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Friday, 01 October 2021 19:56

Does Sheppey Need a New School? and other Swale Difficulties

Updated: 4th October

Last week Kentonline published a dramatic story headlined: ‘Shock u-turn as KCC agrees Sheppey needs another secondary school to take on Oasis’. The sub-heading on the web address reads ‘shock as kcc bows to parent power in education shake up’ No such agreement has been made, as I know from notes of the meeting where this claim originated. However, the enthusiasm of KCC for the idea is contained in both the notes and the paperwork for the meeting enclosed, including a lengthy statement from Gordon Henderson, MP for Swale also arguing for a two-school solution, and also in a briefing paper for the meeting from Swale Borough Council.  None of these make any reference to parental views, so where 'parent power' comes from is anyone's guess. Tucked away at the foot of a subsequent KM article without comment or even a header, is a quotation from KCC rightly refuting the claim, although their support for the concept may have misled the newspaper reporter. KM has not retracted the story and so, according to Director of Education, Christine McInnes, further correspondence is being prepared.  

As explained in a previous article, there is a crisis in secondary provision in Swale with the number of pupils in Sittingbourne and Sheppey rising sharply year on year, and the Sheppey area meeting of Swale Council on 14th September explored this issue as the main agenda item. This September, 71 Sittingbourne children have crossed the Swale to start their secondary education at OAIOS, probably nearly all from the 108 children allocated there who had not applied for the school.  They are also likely to have been amongst the 134 first choices turned away from Fulston Manor in Sittingbourne or the 110 from Westlands. The meeting notes also explain the bind which is preventing a new school in Sittingbourne from being built. So the claim by the CEO of Oasis Community Learning that the increase in numbers at OAIOS of 100 pupils (actually it is only 65) is due to the good job being done there is false as it is purely down to an increase, coincidentally also of 65, in the number of pupils in the cohort attending Sheppey primary schools.  

It is surely no coincidence that Swale had the highest level of Home Educated children in the county last year, with 1.9% of its school aged population, almost one in fifty children not attending school.   

I explore all these issues further below.

I was sent notes of the meeting from a reliable witness who attended it, shortly afterward but before the KM article was published, which pick up on all these matters. They are not Minutes and so may not be accurate in places, but I have considerable confidence in the author, with whom I have worked for years. This article is delayed as I have subsequently been away on holiday and am only now picking up on my backlog.

The problem
My data in the introduction to this article exposes the problem, and Oasis’ failure to make the academy an attractive proposition for aspiring families. You will find a previous article surveying Swale secondary allocations here. I now have the outcomes of admissions appeals for the Sittingbourne secondary schools. Fulston Manor saw no appeals at all upheld from the 68 considered. Westlands had four upheld out of 63. The Sittingbourne School, at the far end of town from the Sheppey crossing, managed to accommodate all its appellants without going to a hearing.

Rev Steve Chalke, CEO of Oasis is quoted in the second Kentonline article: ‘This year we had 345 new students in 14 forms of entry. That's our biggest intake ever which means we are back using both sites. Last year it was 250. We are up almost 100 on last year's entry’. That's because everyone has been doing a good job'. Not only do I question his arithmetic, there being an intake of 280 last September (he appears to have quote the 2019 data in error), the rise is purely down to the huge increase in pupil numbers on the island. The 108 children offered places at the school who did not want one, presents its own challenge. 

Sittingbourne & Sheppey Primary Schools
Year Six, 2018 - 2020
Sittingbourne 838 848 896
Sheppey 517 544 609
Total 1355 1392 1505

 Note: The Sittingbourne numbers include village schools near to the town, excluding those closer to Faversham, also in Swale. 

 A new Sheppey School
The meeting notes suggest how the KM got hold of the idea of a new Sheppey school, with Marisa White, East Kent Area Education Officer, setting out possible ways forward which are currently blocked and in my view will remain so. However, she made it clear that any decision would not lie with KCC, completely contrary to the KM headline. The key idea which has also been put forward in the past by DfE, KCC and Gordon Henderson the local MP, was for Oasis to relinquish one of the two sites on which the school operates and hand it over to a second Trust which would become a competitor. Oasis Community Learning is clearly not going to do this. Why would they wish to set up a competitor?
In a previous article, I provided a link to a Paper by the Administration of Swale Council, entitled Secondary School provision in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, which also advocates a two school solution on the Isle of Sheppey, with a new school having a strong vocational bias and links to Sheppey College (FE). This was issued to inform the September 14th Council Meeting in Minster. 
The question remains, what should be done in the interests of the children of Sheppey? At present many aspirational families will do whatever they can to avoid the current arrangements, either by chasing places at schools in Sittingbourne, including the grammar schools, or else home educating. I am certainly not critical of them, but this drain hardly helps the school.  Oasis Community Learning has clearly little idea how to solve the problems, and shipping in another temporary fix as Executive Head no doubt with yet another set of ideas is hardly a solution. A two-school model solves none of this in isolation. What is needed first of all is an understanding of the issues as the long term social deprivation of much of the island is joined by a different population arriving through the rapid development of new housing and often carrying higher expectations. Many years ago I was headhunted to run the predecessor school, but realised I hadn't the local understanding to carry it off and still would not consider myself qualified to suggest a solution. This was at a time when the school catered for a 13-18 age range, and the 11-18 two-site model of a huge single school subsequently imposed on Sheppey has never worked. For the sake of the current and future generations of Sheppey children, there needs to be a fresh look at the issues involving all parties including other local schools, not just KCC and Oasis who each come with their own fixed and incompatible agendas. This needs to happen before future housing development across the District swamps current provision.       
The Swale Problem
The meeting notes explain the central problem in Sittingbourne which is the bind over a new school, approved in principle, for a site at Grovehurst in the north of Sittingbourne not far from the Swale crossing. Please refer to the notes for the explanation of the stalemate reached, which involves the sale of land and problems with a road system including a roundabout (see highway issues in my Gravesham article, also causing problems, although on a much lesser scale). At present there is no solution to the bind emerging, so more and more Sittingbourne children will be placed at OAIOS.
When and if the new Sittingbourne school is built, numbers at OAIOS may well fall with unwilling mainland pupils not filling places there, depending on pupil numbers. This could well make the pursuit of a new school on the island more questionable.
The Swale Future
The three Sittingbourne N/S schools are now all full. The Sittingbourne School has added 70 places in the last five years at the request of KCC, an increase of a third of its roll, and Westlands 45. Fulston Manor is on a restricted site and has no capacity to expand.

Note for Table Following: The Published Admission Number (PAN) for a school is its official capacity for admitting a Year Group. Schools can apply to change this after consultation, but in some years may introduce a temporary Intake Number where there is a bulge in pupil numbers, in consultation with the Local Authority. 

Swale Admission Numbers 2015 and 2021
Fulston Manor 210 210 210
Oasis 390 390 390
Sittingbourne 230 270 300
Westlands  285 285 330

Of the four Kent schools with the highest Intake Figure, Oasis comes second with its intake of 390, Westlands third with 330, and Sittingbourne fourth with 300 (Homewood in Tenterden is largest with an intake of 420). KCC considers that: 'Over time we have concluded that the ideal size for the efficient deployment of resources is between 6FE and 8FE'. 8FE is an intake of 240 children. These schools are at the limit of their expansion. 

There is extensive building development across Sittingbourne, and indeed on the Isle of Sheppey. The Commissioning Plan for Education Provision in Kent 2021-2026 reports that:

The increasing pressure showing in Sittingbourne is exacerbated by large numbers of pupils travelling off the Isle of Sheppey for their secondary education. Surplus capacity in Oasis Isle of Sheppey Academy will help to offset some of the deficit in Sittingbourne but will not meet all the need from 2023 when demand peaks.

For September 2021, The Westlands School and The Sittingbourne School have agreed to provide up to 75 temporary Year 7 places to address the deficit. Discussions are taking place with Swale Secondary Schools to identify options to meet the growing pressure for places peaking in 2023.

We will 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.

The notes record that there will be no new secondary school in North Sittingbourne until at least 2026 – 2029.  In summary, the situation for secondary provision across Swale for the three to six years from 2023 looks bleak indeed.  Even an additional school on Sheppey would be unlikely to arrive before the North Sittingbourne school!

Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey and Ofsted
Ofsted carried out a Monitoring Visit of 8th July, the third since the school was found to Require Improvement in 2019, the Report being published on 27th September. 
I recently wrote an article about the sudden departure of Tina Lee, the previous Principal of OAIOS after just two years, which also looks at the crisis in secondary provision across Sittingbourne and Sheppey. No explanation for her departure has been forthcoming, but it appears not to have been because of the Monitoring Visit, whose Report in September, still addressed to Mrs Lee, which does not supply an answer.

The visit was carried out on a single day, by a single inspector and the Context of the Report begins: ‘Since the previous inspection in July 2019, there have been some changes to leadership. An executive principal joined the academy last September but left in April. A new executive principal has just joined the school from another school in the trust. Three deputy principals have left, and a new assistant principal has joined the school. The academy is expanding in size’. There is no comment on the reason for appointing these Executive Principals over Mrs Lee’s head, nor of the turnover of other senior staff. The July statement that the school was expanding in size is false relating to last year. Census data gives the full pupil roll in October 2016 as 1500 pupils, October 2017 as 1446, October 2018 as 1411, October 2019 as 1335, and October 2020 as 1425. In other words, after three years of decline, it had pulled back to give a loss of 75 pupils over the past four years. The decline from 2017 to 2019 should be seen in the context of increasing rolls in the Sheppey primary schools over the same period.  

The Report is generally positive, which is welcome, but reads superficially which is unsurprising given the limited involvement of the Inspector. Looking for potential off-rolling is a requirement of inspections, and with ‘Last year, 2.2% of parents of children on the school roll, the second-highest percentage in Kent, withdrew their children from OAIOS to join some 200 others at last count, who were home educated on the island’ this is surely worth comment, but as with all other recent OAIOS inspections the possibility is ignored.

Last modified on Thursday, 04 November 2021 06:59


  • Comment Link Monday, 04 October 2021 17:04 posted by Janice Stevens

    I can't work out which is worst, KM or KCC? Don't trust either.

  • Comment Link Monday, 04 October 2021 12:24 posted by Richard Phillips

    When we were thinking of buying our lovely new home in Minster last year, we were told by the developer about the wonderful educational opportunities in Sittingbourne. We went ahead and bought the house before seeing your website. You make it clear that if our son has not passed the Kent Test this year, they do not exist. Have we been conned? PETER: I am afraid the answer is yes.

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