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Wednesday, 30 December 2015 01:48

KOS: Personal Review of Education Stories of 2015

As part of their Review of 2015, I was asked by Kent On Sunday to write an article about Education in Kent and Medway for the year. 

The article appeared under the following photo, taken at the recent Conference on the Kent Test, headed: "As pressure grows on teachers, is 2016 going to provide any relief? - Probably not according to former headteacher and education adviser Peter Read in his year report". 

KOS WK 44 15 Kent Test 0754 (2)

 

This is my personal choice of education stories affecting Kent and Medway children in 2015, most featured elsewhere on my website where you will find further details of all the items via the links. 

The key themes are the pressure on school places, the inexorable drive for higher examination performance, and  the frightening increase in turnover of teachers and headteachers - all certain to remain amongst the major stories in coming years.....

Pupil numbers are rising sharply, with the recent increase in primary demand now about to hit Kent secondary schools, whilst several in Medway struggle at the end of a sharp fall in numbers. A new six form entry secondary school in Maidstone has been approved for 2017, with many popular schools expanding. Against this are set the sudden closure of Oasis Hextable Academy, the long anticipated demise of Marlowe Academy, Ramsgate, and the consultation about the surely inevitable closure of Pent Valley Technology College in Folkestone, all in 2015.  As with Chaucer Technology College in Canterbury which closed last year, the plan is to mothball the Pent Valley site until demand for places leads to a new school being built in 2018.   

Two new 14-19 university technology schools have opened in the past two years, one in Dartford, the other in Chatham. An increasing proportion of Kent children now transfer to grammar schools, currently running at 30% of the population (29% in Medway), which has a negative impact on the non-selective schools. In addition, Government pressure is forcing these schools to adopt a more academic curriculum, unsuitable for too many children, producing what government regards as an unacceptable fall in their examination performance, with the number of Kent schools failing to reach 30% A-C Grades at GCSE nearly doubling to 15 in the past year. St George’s CofE, Broadstairs, is about to become an all through 4-19 school, joining Folkestone Academy, John Wallis School in Ashford, and Hundred of Hoo School in Medway. Chatham Grammar School for Boys is controversially proposing to go mixed from September and to admit children on assessment by a Governors Committee if it has places vacant after normal allocation.

The biggest pressures in primary schools come in urban areas, with no vacant spaces at all in Reception classes on allocation last April in urban Dartford, Folkestone and Sevenoaks schools and just 2% in Ashford, Gravesham, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells. 

In terms of quality of education, Kent and Medway are heading in different directions in terms of primary school performance, with Medway Council clearly not fit for purpose, being the worst authority in the country in both OFSTED outcomes and test performance in 2015, underlining a situation that has run for far too many years. Kent, which shared poor performance a few years ago, has now improved following tough action by KCC and is now producing results at the national average, although could still do better, as shown by secondary pupils in both Authorities who continue to perform well above the national average at GCSE.

However, the intense pressure to improve standards has more than its fair share of casualties, with five of the headteachers of Kent’s 18 coastal non-selective schools losing their jobs this year, four in 2014, another three at risk and two schools closing, mainly because of poor results. A high number of primary headteachers have also lost their jobs in the drive for higher standards. Headteachers’ posts advertised are attracting fewer and fewer applicants as it has become a high risk job in many areas. We not only have a serious shortage of good applicants coming forward for all teaching posts, but the turnover of classroom teachers, citing overwork, pressure from above, bullying, and lack of appropriate training and support in some schools, together with lack of respect for the profession, is frightening, with four in ten newly qualified teachers leaving the profession in their first year. In some primary schools as many as half the staff left at the end of the summer, so it was pleasing to see the main leader article in Kent on Sunday earlier this month highlighting these vital issues.

Inevitably, the selective system has featured, the proposed Sevenoaks Grammar School annex still waiting, at the time of writing, to see if a legal challenge is forthcoming. For what it is worth, I think the proposal will go ahead, creating up to another 120 girls’ grammar school places in West Kent. This still leaves a growing shortage of boys’ grammar school places over the next few years in West Kent, although many grammar schools have expanded their intake to meet demand. It is good to see Kent’s most selective school, The Judd in Tonbridge, changing its admission rules to give priority for 85% of its places to local boys, the two Wilmington grammars having been down this route for 2015 easing the pressure on places for local children. There are increasing demands to widen social access to grammar school places, and KCC is setting up a Select Committed to explore ways forward.   

The biggest success story in Kent is surely its Special School sector, with nearly half of all schools currently graded ‘Outstanding’ by OFSTED. The only blot on this landscape was KCC’s mismanagement of Furness School, catering for children with High Level Autism, leading to a very public failed attempt to shut down the provision.

Kent and Medway now have eight new Free Schools between them, with two more to come in the next two years and. in contrast to some other parts of the country, these are generally proving to be a success story adding to the level of quality provision.

Government wants all schools converted to academy status by 2020, in spite of the limited evidence that academisation improves standards. Currently, 81% of Kent secondary schools or in process of conversion, with 32% of primaries. For Medway the figures are 88% and 38%. Over half of the 23 Kent primary schools who failed to reach the government floor standard at Key Stage 2 this summer are academies, many of which have had a troubled time since their change in status, with three being forced to change sponsors after failure by their original ones. This is a part of the ‘game’ of Academy Monopoly, as too many Trusts seek to emulate successful businesses in their dealings with schools, effectively engaging in takeovers, mergers and transfers as reported on my website. Three Academies: Astor College in Dover; Chantry Primary in Gravesend, and Oasis Skinner Street Primary in Medway have all received heavy warning letters from government in the last year about their poor performance,  the last two having been threatened with closure if they do not improve.

What is certain is that the education map is changing faster than at any time I can remember in my forty years of working in the county, with government more firmly in the driving seat than ever before. I see no sign of relaxation of this centralised and politicised grip in the near future, so hang on for another bumpy ride in 2016. 

Last modified on Sunday, 26 February 2017 18:00

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