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Tuesday, 17 April 2018 21:56

Four Medway Secondary Academies abandon unlawful attempt to set Unfair Admission Criteria

Update: Developments since the article was written are in blue in this introduction. 
The Rochester Grammar School (RGS) and Holcombe Grammar School who are part of the Thinking Schools Academy Trust (TSAT), together with Hundred of Hoo Academy from the Williamson Trust, have withdrawn the sections in their 2019 proposed Admission Criteria that gave priority for admission to children of staff members of any school in the Trust, rather than just of their own school which would have been lawful. Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School and The Thomas Aveling School have withdrawn all unlawful elements of their proposals. 

This follows my previous article which made clear the proposals were unlawful (together with an objection lodged with TSAT), which is likely to have led to the change of policy. 

However, RGS and Holcombe have retained a section offering priority to siblings of any child in a secondary academy of the Trust, rather than their own school which appears equally unlawful, as does Brompton Academy. 

The government School Admissions Code, which carries the force of law, allows admission criteria for a school, as an exception, to give priority to ‘children of staff at the school’. However, it gives no leeway to extend this to children of staff at other schools in the Trust.

Rochester Grammar and Sir Joseph Williamson’s, both heavily oversubscribed, are also proposing to give priority to children who attend Trust Primary schools, which would not be an issue except for the high number of similar priorities now being offered by different schools, especially grammars, across Medway. This would result in considerable unfairness to children not in a Trust school, which is against the Code. I have covered this issue in my previous article.

Rochester Grammar has retained yet another priority in its now agreed admission policy that I consider unlawful (although it will be up to the Schools Adjudicator to rule on this) in that the school will accept the following as a priority:

Children who, at the time of the admission, have a sibling who attends the Academy (RGS) or any other TSAT secondary academy in Medway, i.e. The Victory Academy and Holcombe Grammar School.

There appears no logic for this, although the Admissions Code does give some exceptions to the rule, allowing siblings at other schools in specific cases. It lists as examples: ‘schools on the same site, or close links between two single sex schools’. Rochester is in a different town from Chatham, the site of the other two schools in the Trust, and has no close practical links with Holcombe, such as joint lessons or activities which would justify such an exception. Indeed, the ability range of the two schools is different with Rochester Grammar ‘super selective’ by its main admission criterion, recruiting without regard to geography, whilst Holcombe takes all who have passed the Medway Test, living nearest to the school.

RGS is highly selective and, admitting a small number of girls who may only have a bare pass to the highly pressured environment created in the school, puts them at considerable risk in my opinion. To admit such children who only have a peripheral connection with the school, thus depriving brighter girls who will therefore miss out because the pass mark becomes higher, is in any case clearly unfair and surely unlawful.

Holcombe Grammar School, which has been mired in controversy through poor decision making over the past year, lost its headteacher at Christmas, and is now run by an Executive Headteacher from Victory Academy; tried to correct the problem and failed in what is now a published legal document.

The school admission criteria state:

Children of staff employed by the Trust: following the criteria above, priority will be given to the child of a person (1) who has been employed by the Academy for two or more years at the time the application was made and/or (2) where the person was employed by the Trust to fill a vacant post for which there is a demonstrable skills shortage.”.

Someone has clearly been told to cut out the word ‘Trust’ and replace it by ‘Academy’ as happened for Rochester Grammar, but has only made one change instead of the three required. At best it now becomes ambiguous, at worst it appears that (2) applies to anyone employed by the Trust, not just at Holcombe which would have been allowable. This version is now set in regulation, unless overruled by an objection upheld by the Schools Adjudicator.

Further, Holcombe still retains the offending condition as at RGS:

'Children who, at the time of the admission, have a sibling who attends the Academy or any other TSAT secondary academy in Medway, i.e. The Rochester Grammar School and The Victory Academy', carrying the same objections.

What one can only call the slapdash approach by Holcombe Grammar, over and over again, clearly needs responsible leadership to change the school’s ethos. Let us hope that Victory Academy, now apparently with oversight of Holcombe can produce this.

This article is written in the context of the wider issue of 'land-grabs' by some if not most Medway Academy Trusts in, to my understanding a unique situation in the country. A number of these Trusts, especially those with grammar schools on board are seeking to bind primary schools to them by offering admission priority such that some parents will need to make preliminary decisions to secure a preferred secondary school for children at the age of four. See my previous article: The Unique Medway Secondary School Admission Lottery
It is clearly important that academies who appear to be acting in self-interest without considering the welfare of Medway children as a whole, are held to account to ensure they are acting lawfully and for the benefit of all children. Clearly one cannot rely on Medway Council for, as an example, in all four controversies at Holcombe the Council did not challenge any of them although three were subsequently overturned by higher authorities, or in one case simply failed.

Some may think I am-nit picking, but there are important principles at stake here. There is now limited accountability for academies as shown by too many examples on this website, so the legal rules become ever more important, as a minimum protection for children although surely there should be higher standards. One of many puzzles to me is that the Academy Trusts, with their host of highly paid executives, cannot give priority to ensuring their proposals are lawful, or is it that they are happy to simply test the system to find out what they can get away with, without challenge?

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2018 17:41

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