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Tuesday, 18 September 2012 17:18

More than 10,000 new primary school places needed in Kent: new Commissioning Plan produced

(Article in progress, updated 1 Oct 2012)

Kent County Council has quietly released a Commissioning Plan setting out its proposals for new school places across the county for both primary and secondary schools, on a district by district basis, looking at the consequences for individual schools. The main headline is that over 10,000 new places need to be produced by 2016. You will find the full plan here. The Commissioning Plan identifies proposals for creating 5194 places by 2014, and at present there are no clear plans for the remaining 5000 places - although there is time now to consider options.

A preliminary press release focused on 35 additional classrooms being added in the current school year, catering for the additional  reception classes which were set up to cater for mainly unexpected demand.

I believe this is an essential document; it is just regrettable that when it was proposed in 2009, on the back of warnings about school place shortages, no action was taken, resulting in some of the temporary fixes we have seen in the past two years, described elsewhere in this website. Details follow below.......

The document looks at each District, and names the schools due for expansion and where new primary schools are to be commissioned  in the next four years, I summarise these as follows, although you need to check the plan for the detail......


Some of these schools are now academies, or are voluntary aided schools, so the agreement of governing bodies will be needed where expansion is proposed, and this is not necessarily forthcoming.  New primary schools are proposed for: Dover; Westwood Cross, Thanet; Cheeseman's Green and Chilmington Green in Ashford; Folkestone Race Course development; Maidstone to met new building needs; Kings Hill; Northern Gateway, St James Pit and three schools in Ebbsfleet Valley, all in Dartford; The Wells Free School in Tunbridge Wells. The proposals for expanding existing schools include: Westlands in Sittingbourne;  Half Way Houses  in Sheppey; Ethelbert Road, Bysing Wood & Ospringe in Faversham; unspecifed places in Ramsgate; Northdown, Garlinge, Drapers Mill, and Palm Bay in Margate; Repton Manor, Great Chart and Furley Park in Ashford; Hawkinge, Palmarsh and Sellidge in Shepway; St John's and St Francis RC in Maidstone; Kings Hill, Leybourne Chase & Ryarsh in Mallling; Dartford Bridge, Fleetdown, Stone St Mary's and Knockhall in Dartford; Whitehill, St Botolph's, Rosherville and  Lawn (Dover Road is underway) in Gravesham; Sevenoaks, Lady Boswell's, St John's CofE; Churchill CofE in Sevenoaks; Southborough, Langton Green, St Mark's, St James Junior, St James' Infant, Pembury, St Matthews's Broomhill and St Peter's in Tunbridge Wells.

For the secondary stage, new schools are proposed by 2016 in Chilmington Green, Ashford (4FE rising to 8 FE);  and the proposed grammar school satellite in Sevenoaks (although there has been no further news on this for some months, and there is increasing speculation that there is no agreement on the schools to be involved). The plan does not refer to the new Free Schools in: Sevenoaks (Christian Free School) – although an additional 4 FE of non-selective provision is proposed; Ashford (Wye Free School – 3 FE); or Tonbridge (Hadlow Rural Community College – 1 FE) each of which is funded by central government (see below).   Expansion by 2016 is proposed in: Gravesend; Sittingbourne; Ebbsfleet Academy in Dartford. Long term in Ebbsfleet Valley (4FE rising to 8 FE) in Dartford ( a new school post 2016); and Ashford (14 FE in two new secondary schools post 2016); expansion in Maidstone.

The use of the word Commissioning is very deliberate as under current government rules, any new school has to be an academy, Free School, or Voluntary Aided School - the latter typically run by a church, so KCC can only propose or bring about a school, to be run as one of these.

Whilst KCC is claiming that the current crisis is brought about by new housing development and other movement into Kent, their own figures in the Commissioning Plan show that forecasts for numbers have been remarkably accurate. I confess this was a surprise to me, as I had assumed the current and recent problems, which are well documented on this website, were mainly due to a failure of forecasting numbers. In fact I have checked back on the 2009 document and they are remarkably accurate, that document forecasting a large shortfall of places in Dartford, Gravesham,Thanet and Tunbridge Wells, with other problem areas including: MaidstoneSevenoaks,  Swale and Tonbridge. I have addressed problems in each of these areas via the links indicated.

So, if forecasting of numbers was correct, why did the problems arise. I identify four reasons:

  1. County policy via their Primary School Strategy of 2006 was and remains, that there should be a surplus of 5% of primary school places in each area. KCC denied my assertion of this policy on Radio Kent last year stating that the 5% applied across Kent, and not in individual areas. As a result, I believe that the issues in individual areas were ignored, leading to the stop gap temporary solutions imposed on sometimes unwilling schools, so heavily criticised by the Schools Adjudicator in her judgement on Bishops Down Primary School (see below).
  2. Even when school places in an area are above the 5%, there are often problems created by different breakdowns of provision, typically the balance between urban and rural provision.  A classic example is Maidstone, where there was a 10% vacancy rate in the rural hinterland, but no vacancies at all in the town. This allowed KCC to challenge my statement that there no vacancies in urban Maidstone on allocation day, misrepresenting the reality.  Similar problems occurred in Dartford, Sevenoaks and Thanet.
  3. Failure to agree appropriate additional school places with developers. This has produced problems in: Springhead, Northfleet; Kings Hill; and (although some years back) Bearsted. It is essential that new development proposals see sufficient school places enforced, and the Commissioning Plan appears to have a more robust approach,showing an anticipated £3m from this source. A previous Director of Education responded to my concern over this issue at a Conference for Business and Media by stating that new schools should follow building, when the children were already there. I suspect that this policy has led to a number of issues and am certainly aware of several.
  4. Simply lack of action until problems arose. The recent School Adjudicator’s Report on Bishop’s Down Primary School exemplifies the ad hoc “planning” that has led to many of the problems in Tunbridge Wells. The Commissioning Plan is littered with “temporary expansion”.

The Commissioning Plan repeats the proposal of the 2009 document that “There is a strong presumption in this plan that successful and popular schools should be permitted to expand”. I applaud this reversal in what has previously been an unwritten policy to fill all school places in an area, which has forced too many children into unpopular schools. Indeed popular schools such as St James and Bishops Down in TW, together with Horsmonden, Sissinghurst, Blean, Lawn, and Sevenoaks PAN (all full) have been forced to reduce numbers by KCC! In their place there still are plenty of examples of failing and unpopular schools being expanded to take in unwilling customers. This often occurs because there are several problems with expansion, not least the existing 2006 primary school policy that states all through (both infant and junior classes) primary schools should not exceed two classes in a year group, unless there are exceptional circumstances. This is now widely ignored, and schools with an intake of 90 children are all too common, creating an environment in which it is all too easy to lose the individual child. Secondly, the successful and popular schools are too often at the limit of their physical capacity, so there is simply no room to build what needs to be seven extra classrooms to cater for an additional class in each year group. Thirdly is the matter of finance. Sadly Kent policies in the past have meant that expansion has not taken place when funds were available,

This is a brief run through of the proposals, with pressure of my current time  I plan to add to this article later, giving some commentary on the proposals.

Last modified on Tuesday, 04 March 2014 17:06

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