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Tuesday, 15 June 2021 06:05

Swale Crisis in Non-Selective School Places

There is an immediate crisis of accommodation in the three Sittingbourne non-selective (N/S) schools, which are overwhelmed with families trying to access them and avoid Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey. I gave a summary in my article on 2021 admissions to Kent N/S schools here, but now have further detail. For families, the chilling news is that by 2023, even when all of the vacant Oasis places are filled with Sittingbourne children, there won’t be enough Year Seven school spaces for local children across the area. KCC’s vague solution is to ‘continue to press for access to the North Sittingbourne (Quinton Road) development to establish a new 6FE secondary school to meet the future need from the population growth and new housing developments’, but with no sense of urgency nor sign of achieving anything.

I am now told that KCC forgot to allocate some children with Education and Health Care Plans to Swale schools before allocations were made this year, which is the correct procedure, but instead gave them to the Sittingbourne schools afterwards. The result is that numbers became even more swollen, especially at Fulston Manor which received eleven extra pupils in this way. Unsurprisingly with these pressures, not one of the 68 appeals heard for a place at Fulston Manor was successful and, looking at the tremendously strong appeal defence for Westlands, I doubt if there will be much more success there, or indeed at The Sittingbourne School.

The article concludes with a look at the delays in setting up England's first Secure School, to be run by Oasis in Rochester. 

The Problem
Fulston Manor and Westlands are the two most oversubscribed N/S schools in Kent, turning away 244 first choices between them. The third town school, The Sittingbourne School, turned away just four first choices but many families put it as second or third choice, hence the large number of appeals reported for the school. This is on top of 45 additional places awarded at Westlands and 30 at Sittingbourne this year to try and alleviate the pressure. Westlands has coped with its expansion over recent years by installing ten mobile classrooms and has now persuaded KCC to replace them with a permanent teaching block. However, this does not increase capacity, and the school appeal defence statement is absolutely clear: ‘To provide as many places for local children as possible the school agreed to take extra pupils for the 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 intake. An agreement has been made with the Local Authority to accept 330 pupils on national offer day. We consider this number to be an absolute maximum. We could have chosen to remain at 285, but chose to work in partnership with the Local Authority and take what we believed to be the morally correct course of action’. Together with the remainder of a powerful defence statement, I cannot see many Appeal Panels going against this, however strong the case.

Meanwhile, Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey had 128 of its 390 places empty on allocation before it accepted 108 Local Authority Allocated children, the second-highest LAA figure for any school since I began keeping records, and a fall of over a third in its numbers since Oasis took over the school. KCC identified a site for a new Sittingbourne school as long ago as 2016, but the latest plan, for 2021-25 contains no sense of urgency whatsoever.

Families may still be tempted with a late look at Rainham School for Girls and The Howard School just over the order into Medway, which have lost pupils to the new Leigh Academy Rainham, as explained here.

The table below, taken from the Commissioning Plan for Education Provision in Kent 2021-2025 (page 122 if it is too small in the reproduction) clearly shows the crisis is now. The row of numbers in red, indicating deficits in places, is by some way the highest in the county according to the Plan. The table shows that this year there will have been a deficit of 140 Year Seven places in Sittingbourne,  without taking into account the strong pressure from Sheppey families seeking places on the mainland. There is no indication in the plan of any extra accommodation expected over the next four years, with a peak of 176 occurring in 2023.

Swale Year 7 Data 1

 Oasis (1)
Numbers at Oasis have remained fairly steady in the last few years, held up by local children unable to gain access to mainland schools,  and mainland children awarded places, unable to get into Sittingbourne schools. However, it is a sharp fall from the numbers in October 2012, just before Oasis took over, when the statutory roll (Years 7-11) was 1961 pupils, with 285 more in the Sixth Form. Eight years later in October 2020, it has fallen to a statutory roll of 1297 with just 128 in the Sixth Form, an overall drop of over a third. One consequence is that one of the two sites occupied by the school is nearly empty and mainly occupied by the small and shrinking Sixth Form. See more below.
Home Education on the Isle of Sheppey
Not surprisingly, many families on the Isle of Sheppey elect for Home Education (EHE) as an alternative, with 27 choosing this route in 2019-20, the second-highest in the county (numbers lower because of Covid, although reportedly soaring across the county for 2020-21). There were 47 children, or 3.6 of the total roll, in 2018-19. Some families, reportedly at least 150, have formed a self-help group for Home Educators.
As a result, the present Year 11 roll in October fell by 9% from the 268 pupils who joined Year Seven in 2016, one of the largest proportions in the county, in a housing growth area.
In one sense, the most shocking fact relates to companies exploiting desperate families by providing an appeals ‘service’, apparently without any understanding of local circumstances. This year, such companies have charged up to £3,000 for preparing appeals at the two schools, offering no insight into the specific circumstances and where there was little hope of success.

The increased numbers at Westlands at the request of KCC, have reduced the chances of a successful appeal to a minimum, and the addition of the late EHCPs at Fulston led to an outcome of no successes whatsoever. I anticipate that the increased intake at The Sittingbourne School will produce similar outcomes. I anticipate that the table below which shows the 2020 appeal outcomes will look rosy compared to 2021. 

Sittingbourne Non-Selective
Appeals 2020
  Appeals Upheld %
Fulston Manor 49 8 16
Sittingbourne None
Westlands 53 4 2

 The only glimmer of hope is that the two Sittingbourne grammar schools have vacancies and will offer places at appeal, creating movement across the four local non-selective schools including Oasis, but the number of unhappy families is surely too large to make much impact.  

Unfortunately, these are thin on the ground. The Commissioning Plan provides no sense of urgency that KCC will come up with a new school any time soon. In any case, elsewhere the process is proving convoluted and challenging. Even where there is a clear need such as here, the most KCC is allowed to do is to invite tenders from others to run the new school. Some projects such as the proposed new schools at Tunbridge Wells and Thanet fell by the wayside through lack of a sponsor, the former vanishing completely as KCC lost the land due to government regulations. The scheme in Thanet has been resurrected some years later, after a political dispute and on an unsuitable site. New schools in Ashford, Canterbury, Dartford,  Medway and Thanet have all been delayed by several years.

KCC has been, almost half-heartedly according to several successive Commissioning Plans, looking to open a new school in Sittingbourne for at least four years, with no sign of one now arriving until at least 2026. Perhaps the political thinking is that such a school might effectively undermine Oasis, which it would! Perhaps KCC can't see a solution at all. 

One radical solution is to open a second school on the Isle of Sheppey in the almost empty East site. I understand this has been proposed but unsurprisingly was turned down by the Oasis Trust as it would set up a direct competitor which would certainly underline the shortcomings of the present school.

Otherwise? With the three Sittingbourne schools all bulging at the seams, there are only the empty spaces at Oasis left, to which buses could be run, taking even more unfortunate pupils from the mainland!

Oasis Academy (2)
The Oasis Learning Trust is politically powerful under its high profile leader, Revd Steve Chalke, back in the 1980s Minister of Tonbridge Baptist Church. It has not been inspected by Ofsted as a Trust since 2015, when Ofsted recorded that: The trust’s academies have a variable record of improvement. While some have improved or sustained effective performance, too many academies have not improved quickly enough. A legacy of weak challenge and insufficiently systematic or rigorous improvement work has resulted in slow or little improvement for nearly half the academies. This is still true today of Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey, admittedly struggling with a high level of social deprivation on the Island. Of the 52 Oasis academies across England, 19 per cent are still classified as failing (Schools Week July 2019). The latest Ofsted Monitoring Visit underlines the ever-changing cast of Senior staff, noting that ‘Since the previous inspection (two years ago), three deputy principals have left, and a new assistant principal and new executive principal have joined the school’. In fact, the school has wiped out Deputy Principal level (none of the three departed post holders moving on for promotion), the new Executive Head appointed last summer lasted just eight months. There are now two Associate Principals and seven Assistant Principals. The latest arrival as part-time Associate Principal spent his apprenticeship as Deputy Principal at the notorious Ebbsfleet Academy, and then headed up Harris Academy Peckham for just nine months before leaving the profession (not usually a good sign) and becoming an Education Consultant. He continues in the role to this day, along with running a company running short term study and tour programmes for international students, and providing them with other support, so clearly Oasis Academy does not need his full attention!  Overall, Oasis has seen four of the six members of the top tier of management depart over the past year, and replaced them by one who is part-time. This may be a cost-cutting exercise related to the fall in pupil numbers, but is unlikely to improve matters. I carried out a fuller analysis of the school and its problems just a year ago, here.
Oasis to run England’s First Secure School
In spite of the Trust’s mixed record, Oasis is to take over the Medway Training Centre and run it as Britain’s first secure school, a new concept: ‘Secure schools aim to provide educational rehabilitation for children aged 12-17 who are remanded or sentenced to youth detention accommodation'.  The current Centre created a national controversy in 2016, when a BBC Panorama exposé found a variety of abuses of the inmates by staff appointed by the company G4S which ran it at the time. Steve Chalke, in an article in Schools Week two years ago, expands the principles by which the new school is to be run. Originally planned to open in 2020, presumably in the same premises, an article published the same year highlights issues hindering the opening. The latest specific reference I can find is from February 2021 citing further delays and a government statement that it is “ready to open” in 2022’, so not less than six years to bring it about. This chimes with the delays in setting up a new school in Sittingbourne, but is far more complex and now politically controversial with the complications having now got caught up with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Last modified on Friday, 18 June 2021 07:31

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