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Monday, 22 September 2014 00:00

Shortage of Primary Places in Kent: KOS 23 Sept 2014

This newspaper article is an expanded version of a news item elsewhere on this website, looking at the pressure on primary school places in Kent.

There has been much comment in the national media on the growing shortage of primary school places and Kent is no exception. I am now receiving concerned enquiries almost daily from families who have moved into or are planning to move into the area and are finding no suitable school, or in some cases no school at all being offered. Others have been allocated schools they didn’t apply to and are now finding out the reasons for the lack of popularity of some of these. Key pressure areas include: Sevenoaks, Gravesham, Dartford, Tunbridge Wells, Thanet, Maidstone and Tonbridge in Kent; and much of Medway, especially Chatham, Rainham and Rochester. 

 The problems of what are called In Year transfers are exemplified by an email circulated to primary school headteachers in Gravesham at the beginning of September by the Local Authority desperately seeking places for 23 children in the Borough (9 in Dartford) in Years 1,2 and 3 without a place........

Many of Kent’s problems were created in previous years when resources were available, but primary places were not seen as the priority, and I have written extensively about those failures from 2009 onwards. However, the past few years have seen a much greater and concerted effort to plan and create new places. In 2012 KCC drew up a Commissioning Plan that outlined a strategy for creating the 10000 new places needed in Kent by 2016. I wrote at the time: “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”. Unfortunately, the plan, creaking at the seams, is now out of date as shown by the examples below and a draft update for 2015 to 2019 has just been published. I am not aware that Medway has such a plan.

This positive initiative by KCC is in spite of Local Authorities having now lost the power to build schools being able only to commission new academies, voluntary aided schools and Free Schools to set up schools outside KCC control. Both versions of the Commissioning Plan also include some “over-arching principles” to guide its decision making, of which more later.

As a result, schools are having to be expanded far beyond Kent’s own recommendation of two forms of entry reducing “the efficient deployment of resources”, KCC’s own words. In other words, undermining the quality of education on offer. 

Some of the current pressures come from families moving in to Kent or Medway, often from London and by returning expatriates , who are attracted by the “good grammar schools” available. They are frequently horrified when I explain that the problems of securing a good, or indeed any primary school places for some, are likely to be the major problem. Others come from inward migration from other parts of the UK and from abroad.

It is evident that Kent County Council sometimes tackles short-term problems by enlarging primary classes to over 30 children without the need for an appeal (this is not a criticism!). Indeed, I heard this week of one family living in rural West Kent where this has happened because siblings were going to be separated by a wide geographical split. However, this is a very difficult tactic to adopt for infant classes.

Infant Class Legislation prohibits class sizes of over 30 for Years R, 1 & 2 where there is only one full-time equivalent teacher, apart from some very exceptional cases. The relevant exception states that amongst the children who can be excepted are: children who move into the area outside the normal admissions round for whom there is no other available school within reasonable distance”.  The issue here is the interpretation of “reasonable”, with no guidance as to what this means. Sometimes a case will go to appeal and very occasionally an Independent Appeal Panel will decide in favour of the child. However, for entry in 2014, just 5 out of 535 appeals where Infant Class Legislation is relevant were upheld in total.

KCC has interpreted “reasonable” several times in the interests of individual children, in ares of greatest pressure, for example in the Holborough Lakes area north west of Maidstone. Here, several additional infants have been added to take classes over 30 at nearby Snodland and St Katherine’s Primaries. Holborough Lakes is a major new housing development, for 1250 homes, 500 of which were already occupied in the summer of 2013. A KCC Impact Assessmentof July 2013 explains that a new one form entry primary academy (sponsored by Valley Invicta Academies Trust) will be opened in September 2015, by which time there would be insufficient spaces in the two existing schools. Unfortunately, there appears no assessment of where the additional children without schools should go between 2013 and 2015! I have talked with several families who have given up hope of a local school and gone private until the new school opens. At least one Holborough Lakes child has been offered a place at Burham Primary, only 1.7 miles as the crow flies, but with the River Medway proving a bit of an obstacle (!), 9.6 miles by road.

KCC has also commissioned other new build primary academies in an attempt to meet demand, each with a Unit catering for children with disabilities at Folkestone, Kings Hill, Leybourne and Sheppey.

For one family of a Year 1 child in a rural village near Gravesham, there was no concession for reasonableness this summer, and the child was offered a place in an OFSTED failing school on the other side of town, 7.9 miles away by road. As there was no public transport, KCC offered to provide a taxi. I advised the family to fight this and it may well be that a place has been created more locally for this child, but what about others who meekly believe there is no alternative to the offer? 

There were just two vacancies in Reception classes in the whole of urban Gravesham on allocation of places in April, with another twelve vacancies in the far south of the District at Vigo Primary. This in spite of the expansion of Chantry Primary Academy, from one to two forms of entry (recently out of Special Measures). Kings Farm Primary, currently a disaster area, has also been expanded again. Almost 10% of the 1339 children offered places at Gravesham primaries have been allocated to schools they did not apply to, nearly half of these to two very unpopular schools, one in Special Measures. As I live in Gravesham, I have been approached directly by parents whose children have been allocated to these two schools, several planning to refuse to take up their places. Others are remaining in Nursery Schools for up to another year, in the hope (I suspect vainly) that a more suitable place will come up. I well remember having a blazing row with the Area Education Officer some years ago in the presence of the Cabinet Member, warning of the coming problems, a warning that was ignored. He also decided against the opportunity to have a new school built in Northfleet with developers funding, on the grounds that it might draw children from another school (OFSTED failed) that then had to be expanded. The new Commissioning Plan records: “Forecasts for Gravesham show sharply rising birth rate and birth numbers from 2002 to 2012”. Too late!

There is much better news in Thanet, where a new Free School, working title the Ramsgate Free School, is planned to open in 2015, initially admitting up to 60 children into each of Years R and 3. This appears to be an imaginative and proper use of the Free School concept in a District where there is a severe shortage of primary places and is to be sponsored by Chilton Primary School, currently a Community school under the control of KCC. The two schools will be led by the headteacher of the heavily oversubscribed Chilton.

Meanwhile, in Broadstairs, in another imaginative move to ease pressures, St George’s Church of England Foundation School has opened a Consultation on extending its age range from the current secondary provision to include a two form entry primary section from September 2016. There are just four schools with vacancies in the district, all with a history of underperformance, so these initiatives are likely to prove popular with parents.

Medway Council is still haunted by its decision to close Ridge Meadow Primary School in Chatham in 2010 although a fall in pupil population was on the turn and rising, with subsequent need to find additional primary school places in the district. This year, 76 of the total 79 Chatham Reception Class vacancies occurred in a new academy being built with a capacity of 90 Reception places to alleviate the pressures. Elsewhere Medway, in Rainham there were no vacancies whatever; and in Rochester, all 17 vacancies occurred in one failing school. Of course, there has been subsequent movement and only this week I heard of one child being offered a place at a popular school.  

Elsewhere one can find problems in Tonbridge, which had NO vacant spaces in any of its Reception classes; Sevenoaks with just 10 places available in two of its 27 schools, both in the rural West of the district (but here the situation will have eased as a number of families choose private schools if they haven’t been allocated the schools of their choice); Dartford with no vacancies at all in the western half of the district and town.

Under this intense pressure on places, the overarching principles laid down by KCC to determine where new primary school places are to be sited, whilst laudable appear wholly unrealistic. They include:

  • We will always put the needs of the learners first.
  •  Every child should have access to a local good or outstanding school, which is appropriate to their needs.
  •  All education provision in Kent should be rated “good” or better, and be financially efficient and viable.
  • We will aim to meet the needs and aspirations of parents and the local community.
  • We will promote parental preference.
  • If a provision is considered or found to be inadequate by Ofsted, we will seek to commission alternative provision where we and the local community believe this to be the quickest route to provide high quality provision.
  • In areas of high surplus capacity we will take action to reduce such surplus.

One further planning priority worthy of note:

  • Over time we have concluded that 2fe provision (420 places) is preferred in terms of efficient deployment of resources.

The reality is that pressure on places is such that more and more schools are being pressured to expand from this ideal of two forms of entry to three and even four forms of entry so, presumably, the efficient deployment of resources on offer in these overlarge schools is declining.

I can only see the situation with regard to primary school provision in Kent and Medway deteriorate in spite of the efforts of the Councils to keep up with demand and feel so sorry for those families whose children started school last week in schools that are a severe disappointment to them. A child only has one realistic chance of a good education and too many are now not being given that chance.

Last modified on Tuesday, 23 September 2014 07:54

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  • Brook Learning Trust Schools in Trouble: Ebbsfleet Academy; Hayesbrook School; High Weald Academy

     The Brook Learning Trust runs three schools, Ebbsfleet Academy, Hayesbrook School in Tonbridge, and High Weald Academy in Cranbrook and appears to be in serious trouble, both financially and in terms of the standing of all of its three schools. 

    Ebbsfleet 1       High Weald 1    Hayesbrook 2
    I monitor a number of factors that indicate how a school supports its students and how it stands in its locality. These include: pupil vacancy rates in year Seven; popularity of schools expressed through first preferences when making applications; percentage drop out rates from the school for all reasons; and proportion of pupils leaving for Elective Home Education; together with academic performance. These three schools are each amongst the worst in the county on four in the case of Hayesbrook or all five of the first five measures for the other two schools. I consider that they can therefore be regarded as generally, if not academically, failing. These common themes across the Trust’s schools suggest the problem starts with the ethos and standards set by the Trust.

    The situation at High Weald Academy is especially dire, as government is proposing a multi-million pound premises investment into this school which appears to have no future under the Trust.

    I look below at the factors affecting each school and the Trust as a whole. I now have data showing a further fall in first choice applications for each school for Year Seven admission in September 2018, which will surely see the Trust heading for insolvency and for each school immense financial difficulty in providing an acceptable level of education. 

    Written on Wednesday, 28 February 2018 06:21 Be the first to comment! Read 522 times
  • Medway Secondary School Allocations for September 2018: Initial Information and Advice

    Table for allocations below has been completed, with more recent information provided.

    You will find a parallel Kent article here

    The Medway Council Press Release for secondary transfer is the thinnest yet I have seen from the Council on this, or any other subject I can recall. It contains just four facts: 3259 Medway children applied for and were offered places in secondary schools; 91% have been offered a first or second preference school; over 95.5%  were offered one of their preferences; there were 630 applications for Medway school places from children outside Medway. That is it! UPDATE: I have now obtained the full data through an FOI request and inserted it below. I can see no reason why the Council has chosen to hide it.  

    However, there is also a bizarre footnote on a completely different matter, considered below. 

    The table below compares my extrapolation of these numbers with outcomes in previous years. There is also initial advice on what to do if you have not received the school of your choice at the foot of the article on what to do if you have not been offered the school of your choice. This begins as always with my Corporal Jones mantra, do NOTHING in panic! You may regret it. There is no quick fix. 

    Both of the quoted percentages in the Press Release were identical to those in 2017, both a significant fall on 2016, at 93.7% and 97.4% respectively.For 2017 offers, first and second preferences allocated were separated, so one can guess the proportion of first preferences has fallen this year as Medway Council typically tries to fudge its figures. No mention of, or regret about, the unfortunate 147 children with no school of their choice. 

    The cohort size has increased by just 85 children, with the 4.5% who have been given no school of their choice, at approximately 147, five up on 2017.

    Why is the Council so afraid of providing information to its residents?

    Written on Friday, 02 March 2018 12:25 1 comment Read 695 times
  • Kent Secondary School Allocations for September 2018: Initial Information and Advice

    You will find a parallel Medway article here.

    Several updates below, including grammar issues for boys in Longfield, Hartley, NAG, etc. Also look at my response to comment, below. Grammar places for boys in Whitstable, Herne Bay also looking an issue. 

    Kent secondary school allocations have been sent out today for those registered to receive by email and should arrive tomorrow by post for all (weather permitting).

    17,442 Kent children applied for places in schools, 745 more than in 2017, with 79.6% of them being offered their first choice. This is the lowest percentage for at least five years, but just 0.8% down on last year. 765 children been given none of their four choices, at 4.4% of the total, again the highest proportion for at least five years, and well up on last year’s 633. I know that a number of additional school places have been created at pinch points across the county, notably Tunbridge Wells, but I am already hearing of some very difficult situations for some of the children with no school of their choice.

    In spite of another large increase in out of county applications to Kent schools, up 545 to 3,289, just 818 were offered places, only eight more than in 2017. This will have been partially balanced by around 500 going to schools outside Kent.

    You will find more information, including a look at some of the pressure points, together with the tables of outcomes below. You will also find required scores for super-selective schools as these are confirmed (all information welcomed), and initial advice at the foot of the article on what to do if you have not been offered the school of your choice. This begins as always with my Corporal Jones mantra, do NOTHING in panic! You may regret it. There is no quick fix. 

    There is also a link to the limited advice service I now offer. 

    Written on Thursday, 01 March 2018 12:03 12 comments Read 2747 times
  • Knole Academy and the Scandal of Exorbitant Headteacher Pay in Kent and Medway

    Update: Shortly after I published this article, the national BBC led with the same issue on its website, although amazingly there has been no local media interest at all. Is it that this is not of interest as it is what people expect? 

    The headteacher of The Knole Academy in Sevenoaks, a moderately performing single school academy, was paid £210,000 in 2016-17 making her the highest paid academy head or Chief Executive in Kent and Medway. This is an increase of 35% over the past three years after what can only be described as an irresponsible series of decisions by Governors, bringing the whole process into disrepute, and undermining the credibility of the very real financial crisis in schools, as explained below. By contrast the Principal of Homewood School, the largest secondary school in the county, had a salary of just £110,000 last year, one of majority of secondary heads around or below £100,000.


    After Knole the next two highest paid heads are the Principals of Leigh Academy and Wilmington Academy, both part of the Leigh Academy Trust, who each received £200,000 in remuneration, including their roles as Directors of the Trust. They were followed by the CEOs of two of Kent’s largest Academy Trusts, both responsible for more than a dozen primary and secondary schools: Swale AT and Leigh AT at £190,000 and £180,000 respectively.

    Grammar School Academy Headteachers are generally paid from around £85,000 to £110,000 annually, with Dartford Grammar School, the largest and most oversubscribed grammar school in the county on the latter sum. Highest paid Grammar School Head is at Rainham Mark Grammar, Medway. with £155,000 (£90,000 for HT salary, £65,000 for Academy Trust CEO), followed by Barton Court, Canterbury, at £125,000 (also a Trust CEO).

    At primary level the previous highest earner, the Head of Meopham Community Academy, has now retired from his £150,000 salary post, his replacement being employed at less than half of that rate. The highest paid heads of schools or multi academy trusts I have found this time round are the same two single standing academies as previously: The Academy of Woodlands in Gillingham, £105,000 in 2015-16, and St Stephen’s Academy, a Junior school in Canterbury on, the same figure for 2016-17.

    I look more closely at the Knole situation, and that of other high paying academies below. 

    Written on Wednesday, 21 February 2018 20:29 5 comments Read 1502 times
  • Medway Council fails its most vulnerable children

    Medway Council has once again failed its children, this time the most vulnerable, as confirmed by a scathing Ofsted Report on its ‘services’ to children with Special Education Needs and Disabilities, published this week. The report concludes ‘Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) has determined that a Written Statement of Action is required because of significant areas of weakness in the local area’s practice’. I think that is putting it politely. There are strengths identified; it just happens that all these appear to be down to the health service and not education.

    Concerns centre about chaotic management of the ‘Service’, resulting in failure to take necessary action. This can be seen from the following quotes: ’Medway’s education and service leaders do not share one vision and strategy for SEN and/or disabilitiesNo arrangements are in place to ensure effective joint oversight and clear lines of accountabilityLittle progress has been made in addressing several of the pressing priorities for improvement identified as far back as 2012Leaders’ understanding of what has and has not improved in the meantime is limited. I could have chosen many others.


    'The collaborative work between professionals and children and their families to plan services and meet individual needs, known as co-production, is weak at both a strategic and individual level' This criticism is underpinned by the heavy criticism of the implementation of Education and Health Care Plans for children with the greatest needs, which are at the heart of Departmental work, and ‘A considerable number of parents shared concerns with inspectors that the needs of their children are not being identified and met sufficiently well’.

    There is of course reference to Medway's record exclusion rates: ‘Although improving, rates of permanent and fixed-term exclusion are still notably higher for pupils who have SEN and/or disabilities in Medway than for similar pupils nationally, as it is for all pupils. Lack of specialist provision has brought serious consequences for pupils with severe SEN or disabilities travelling out of Medway daily on long and very expensive journeys.  

    Written on Saturday, 10 February 2018 22:33 4 comments Read 446 times
  • Goodwin Academy – SchoolsCompany Trust on the way out?

    Updated 15th February: see also comment below.

    KM Online 16th February shows details of the job losses at this previously recovering school, expected because of the failures of SchoolsCompany. 

    The new Interim Chief Executive of SchoolsCompany Trust has apologised in a letter to parents of pupils at the Goodwin Academy for ‘previous financial failings, which are unacceptable’.

    Sadly, this has come as little surprise to me, as I foresaw issues as early as 2014, when I noted in an article that SchoolsCompany had contributed to the startling decline of the predecessor school Castle Community College (CCC), in Deal from Ofsted Outstanding to Special Measures in three short years. As a reward SchoolsCompany took over as sponsor of the school as recently as July 2016. The school was awkwardly renamed SchoolsCompany Goodwin Academy, presumably to advertise the name of the Sponsors as a priority, above creating a new school image.     

    The Academy limped on for a period, after 2014, with the 'support' of SchoolsCompany,  unpopular with a third of its places unfilled, and underperforming, although there have recent strong signs of improvement under new school leadership. Unusually, eight of the eleven Company Trustees were paid a salary by the Trust, hardly an inducement for encouraging scrutiny. After the school received a Financial Notice to Improvefrom the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) in October, seven of the Trustees resigned including the Executive Principal of the Company This left the school with just four Trustees including the CEO and founder of the company, Elias Achilleos, although he now appears to have been replaced by the new Interim Chief Executive.  The Trust has demonstrably failed some of the Financial Notice's requirements for improvement. 

    Goodwin Academy

    The school will clearly have a future in its new £25 million premises opened four months ago on October 6th, just three weeks before Trustees resigned en masse, but it looks increasingly likely it will not be with Schools Company. Indeed a more than doubling of first preferences to 173 for 2018 admission, shows confidence in the school and its leadership, achieved without obvious input from the few remaining Trust members. 

    Written on Thursday, 08 February 2018 10:43 4 comments Read 1041 times