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Monday, 15 August 2016 20:04

Gravesham East County Council By-Election - Letter to Candidates

Written by

I have written the following letter to the candidates for the Conservative and Labour Parties for the forthcoming By-election in Gravesham East this Thursday for a seat on the County Council, following reception of their Election literature, but feel the important issues raised deserve a wider circulation. Unfortunately, at the time of publication of this article, I cannot send the letter directly to the Labour candidate, as neither of the official email addresses provided appears to function.

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I write as a constituent of the Gravesham East Constituency, and one who has been involved in education politics in Gravesham (such as exist) over the past thirty years.

I am delighted that both of you in your election literature for the County Council by-election for the constituency, following the sad death of the excellent Member Jane Cribbon, identify one of your key priorities as the shortage in provision of school places in Gravesham, although with no indication of how you would wish to progress this. As a result, I would like to know how you intend to tackle the crisis in both primary and secondary provision in the Borough which has now slipped out of KCC control because of policies implemented by both Labour and Conservative governments. I have been reporting and attempting to get action on the growing pressures in Gravesham Primary Schools for nearly ten years, predating the 2010 peak first identified by KCC, caused by the shortage of places, the desperate unpopularity of some local schools, especially in Gravesham East, and the poor primary standards in too many schools in the Borough which aggravates the issue.  I have been raising these matters with local leaders and senior Councillors in both parties over this time and have been amazed at the lack of interest shown in educational matters......

As I wrote on my website earlier in the year about another Dartford initiative: “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 (to increase provision), in spite of its flaws, to improve the quality of education in the Borough”.

As I recorded on the website about Gravesham Primary provision earlier this year: “Just 3 places available in the urban area (with 78 families getting none of their choices, by some way the highest figure in Kent. I have argued for years this is consistently Kent’s most pressured area and this year 90 late (i.e. not planned for) places were created. Last year,Singlewellhad the smallest catchment distance in Kent for 2015, at less than 200 yards, so its expansion will have removed this peril. Most oversubscribed school is as usual St Joseph’s Catholic, turning away 37 first choices, with Cecil Road and St John’s Catholic on 31. Four schools account for the large majority of the Local Authority allocations - although at 49 out of the 1168 placements, the number of third choices offered in the town is also considerably the highest proportion in Kent. Another problem with Gravesham is that it has the highest proportion of low performing schools in the county, so there is considerable parental pressure to avoid certain schools”.  

Adam Holloway, MP, the only politician I have found who appears concerned about these problems, wrote to KCC expressing concerns over primary school issues last year. I remain unconvinced by KCC optimism that there may be a fall in numbers after this September, especially as there appears no letup: “High levels of demand have been seen in parts for urban Gravesend, especially Northfleet and Central Gravesend town. The reasons for this high demand appears to be a combination of changing demographics, new housing and inward migration from London and the European Union”  (letter from KCC to Adam Holloway in response to my concerns). There are five year old children from Northfleet attending schools in East Gravesend and South of the A2, some being taxied, others facing long journeys with their families, to schools outside their local communities. The continuing inward migration throughout the year has only increased the pressure, as does the massive problem of finding additional space for school places in an urban area.  

Adam also raised my concerns a year ago about poor standards in too many of Gravesham’s primary schools, but the County response did not appear to attach to much concern about the serious issues I raised. Nevertheless, I understand that KCC is so worried about performance in local primary schools that it has set up a working party in an attempt to rise standards, in what I believe to be the poorest performing District in Kent. This is in spite of OFSTED’s acknowledgement that Gravesham’s Nursery provision, secondary schools (all school Inspections Good or Outstanding) and Special School are all performing to a high standard. Something is very wrong.  

You will find a summary of the secondary school issues as follows, again from my website:  “Second most popular non-selective school in Kent is St George’s CofE School in Gravesend, with 123 rejected first choices, a giant leap up from last year’s 63 when it was 12th in the popularity list. Gravesham has come under enormous pressure this year, as I have been warning for some time, given the intense pressure on primary numbers. An additional 76 places have been created in three schools, but still leaving just 5 empty spaces in the Borough on allocation. Second most popular school here was St John’s Catholic Comprehensive, 40 first choices oversubscribed.”

As you know five of Gravesham’s secondary schools are academies, but seven control their own admission numbers, the two biggest increases in numbers having been created at the Northfleet schools, neither of which is an academy. Although Northfleet is not in your Constituency, I can assure you that I have talked with local families who have been allocated to either Meopham School or Ebbsfleet Academy in Dartford, both of which had vacancies, underlining the pressures local schools are under. As you will also know, Thamesview in your prospective Constituency was 17 first choices oversubscribed for September. I remain unclear what action you are proposing to take through KCC, which has lost its powers of compulsion to ease the problem but is well aware of it. The KCC Commissioning Plan for 2016-17 reports: “The increased Primary demand that first appeared in 2010 is now impacting on Secondary demand. There are fewer options for expansion in the short term in Gravesham. Longer term, education provision planning for Secondary will have to be closely linked to any new development as existing school sites cannot accommodate the level of expansion required to meet demand”.  Clearly KCC recognises the crisis and I would be grateful to know your solution if any. Ironically, the school which has expanded most, Gravesend Grammar, has now found itself under such pressure from London families taking up the additional places, that local boys who have been found selective by the Independent Appeals Panel have been deprived of places by this unforeseen consequence and are now having to take up places in Medway grammar schools.

I am very happy to find local politicians who are keen to tackle the problems I have outlined, and so would be more than happy to provide what assistance I can for the benefit of local families. I have a good understanding of the issues, backed up by a large data-base of statistical evidence and experience of talking with local families whose children’s education is suffering through the pressures. In primary schools these are partly due to previous failures to tackle the problems, although now KCC is showing a determination to make appropriate provision, solutions are far harder to come by.

Who now remembers the proposed primary school to be part funded by developers in Northfleet a few years ago, turned down by KCC on grounds it wasn’t needed, which I shouted loudly against. It would have been right at the heart of the greatest Northfleet pressure point, near Springhead Parkway. Further back, the shameful and unnecessary closure of Southfields School, whose grounds are now covered by a housing development which only adds to the local pressure.

KCC now has a sensible planning mechanism developed over recent years, identifying issues through analysis of population trends amongst other tools and attempting to come up with solutions. Unfortunately, it has lost the power to implement these and needs to negotiate with a large number of independent academies, in both the primary and secondary sectors, who do not necessarily feel they are part of a District service with responsibility towards the community as a whole. 

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2 comments

  • Comment Link Sunday, 28 May 2017 00:13 posted by Adam

    Superb website Peter....
    PETER: Thanks for the appreciation from Adam Holloway, MP for Gravesham until dissolution of Parliament last month, who does have a strong interest in local education matters.

  • Comment Link Monday, 22 August 2016 09:29 posted by Peggy

    Who won the by-election. PETER: The Conservatives by 220 votes over Labour, with a total of 1758 votes. Turn out was a record low of 16.38% perhaps reflecting voters low expectations of the candidates. Unsurprisingly, I have had no response to my letter, nor of my offer to assist.

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