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Thursday, 01 February 2018 08:53

School Vacancies according to the 2017 School Census for Kent and Medway

As schools come under tighter financial pressures (never mind official news, but ask your local school how it is managing), pupil numbers become ever more critical as they generate the largest part of the income of each school. This article looks at a number of issues in Kent and Medway highlighted by the October 2017 schools census. 

Which seven Kent secondary schools have more than 40% of their Year 7 places empty for September 2017? 

Which four of these were more than half empty in Year 7 for 2016, with two over 40% for all of the past three years?

Which secondary school lost over a third of its cohort Years 7-11?

Which two secondary schools, one in Kent one in Medway, lost over a fifth of their cohort Years 9-11,
a pattern associated with off-rolling.  

Which six grammar schools lost over 20% of their pupils at the end of Year Eleven?

What happened after last year’s Year 12 expulsion scandal at Invicta Grammar and elsewhere?

Which six primary schools (two in Medway) failed to fill half their places for each of the last two years?

Answers to these questions and more below.

Non-selective schools with vacancies.
For some years I have tracked schools with fewer than 60% of their Year Seven places filled. All but one of those appearing more than once in my list have closed after running out of money or pupils or both. THese are: Malowe Academy: Chaucer Technology College; Oasis Academy Hextable; and Pent Valley School. The one exception is High Weald Academy in Cranbrook, with just 40% of its Year Seven places being filled this year, according ot the October 2017 school census, 48% in 2016, and 32% in 2015. It also has the fourth highest drop out rate in the county (see others below) losing nearly a fifth of the Year 7 intake which fed into the latest Year 11 cohort of just 58 pupils, who left the school. For 2018 admissions, the number of first choices is down to 40, from 66 in 2017, so the future looks even bleaker.

It has a regular turn-over of headteachers, as the Brook Learning Trust which runs it tries without success to come up with a solution to keeping Cranbrook children in their local school. As far back as 2012, its occupancy rate was just 38% in Year 7. The main concern if it were to close is where the remaining local children would go to school, with no other secondary school nearby.

Brook Learning Trust also runs two other schools, both in the five emptiest, Ebbsfleet Academy and Hayesbrook in Tonbridge. All three have a high ‘wastage’ rate of pupils who joined the school in Year 7, suggesting that the key issue is with the Trust leadership. The previous CEO left the Trust in December 2016. None of these schools is in an area of high deprivation, where problems tend to be highest.   

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I have looked at the reasons for Ebbsfleet Academy’s unpopularity  with families previously, including my article on Tough Love Academies. The school is situated in a high housing growth area, but this appears to make no difference, all the other Dartford schools bulging at the seams. The school filled 57% of its places, but sees pupils leaving for other schools or Home Education at a high rate. The current Year 11 has lost a quarter of its Year Seven intake, the second highest figure in the county. 4% of all the children in the school chose Home Education from September 2015 – Easter 2017 (the latest period I have at present), the highest rate in Kent.

The problem at Hayesbrook School, 52% of places filled and third emptiest, is more difficult to pin down, although this is an improvement on 2016 when just 40% of places were filled. Signs are that 2018 promises even less, with 55 first preferences for 2018 admission, down even from the 61 of 2018 and, at 36% of capacity is third lowest proportion in Kent (lowest is High Weald at 27%). Academically the school is one of the highest performing Kent non-selective schools, year on year, much better than its rival Hugh Christie which is as usual, full or nearly full. The previous headteacher appeared to be making an impact on cracking the problem but was discarded. Perhaps another new head appointed last September will make a difference.

Second highest proportion of vacancies in Year Seven is at Holmesdale School, in Snodland, with just 45% of its places filled, a sharp fall from the 79% of 2016, but reflective of other negative factors at the school. GCSE Progress Levels are amongst the worst in Kent, well below average, and below the Government Floor Standard, at which intervention can take place. The School website advertises this as We are celebrating huge improvements in our GCSE results today’. Even more tellingly, Holmesdale had lost 34% of its Year 7 roll by the time they reached Year 11, according to the 2017 census, by some way the highest figure in the county, and well above Ebbsfleet, next on 24%. Some years ago when the school was very popular it joined in Federation with the then struggling Malling School, presumably to support it. Today, the situation is completely reversed, with Malling heavily oversubscribed with 214 first choices for its 159 places for 2018 entry, and Holmesdale down to 75 first preferences for 180 places (although up on last year’s disastrous 67).

New Line Learning Academy, part of the Future Schools Academy Trust, continues to limp along with just over half its places, at 52% filled in Year 7, although this is an improvement on 2016s’s 48%. The school has always struggled to throw off a negative image since it was formed in 2007 by merging two persistently failing schools. Future Schools Trust was one of the first multi academy Trusts in Kent incorporating NLL with Cornwallis Academy, then a very successful oversubscribed school. It was set up with an expansive ambition, but has only added the nearby Tiger Free School, a sign that government does not have confidence in the Trust to award it more schools. Cornwallis declined sharply in performance and popularity and the Trust was served with a Pre-Warning Notice for both schools in November 2015 because of low standards, with redacted items suggesting major problems with leadership. Cornwallis has made some improvement and was awarded a Good Ofsted grading reflecting the changes made by a new headteacher, but this remains puzzling as the school achieved a Progress 8 Grade of -0.51 at GCSE this summer, well below average, fifth worst in Kent and below the floor level at which government can intervene. In December 2016, the Cornwallis Notice was lifted, but NLL was served with a full Warning Notice , although its Progress 8 scores were much improved in the Summer 2017 GCSEs. The number of first choices for 2018 at 85, has improved over 2017s 75. On allocation in March 2017, it was awarded 146 children for its 210 places, but 50 of these who had not even applied to the school were allocated by KCC . A major problem for both schools in Maidstone is the grammar school appeal process. For admission in September, grammar schools were allocated around 200 additional children  for places through appeals, the large majority of whom would have come from local non-selective schools. Pecking order then takes over in the non-selectives for the spaces that have been created, and pupils shuffle up through the schools from those at the bottom, Cornwallis and NLL each losing about 50 pupils.  

Astor College, Dover, has filled 57% of its Year 7 places, down from 62% in 2016, with numbers have been falling year on year for at least five years, as the other two Dover non-selective schools have risen. This is another school that has received both a Pre-Warning Notice and a Warning Notice, with unacceptable standards and poor leadership being criticised. A controversial Ofsted two years ago did not help. Astor had one of the worst Progress 8 results in the county for GCSE in 2017, at -0.51, classified as Well Below Average, and below the floor level at which government can intervene. Strangely and falsely, the legally binding Annual Report of the Dover Federation from the Trustees, published in August 2017, claims on page 8 that the school's Progress 8 score was -0.22, supported by 32% of pupils achieving English and Maths at GCSE, the latter claim being meaningless without a level being given for the GCSE. Apparently this shows the college is performing 'extremely well' and is 'well within the tolerance level of Progress 8'. An astonishingly tolerant level! In yet another false claim, the Annual Report states that 'Astor has experienced a rise in intake this year (2017/18) because of marketing and publicity', when it is actually down by 5%. The Report also notes 'There is a risk of reputational damage caused by inadequate understanding of the context of our schools by Ofsted which could lead to unfair outcomes and reports. Reputational damage is also a risk from an event outside the control of Directors'. 

The school has had close links with the controversial Duke of York’s Royal Military School which supported it from 2010 through a formal agreement which was concluded in February 2017, Astor being a National Challenge school at the start. Oddly, the Executive Head of Astor, together with support staff, ran Duke of York’s as Executive Principal between 2012 round to February 2017. I understand that investigations into DOYRMS are continuing. The school considered its falling rolls are partly due to negative publicity according to its 2016 accounts, which has impacted on its financial situation which is apparently to be resolved partly by future rising rolls! Currently, the school has a Pension Deficit of £4.3 million, and unlike other Trusts with with deficits, no obvious plan for eliminating it. 

Lenham School (previously Swadelands) has had a chequered past, having been placed in Special Measures twice in 2008 and 20015, both as a KCC school. It suffers from its geography, having to attract pupils from South East Maidstone and North Ashford to make up numbers, which fell whenever it received negative publicity. It finally became an academy last March, sponsored by the Valley Invicta Academy Trust, and has seen its first choice numbers rise from 72 in 2017 to 95 for this year, a sign that it is winning back confidence. It filled 59% of its places in September, well up from 39% in 2016. However, reports of VIAT encouraging low performing pupils, especially those with SEN issues to leave part way through their course may be valid, with a 21% fall in numbers between October 2015 and October 2017 from the current Year 11 who will no longer figure in GCSE performance this summer. This is the highest percentage in Kent and  is consistent with the practice of off-rolling described in an article I wrote based on January 2017 figures. 

Up to this point in the article, no Medway schools have featured in the data I have looked at, but the Hundred of Hoo School lost 23% of its current Year 11 cohort from those in Year 9 two years ago, which also fits the off-rolling pattern. Two other schools lost over 15% of their cohort over this period, Aylesford School and Oasis Isle of Sheppey Academy.

Grammar Schools
Last January I published an article which unrolled into a national scandal, when I reported that Invicta Grammar in Maidstone had lost 26 students, or 15% of the cohort, at the end of Year 12, many being barred from entry to Year 13, in order to improve the school’s A Level performance. The large number of comments at the foot of the article page bear testimony to the heartless way these students were forced out of the school and the difficulties many of them had in finding an alternative way forward.   Eventually, in September, the Department for Education declared the process illegal on a national basis. Also, with AS Levels being scrapped for last summer, meaning that it was in any case more difficult to set assessment requirements to filter entrants into Year 13, it is no surprise that the staying on rate Year 12 to Year 13 has increased substantially. It is impossible to examine non-selective schools in the same way, because they normally run a mixture of one and two year courses.
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Even so, three grammar schools in Kent and Medway out of 37 shed more than 10% of their Year 12 students before going onto Year 13 this summer, headed by the controversial Holcombe Grammar in Medway, which lost an astonishing 22% of its Year 12 students. It was followed by Barton Court in Canterbury with 13%, and Dover Boys Grammar with 11%. Invicta Grammar, having clearly changed its policy as a result of the negative publicity, saw just 5% of its students leave at the end of Year 12, a figure which may be explicable through student choice.

Most families whose children start at grammar school anticipate their following through to Sixth Form. Nevertheless, some pupils have had enough of school, or in many cases more specifically their school, after GCSE or else are prevented from following A Level courses by ever increasing academic requirements as once again schools chase top grades. This blocks the many students who are perfectly capable of following A Level courses through for moderate grades which would have stood them in good stead for higher education or a career. The data is muddled as some grammars also seek to attract good A Level prospects from other schools, the most extreme examples being Dartford Grammar whose Year 12 expanded by 140 high performing students, many drawn from SE London, and Simon Langton Boys with 93, many of whom will have come from the other two Canterbury grammar schools.

Conversely, six grammar schools lost over 20% of their pupils after GCSE this summer, headed by Folkestone School for Girls with 29% of their girls departing. They are followed by Dover Boys 27%, Barton Court 24%, Norton Knatchbull 23% ,and Chatham Girls Grammar and Harvey Grammar at 21%.

Primary Schools
At primary level eleven schools in Kent and Medway have more than half of their Year R places empty, mainly small village schools, so this can simply be a property of small numbers of children in the area. Brenzett Primary only managing to attract six pupils for its 20 places. Brenzett, West Kingsdown, Halstead (all of whom have had a a chequered past), and Ramsgate Arts Free School, together with All Hallows in Medway had more than half their places empty in each of the past two years. 
Final Thoughts
Each school which is struggling for numbers has its own story. An extreme example is All Hallows Primary, which is at the north end of the rural Hoo Peninsula, with little if any opportunity to recruit from a wider geographical. area.  Note the number of times leadership issues come up in schools struggling for numbers, either with the school management or the governance or both. Schools like New Line Learning have a very difficult task as other more popular and successful schools fill up any vacancies from them. This also has the effect of, leaving the school to absorb children moving into the area who too often bring with them a poor or non-existent educational background.  A 'Tough Love' approach does not work on the evidence of the three Kent schools I have covered. At least one of the schools above appears self-delusional. 
An Ofsted failure, where there are alternative schools, can be a disaster in terms of recruitment. However, Swadelands is the only secondary school listed above to suffer this fate. At primary level, each of Brenzett, Halstead and West Kingsdown have all been down that route, along with a number of other schools just above my chosen cut off. 
I have not given much time to primary schools in this article, all much smaller institutions than the secondaries. This is partly because with over 400 schools it is difficult to have a knowledge of more than a few of them. However, there remains no doubt, from reading Ofsted Reports and contacts with parents, that poor leadership is or has been a major factor of unpopularity in many of them.  
Grammar school issues tend to fit into three categories. Firstly, there are the high pressure schools such as Invicta Grammar and Barton Court, where some children, often girls, have had enough and look for an alternative where they can rebuild their confidence.  Secondly the areas of social deprivation, such as Dover and Folkestone, where grammar schools still  admit a high proportion of children who can cope up to GCSE and achieve their grades, but do not see themselves, or else the school does not see them, as making a success of A Level. Thirdly, epitomised by Holcombe Grammar, schools that perhaps overachieve at GCSE, but encourage students on to A Level who should probably be advised to try an alternative to A Level.
Final, Final Thought
Given the rate  of attrition of headteachers in many of these schools, especially in Multi-Academy Trusts, which good teacher is going to place their whole career in jeopardy by taking on the job of headteacher? All praise to those who do. Unfortunately, some will still lose their jobs because of the short term demands of those in charge. 


Last modified on Friday, 28 December 2018 20:56


  • Comment Link Tuesday, 06 February 2018 20:40 posted by Matt Taylor

    Academic performance is just one aspect of a school. It is encouraging when parents look beyond headline figures which often are misleading in the Kent non selective system.

    Hugh Christie and Hayesbrook are both good schools and arguably rivals, located at opposite ends of Tonbridge. Both offer boys a different type of school and provide excellent choices. I know children at Hugh Christie who have excelled well beyond expectations.

    The issue for Hayesbrook, I suspect, is more to do with the increased popularity of Tunbridge Wells non selectives and extra capacity from Hadlow and Trinity Free Schools keeping children local rather than some 'issue'. Hayesbrook are simply squeezed, not helped by unreliable bus services and increased cost of the Kent Freedom bus pass that must put parents off. PETER: The church schools in TW and Sevenoaks are all heavily oversubscribed, and so not easily accessible to those Tonbridge children who are not worshippers at a church. Skinners Kent Academy is heavily oversubscribed with local TW children. Hadlow College only admits 90, many of whom will not have come from Tonbridge, and the problem pre-dates the opening of Hadlow College, so I am afraid I don't accept this part of your argument. For 2018 admission, Hayesbrook 55 first choices, Hugh Christie 130. It is clear that Tonbridge families are voting heavily against Hayesbrook, with buses providing as easy access to either school, if anything making Hayesbrook more convenient because of location.

  • Comment Link Monday, 05 February 2018 23:33 posted by Jenny R

    We have applied for a place for our son at Holmesdale and are now worried. Why do so many families take their children away? PETER: I don't know I am afraid; I just report the facts and there clearly is a problem at Holmesdale. Any answers to help Jenny please?

  • Comment Link Monday, 05 February 2018 20:55 posted by EmmaK

    It's possibly not as straightforward as that. Hayesbrook is highlighted as having significantly lower pupil numbers than its Tonbridge rival Hugh Chrsitie, despite presenting with apparent superior academic achievements, which are above average for Kent. That hardly fits the stereotypical profile of a poor school. PETER: I did not say it was a poor school, However, it is clearly unpopular in spite of its higher exam performance. I ask again. Does anyone know why?

  • Comment Link Saturday, 03 February 2018 09:57 posted by John

    Wow! There must be some worried schools in Kent who hoped this would never get out. Parents are voting with their feet to avoid poor schools.

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