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Tuesday, 28 September 2021 17:26

The Closure of High Weald Academy in Cranbrook is Announced

Update November 2021: The closure has now been confirmed.  

Leigh Academies Trust (LAT), which took over High Weald Academy in Cranbrook on 1st September, has announced that the Minister of Education for Schools has decided the school will close by 31st August 2022, subject to a final agreement of the closure plan, with pupils will be able to move to the thriving Mascalls School in Tunbridge Wells. LAT has set up a ‘Listening Period’ to obtain views on how the closure will operate. This decision has been planned for some time, probably since the takeover was agreed, and includes a linked proposal for alternative use of the redundant site left by the closure, below.    

High Weald 2 

Followers of this website will be in no doubt as to the continuous failure of High Weald Academy ever since it was taken over as a Sponsored Academy in 2012. I have regularly pointed out what was surely self-evident, that on the number of pupils it was attracting, the school was not viable and so it has at last been recognised. It had the highest proportion of vacancies in Year Seven of any Kent school last school year at 59%, My previous article entitled: Leigh Academies Trust to take over (merge) the Brook Learning Trust analyses the issues more fully.

Assuming the closure goes ahead, the site with £15.9 million spent on new premises opened less than two years ago, an astonishing £5.3 million of which went on demolishing property to enable this to go ahead according to the Brook Learning Trust Accounts. This created a school with a capacity of 1020 pupils according to the DfE, but a pupil roll last year of just 256, which will now become vacant. I look at its probable future below 

Sadly for families, my view is that there is no point in contesting the closure, but to look ahead for the best option for your child, who may well be severely troubled by this decision, on top of the traumas of the last two school years of the coronavirus epidemic.  

Also below: Background; What Next? Mascalls Academy; Alternative Schools for the Future; The Future of the High Weald site if the school is closed; Finally.

My views were briefly seen on BBC SE on Friday.

The previous Angley School failed its Ofsted under KCC in 2010, and was subsequently sponsored as an Academy by ‘the very successful Hayesbrook School. These two schools morphed into the Brook Learning Trust which took in Ebbsfleet Academy and then the whole went into decline, High Weald at the bottom of the heap with 59% Year Seven vacancies last year, closely followed by Hayesbrook with 52% (third highest figure) and Ebbsfleet Academy 45% (fifth highest), underlining the failures of the Brook Trust before it was taken over by LAT.

As my Individual Schools article on High Weald shows, the school had been used to offer places to Tunbridge Wells children for some years unable to gain school places in their home town, see for example my 2018 Allocations article. It is likely that KCC changed its policy for the 2021 intake anticipating this decision, placing fewer than five such children at the school, in contrast with the 2020 figure of 32 unfortunates? I had certainly heard that closure was in the air several years ago, but assumed that the new buildings were an assurance for the future.

GCSE performances have been amongst the lowest in the county across all three main measures for years, most recently in 2019, with Progress 8 Well Below Average, ninth-lowest in Kent, Attainment 8, fourth-lowest; and Level 5 in Maths and English third-lowest. In 2019-20, 2.4% of the children at the school were withdrawn to home educate, the largest proportion of any school in Kent, but an improvement on the 4.8% in 2018-19, and the 6.4% in 2017-18, in both years also the highest in the county. 13% of Year 10 left the school before GCSE’s in 2020, the highest proportion in the county and indicative of possible off-rolling.  The exclusion rate is also very high.

On finance I wrote earlier this year: All three Academies face challenges in this area, but most acutely at the  High  Weald Academy which has experienced falling rolls in recent years, posing a challenge in terms of setting a balanced budget. The Trust has worked closely with the ESFA and the Kent School Funding Forum, securing additional funds to balance the budget in 2020/21. The Trust continues to work closely with the DfE and the ESFA  to ensure the long term viability of its academies.

But in my view, the main reason for the school’s failure is the rapid turnover of senior leaders at the school, a quote from the 2018 Ofsted Report indicating the scale of change: ‘There have been many changes to staffing and leadership structures since the previous inspection. An interim principal was appointed shortly after the previous inspection. Despite many attempts, the trust was unable to recruit a substantive principal and so secured experienced leaders from within the trust who took up post as co-principals from September 2017. The trust has recently appointed an executive principal, along with a new senior vice-principal, who will take over leadership of the school from September 2018, working with another school in the trust’The Executive Principal moved on shortly after this, there were three new Principals, at least one new Vice-Principal and three Assistant Principals, all of whom had gone by the end of August, allowing a 'closure team' to move in. This is led by Nigel Jones, previously head of the Outstanding LAT Special School, Milestone Academy, the last successful head of Ebbsfleet Academy before Brook Learning removed him, and one of the good guys!   

Several of these issues are flagged up in the LAT document in the section: ‘Background to the proposal’. This also identifies that the DfE was considering the school’s viability beyond August 2022 prior to the transfer of Brook Learning Trust. Hardly surprising, and the decision should surely have been made before wasting all that money on new premises!

What next?
The expected procedure is set out in the closure document, and appears to offer a better deal for most current pupils than I believe is available now. The key is the offer of an alternative education at Mascalls Academy in Paddock Wood, eight miles away or twelve by road, for all pupils in Years 7-10. Mascalls is a strongly performing school in the top quarter of N/S schools academically. All children will be offered transport.

Year 10s will all be offered a transfer in January to give maximum continuity for their GCSE courses, with  Years 7-9 moving next September.

Pupils in Year 11 will remain at the school for the remainder of their course. These plans are all set out in a comprehensive letter from the temporary Principal. 

The big downside as with all such closures (I have now documented five others including that of the similarly abrupt Hextable Academy) is that children have often developed a fierce loyalty to their schools – indeed I have had several writing critically to me about my past coverage of High Weald!  In this case, there is a further factor as this is the only N/S school in a local rural community so there will be an additional built-in loyalty for many. The disruption can have a major impact on a child’s view of life and education, and in that sense this could not be worse, following two years of Covid chaos. The one advantage is that both schools are in the same successful academy trust, so the change should be treated sensitively.

However, I do not believe there was a realistic alternative given the state that the Brook Learning Trust has left the school in. The killer is as usual, that the school has run out of money, and KCC and government have both been bailing High Weald out for years. As far back as 2014, I wrote of four Kent schools all in trouble because of low take up of places. I take no pleasure in reporting that High Weald is the last of these to close. 

I have particular sympathy for Year 11 pupils, desperately hoping for continuity for the remainder of their course. Many teachers will be losing their employment although some will be able to transfer to Mascalls or other LAT schools next September. Others will be looking out for posts from Christmas onwards, although once again, LAT may be able to bring in experienced staff to replace them. It is all uncertainty!

Mascalls Academy
Mascalls is going to have to provide eight additional classrooms next September to cater for the High Weald children transferring. This can be done, but the bigger question is what happens in the future. The school is already providing for eight forms of entry. Will it go to ten forms in future years, which will require a major building programme, and this website is littered with examples of the problems that have to be overcome to bring these to fruition. Or will it remain at eight, leaving future Cranbrook cohorts with an uncertain future, unless they are given priority through changed admission criteria?
Alternative Schools for the Future
On the assumption that the school closure goes through, children in Cranbrook and District are going to need to find an alternative school in future years. There are 20 N/S schools within 15 miles of Cranbrook, although the position of Mascalls warns that distance as the crow flies is no guide, with the school being 7.7 miles away by that measure, but 11.7 miles by road.  Taking out those that are regularly oversubscribed, who are likely to fill with pupils living nearer, this leaves just three main possibilities:  Cornwallis, Maidstone (9 miles, plenty of vacancies); New Line Learning (10.2 miles, plenty of vacancies); and Hayesbrook, Tonbridge (13.1 miles, plenty of vacancies, also Brook Learning Trust). Homewood, Tenterden (7.4 miles, full this year) and Mascalls, Paddock Wood (7.7 miles, often full) could have a few empty places. 
The Future of the High Weald site if the school is closed.
Leigh  Academy Trust opened the new Snowfields Academy in Maidstone for up to 140 pupils aged 11-18 with pupils aged 11-18 with an Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP) for primary need type autism in September 2020.  The expansion of diagnoses of children on the autistic spectrum has led to a large increase in demand for places in Special Schools across the county so a separate proposal to double the intake to 280 pupils will no doubt be fully justified. 
The plan for the High Weald site is to turn it into a satellite of Snowfields Academy to cater for the additional numbers, with the added advantage for the children of the working farm, currently an integral part of the High Weald school. You will find details of the proposals in the Consultation Pack, entitled Expansion of Snowfields Academy. 
The Consultation Pack also records that: Moreover, the group experiencing the highest EHCP percentage growth is young people aged 11-16. The area of Kent with the highest EHCP growth rate is Tunbridge Wells, the borough to which Cranbrookbelongs, at 18.5% between 2019 and 2020. The next highest are Tonbridge and Malling and Ashford, both of which neighbour the Cranbrook district. Locating this expansion within the area of greatest EHCP growth will enable KCC to achieve its stated goal of “avoiding transporting SEN pupils far away from their local communities” in order to attend school. It will also reutilise a brand new school building paid for by the taxpayer which could otherwise become derelict if this proposal is rejected since there is no alternative identified use. This summary appears to neatly and conveniently address both many of the issues surrounding both the increase in autism diagnoses and the use of the potentially redundant new buildings on the High Weald site. 
The Pack also records that: LAT has engaged fully with KCC and the Department for Education (DfE) on this proposal which represents significant value for money and can be made available at relatively short notice, confirming that the proposals have been thoroughly thought through over a period of time. 
My heart goes out to every High Weald pupil as they face an uncertain future, although in the long term this decision is, I believe, the best option for most of them.

To be clear, the blame for the situation they are in lies squarely on the leaders of the Brook Learning Trust who have mismanaged all three of their schools shamefully for years but can now walk away from this all with no accountability apart from their own consciences.    

Last modified on Tuesday, 30 November 2021 03:25

1 comment

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 29 September 2021 10:55 posted by HW Parent

    What a tragedy and what a failure by those in charge. You have brilliantly described the situation and made clear that the current children at HW will pay the price of Brook Learning's incompetence. As for the future of children living around Cranbrook??? PETER: I have just added a section of the article to cover the last question.

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