At present the UTC has only attracted just over 50 students for each of its four Year groups, 10-13, with an intake figure of 150, just over one third of capacity, so must be extremely worried about its current viability, given the enormous capital expenditure on the College, supported by industry. It is difficult therefore to accept the Leigh Academy claim that “Plans to expand The Leigh UTC are tremendously exciting. They represent a serious vote of confidence by KCC and DfE in the early success of The UTC”.This proposal of course will resolve the issue in the long term, which must be a great relief to all concerned. The Leigh UTC is not alone in struggling for numbers - see article here.
However, it destroys the whole point of the concept of UTCs which “are government-funded schools that offer 14–18 year olds a great deal more than traditional schools. They teach students technical and scientific subjects in a whole new way and are educating the inventors, engineers, scientists and technicians of tomorrow”. We now have a traditional school admitting children without any particular aptitudes, at the age of 11, but who at the age of 14 change to a curriculum which “dedicates at least 40% of time to the technical specialism including design and building, working in teams and problem solving”. Gone therefore is the underpinning principle that students at the age of 14 will be able to choose an education to match their developing aptitudes, as they will find it difficult to opt out of the school given the pressure on places elsewhere. Conversely, whilst the UTC concept is based on that decision making, there will only be 30 places available at that time for students from other schools, which surely must be a matter of dismay for the sponsors: King’s College Hospital NHS Trust; Eurostar; Beck and Politzer; BAE Systems; Dartford BC; and Bluewater. Surely this amounts to a reduction in opportunity, not an expansion.
It is not yet clear how government is going to fund the concept of the Inspiration Centre, even though there is a growing multitude of new options to choose from, as ideas turn into individual initiatives without any consideration as to planning an appropriate range of provision to cater for all in an area. Current newer models include: academies; all through schools (4-19); Free Schools of many different varieties and philosophies; Studio Schools (“pioneering a bold new approach to learning which includes teaching through enterprise projects and real work.”), and UTCs. All these operate alongside the current Community Schools, Foundation Schools, Voluntary Aided Schools and Voluntary Controlled Schools, although of course all these latter categories will be swept away by 2022 as they are academised. The proposed Inspiration Centre is neither school nor UTC, hence perhaps its ambiguous title, so one must assume that government is launching yet another new concept, the slot on Lego model.
The Leigh Academy Trust notes that: “All LAT academies in North West Kent are heavily over-subscribed and have been for many years. It is quite clear that far more parents and children wish to access a ‘Leigh-style’ education than we have places for each year”, and I am one who has applauded their successes. However, it is a fact that Leigh Academy GCSE A-C performance has fallen from 63% to 43% in two years, Longfield Academy from 66% to 52%, and Wilmington Academy from 71% to 46%, surely a matter of great concern. Not surprisingly, in parallel with this the popularity of the three academies has also fallen sharply, so "heavily oversubscribed" is now coming into question. Leigh Academy has slipped every year over the past four years from its heyday of 193 first choices oversubscribed, via 125 in 2015, to just 49 for 2016, and Longfield is down from 91 to 15. Wilmington, which the Leigh Trust rescued from failure a few years ago, peaked last year at 94 first choices oversubscribed following its outstanding GCSE performance in 2013, which encouraged the Trust to put on an extra form of entry this year, is still down to 27. The proposed Inspiration Centre would be able to absorb all those turned away and, assuming it proves popular to fill up from Dartford’s other two schools, Dartford Science and Technology College (girls only), and the controversial Ebbsfleet Academy (but GCSE performance improving rapidly), with just two spare places between them, even though between them they have 40 children allocated by KCC who did not apply to them.
If the Inspiration Centre goes ahead, as surely it will, for it is probably the best chance of easing the pressure on secondary places in Dartford, then nearly three quarters of Dartford secondary places will be run by the Leigh Academy Trust. Whether or not this is a good thing, and in spite of all the questions raised above, the pressing imperative remains that more places need to be provided in North West Kent (with some Gravesham children being redirected to Ebbsfleet because of pressures in that District with just 5 empty spaces), and there may be no other way now, given current government policies.
As always, Dartford Council with its commitment to education in the Borough, as distinct from Gravesham which appears to have no interest in its schools, a pattern I have seen repeated over the past thirty years, is taking yet another positive initiative, in spite of its flaws, to improve the quality of education in the Borough.
You will find more details of this year’s secondary school allocations here.