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Tuesday, 07 December 2021 07:31

The New Park Crescent Academy in Margate: Scrapped

The Government and KCC have now jointly decided that the proposed Park Crescent Academy in Margate is to be dropped as it is ‘no longer required, as I have been arguing almost alone for nearly two years, through a series of articles analysing the multiple defects in the project, including the failures in forecasting pupil population in Thanet. 

The reason given for the cancellation is that secondary student numbers in Thanet have dropped well below the levels predicted when the school was originally proposed in 2015. This was obvious in October 2019, when Sir Paul Carter, then Leader of KCC and in his last decision before stepping down from the role, vetoed the proposal on the grounds that ‘population numbers had not risen as fast as forecast’, against the advice of his officers who have championed this project, apparently unquestioningly, throughout.  In February 2020 his decision was reversed again by Lord Agnew, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System (who would soon have a new Policy Advisor, Dr Jo Saxton)  on the interesting grounds that, although there was no need for a new school on grounds of numbers, the quality of some current secondary provision in Thanet was of poor quality and it was important to offer choice!

KCC, under its new education leadership, and Baroness Barran, the new Minister for the School System, have now agreed that the project should be cancelled for the second time, again on the grounds that there is no need for it, according to a press release from KCC on 6th December this year, ! There is no mention of the central reason given by Lord Agnew for reinstating the project, because of problems with current quality of provision, nor that the planning application had proposed a wholly impracticable school on a site that that even KCC acknowledged was constricted or constrained where space is at a premium, as I have demonstrated here

Following an FOI Request I can confirm that the cost of the land for the new school was £6.8 million and there are no constraints, apart from Planning Permissions, on how the land is to be used. See below. The next question I am chasing is how much the aborted project cost Kent taxpayers. Perhaps relevant Councillors may like to try and find out also!


The Problem
I have written a number of articles exposing the poverty of this project, with the core of the problem which Lord Agnew had tried to address having been created by two of the six Thanet N/S schools throughout this period. My January 2020 article sets out the facts clearly, including an analysis of pupil forecasts behind Sir Paul’s decision to pull the project. My most recent article looks at provision and take up across the six schools for September this year, showing that although Hartsdown nearly filled on allocation in March, 80 of its 178 offers were Local Authority Allocations, for children who didn’t apply for the school but had none of their applications elsewhere accepted. Royal Harbour Academy (not an academy yet) had 36 of its places offered to LAAs out of 176, with 74 other spaces left empty. All of the other four N/S schools were heavily oversubscribed, with a considerable number of Thanet children opting to travel to schools in Sandwich and even Deal, as acknowledged by KCC, rather than take up a place at one of the two schools. However, the problem does not stop there as, for September 2020 the last year for which I have school census data at present, 12% of the Hartsdown offers were not even taken up, and 22% of those to Royal Harbour. The census also demonstrated that both schools saw a large loss of pupils between Years Seven and Eleven over the previous five years. Across Kent, the now closing High Weald Academy lost 42% of the Year Group in this period, followed by Hartsdown 20% and Royal Harbour 19%. No other school lost more than 11% of the whole Year Group. 
 
These losses are financially unsustainable, and an additional school would inevitably have seen one of them, probably Hartsdown, having to close in spite of a £10 million investment in new premises, together with its extensive playing fields, in stark contrast to the cramped and proposed new school. Already, according to the 2020 Annual Accounts of the Coastal Academies Trust which runs Hartsdown and manages Royal Harbour Academy on behalf of KCC, Hartsdown was £1.2 million in deficit, up from £727,000 the previous year, caused by these falling numbers across the school. Although academies are not allowed to run deficit budgets, this is to be met by drawing on funds from the other three academies and sorted by means of strategies outlined in a note on the accounts (see below), which appear unconvincing. Even now, when there will be no Park Crescent, nothing is changed with regard to Hartsdown's financial troubles and it still looks extremely vulnerable.

With regard to academic performance, Lord Agnew wrote in his decision to overturn Paul Carter’s veto: 'The outcomes at local schools are not good enough, with two having a provisional Progress 8 score in the bottom 1% of schools in the country. A new provider in the area will provide an exciting new choice for parents where this is currently severely limited', which underlines the decision he took, although there is at present no indication of where this issue is now to be addressed (see below).

The Planning Application
I carried out a full analysis of the project in the run up to the Planning Application  here, demonstrating its inadequacy, and although it is still technically in place the application has become irrelevant. Officers' views of my contribution can be seen in the following comment from internal correspondence: 'The Background Education Need Case may have to be more robust than usual in this case given the attention someone is trying to generate'. Clearly the officers failed to carry this through, as the Education Need Case for this unwanted school to be built on a completely unsuitable site didn't just need to be more robust than usual, it needed to be made in the first place. For reference, the total primary rolls of the eight primary schools nearest Park Crescent were as follows for October 2020. Year 6 – 536, Year 5 – 538,, Year 4 - 533, Year 3 -519, Year 2 -504, Year 1 – 466, Year R – 469, demonstrating a general fall in numbers. It is impossible to see the case for a new school with an intake of 180 pupils per year on this basis, so one has to ask how KCC officers found one? 
 
 What next
As indicated above, even with the threat of the new school removed, the future for Hartsdown looks bleak, with parents prepared to travel to Sandwich in considerable numbers to avoid it. The other three schools of the Trust are prospering, but even their funding is being drained and the Trust leaders appear to have few original ideas of how to turn its fortunes round. According to the 2020 Accounts, these are: 

The last few years have seen a number of Kent and Medway secondary schools being re-brokered to Trusts presumably more capable of running them: In Medway -Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School, The Hundred of Hoo Academy, Strood Academy. In Kent: Goodwin Academy, Hayesbrook Academy and High Weald Academy (now being closed). Surely it is time for someone else to try and run Hartsdown in the same way, although finding a Trust to do this may be difficult.

To be fair to Hartsdown, it is in Thanet, the area of highest deprivation in Kent (2019). It also serves four of  the top five government data areas in Kent for high social deprivation (Sheppey has four more of the top ten including the highest). It also has a headteacher who began his term of office by running a disastrous 'Tough Love' regime with one of the highest exclusion rates in the county, and although he appears to have settled down in the last two years, reputations linger. According to the 2020 Accounts for Hartsdown:

Il was agreed by the Board at the beginning of 2017-18 and at subsequent Board meetings,
that Hartsdown Academy should be allowed to return in-year deficit positions (all agreed in advance), supported by the wider Trust. This is helping to ensure effective educational outcomes for all students.

The academy trust is taking the following action to return the academy to surplus;

  • Restructuring staff, ensuring an effective curriculum offer fit for purpose;
  • Continuous monitoring of pupil numbers;
  • Marketing of the school to increase pupil numbers;
  • Investing staff resource from across the trust to improve pupil outcomes to increase Hartsdown reputation in the community and in turn increase pupil numbers; and
  • Robust budgeting process with regular scrutiny of monthly management information and cashflow

All indications suggest that in the academic year 2021/22 Hartsdown will return to a surplus position.

Sadly with the fall in numbers continuing, it is difficult to see how the indications in the final sentence are on track. 

Coastal Academies Trust also runs Royal Harbour Academy for KCC and has been trying to academise it for some years without success. This could be because the government does not have faith in the Trust to hand it over fully, although a fresh decision day is now imminent once again. Another knotty problem for  Baroness Barran to solve!

The other solution could of course be for Coastal Academies Trust to appoint an outstanding leader and attract additional funding, the second probably a necessity for the first. Surely the government can see that additional funding, such as was awarded to Folkestone Academy further along the Kent coast after its own roll slumped, is critical to sort the problem even though Folkestone only has three areas of high social deprivation in Kent's top 30, as against Thanet's ten. So an additional criterion should perhaps be friends in high places! Even High Weald and Hayesbrook received additional funding from KCC to compensate for their falling rolls drawn, I believe, from the General Schools Budget, for maintained schools.  Without these two or three aids to success, I cannot see a solution to the problem, I am afraid. 

I do have considerable sympathy for Coastal Academies Trust, which appears an honourable organisation, although with an insoluble problem on their hands. They can't hand over the school unless government makes it an irresistible project for someone and otherwise they have no option but to champion it. They manage Royal Harbour Academy at the other end of Thanet in Ramsgate, but the obstacles to its academisation which would give them a free hand and additional finances appear to drag on and on. However, the organisation for whom I have most sympathy is the Howard Trust, based in Medway, who though they could do something with the new school. They have been messed about, by both the government and by KCC ever since they secured the school, which they must have known was somewhat of a risk. Indeed for the previous competition to find a sponsor for the new Academy, there were no suitable bidders. In retrospect, very wise!

The Site
The premises of the previous occupier of the school, the Royal School for Deaf Children, are being demolished, after KCC bought the site for £6.8 million. 

Royal School for the Deaf

 Demolition at the Royal School for Deaf Children. Photo Frank Leppard,
from Isle of Thanet News

There were no conditions of sale for the site to be used for a school in the future as wrongly reported elsewhere. Presumably, KCC will firstly need to make the site safe after the demolition, including leaving an empty space in the middle of a built up area for a long time, which itself may be problematic.  All KCC now has to do is to find a purpose for it. The above shows the site is unsuitable to be a secondary school and there is no need for a primary school locally at present. It would be ironic if it becomes used for housing! 

Last modified on Tuesday, 28 December 2021 19:58

6 comments

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 28 December 2021 23:26 posted by Philip S.

    So KCC has spent £6.8 million on brownfield land for a school that is not going to happen, and untold thousands wasted on preparations, when Sir Paul Carter, CBE, in his wisdom knew that it was not viable. Who on KCC is going to apologise to him for getting it right, against the advice of his officers who bungled badly? PETER: I doubt anyone will apologise. Officers were in no doubt they were right and he was wrong after yet another failure in planning and forecasting.

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 28 December 2021 20:51 posted by Retired KCC Member

    Your latest update shows an enormous pot of money being poured into what will be a piece of derelict land. This is despite the best efforts of yourself and Paul Carter, apparently alone against the Officer Tribe to stop the project before it got to this stage. Surprise, surprise, once again no one will be found accountable for this debacle. PETER: I couldn't agree more

  • Comment Link Saturday, 25 December 2021 12:15 posted by Heather

    I gather there is good news on the way for Hartsdown, confirming that the decision to scrap the proposed new school is the right one. PETER: If this is so, then it is about time. It would also be good news for local children.

  • Comment Link Monday, 20 December 2021 19:49 posted by Trevor Spinks

    The lack of comment suggests a lack of interest in the project. It will not be missed, although there will be a time when a site of the right size will be needed for the children of Margate.

  • Comment Link Monday, 13 December 2021 10:47 posted by Caroline cooper

    Hartsdown and Royal Harbour remain very poor schools and children have limited choices. It is not time that this was addressed? This is children’s education and future chances? PETER: It is probable that the DfE and KCC were persuaded there is improvement in the two schools. We remain to be convinced the evidence will show this. In the meantime as you say, there are children suffering.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 08 December 2021 20:14 posted by Thanet Headteacher

    Thank you Peter for recording this disgraceful story of mismanagement by KCC, with officers inflating pupil numbers in an attempt to get this unwanted school through. It looks as if the new leadership of KCC education has shown much more sense in getting the project cancelled. Now what matters is a strategy to get Hartsdown and Royal Harbour to deliver and lose the awful reputation they both carry. Sadly, this will last for some time even as improvements take place.

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