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Tuesday, 14 February 2017 20:37

Website Review of the Year 2016

Written by

This article looks back on the website and my services over the past year (and a bit) since January 2016.

The year again proved very busy with 114,608 different browsers making a total of 181,752 visits. I published 72 news and comment items, the most popular being “Maidstone Girls and Invicta Grammar Schools: Sixth Form Admissions”, with an astonishing 20,511 hits in the six weeks since publication last month. Next was “Kent Reception and Junior School Allocations  2016: Oversubscription and Vacancies”, the 14 most popular pages being listed below.

Much of the information accessed from the right hand side of each page has been present and regularly updated since this version of the website was launched in 2010. Unsurprisingly the most popular page provides information and advice on ‘Kent Grammar School Applications’ with a total of 255,106 visitors since then.

In addition, the site now has around a thousand subscribers, including most importantly the many parents for whom the site is primarily intended. It is also tracked by local and national media, state and private schools, local and national government officers, and politicians. Further information about the website, stories I have covered, and other matters below.

I have now decided to retire completely from my Personal Appeals Advice Service begun in 2003, but am continuing with my telephone consultancy which offers an advisory service for school appeals and other education matters, as explained here.

The website will continue and expand as time permits. As you can see, I have now started to accept appropriate advertisements and welcome enquiries.

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Educationally I have found 2016 the most depressing I can recall. Too many news articles illustrate examples of a breakdown in accountability, personal greed and ruthless hunger for power, loss of integrity including ‘alternative facts’ that are allowed to stand without challenge by those who should stand up for the rights of children and teachers, all encouraged by partisan and political policy making to support polemic ideas, at the expense of rather than the support of educating the next generation. However, measured against this I must acknowledge the work of the large majority of dedicated teachers, headteachers and governors still drawn to a profession and vocation crucial to the future of this country, committed to providing the best education possible, and who keep going despite all.

I have been drawn into many of the issues covered, by parents (and in some cases members of Governing Bodies, teachers and headteachers informally) seeking advice, and my telephone consultancy has never been busier. Can I also thank the many people who keep me informed of what is going on in our county; your information is invaluable. 

Popular News Items
The most frequently visited news items were as follows:  
 MOST VISITED NEWS PAGES January 2016 - February 2017
Visitor
Numbers
Maidstone Girls & Invicta Grammar Schools: Sixth Form Admissions 20683 
 13585
Hempstead Junior School - Headteacher Suspended  13831
Lilac Sky Academy Trust: The end of the Road  12662
Grammar School Leaders in Trouble: The Rochester Grammar School & Simon Langton Girls' Grammar  9109
Oversubscription & vacancies in Kent Grammar schools on allocation for September 2016  6831
 Closing Lilac Sky Academy Trust being investigated by Department of Education  6743
 Medway Test Scores Blunder - Medway fails families yet again  6404
 Lilac Sky Issues Widen  6062
Kent Test Results 2016, Initial figures 6052
Kent & Medway Secondary School Allocations 2016: Initial statistics and advice 4841
Grammar School Leaders in Trouble, Part 2: Still The Rochester Grammar School & Simon Langton Girls' Grammar  3634
Academy & Free School News, January 2016. 3517
Oversubscription & vacancies in Kent non-selective schools on allocation for September 2016. 3435

In the information pages of the site, after Kent Grammar School Applications come: Kent Special Schools & Units (awaiting a serious update); Kent Secondary School Admissions; Medway Grammar School Applications; Kent Grammar School Appeals; Kent Secondary Statistics on Admissions & Appeals; In Year Admissions; and Primary School Admissions, many of these items being drawn on by media to illustrate stories. These popular choices from the 150 pages of information provided show the insatiable appetite for hard-nosed information and advice on securing school places, and the important gap this website fills in the information provided elsewhere. It is an enormous task trying to keep these pages up to date, and I am currently overhauling the Individual School Information Pages for Medway (finished) and Kent, just started. I am always happy to respond to requests for additional or more recent information if relevant. There is also a large News Archive Section where I move older items which may still be of interest. Way out in front of these is an article I wrote in 2014 on the controversial closure of Chaucer Technology College in Canterbury, which has attracted an astonishing 159,423 visitors since then. Seven(!) other articles on the school's decline and fall have averaged over thirty thousand hits each confirming the interest shown in this debacle. There are also 61 Newspaper Articles I have written, mainly for Kent on Sunday.   

Invicta Grammar School
Unsurprisingly, the Invicta Grammar School scandal is way out ahead in terms of visitors, with my article attracting a large number of testimonies of young people forced out of their school Sixth Form, in spite of the publicly repeated claim by the headteacher that they all left voluntarily. This claim by the school appears to have been sufficient to avoid any serious investigation by an Academy Trust apparently blind to this and other examples of malpractice.
 
Whitehill Primary School
One of the worst scandals of all was at Whitehill Primary School in Gravesend which ran for nearly a decade from 2006.  Last month the headteacher was banned from teaching indefinitely, the list and severity of proven offences at another school over a seven month period which provided the necessary evidence, being breathtaking. Parallel events at Whitehill took place in spite of reports and complaints by staff over the whole decade. These were all ignored by governors, KCC and latterly the overseeing Academy Trust, which  supported the headteacher against the mounting pile of evidence, much of which is chronicled in a series of articles on this website. The Tribunal hearing has itself triggered details of further examples of serious malpractice to come.
 
Lilac Sky
The rise and fall of the Lilac Sky Academy Trust, first championed by KCC, then finally condemned too late, is an illustration of the lack of accountability of an organisation that used schools for its own purposes, extracting large sums of money from the system and those schools unfortunate enough to be placed under its clutches. It has now been closed down by government because of maladministration, but the owners have walked away unscathed, to go into further money raising ventures.
 
Grammar Schools and more important matters.
I was pleased to be invited by Radio Kent to their Big Grammar School Debate, described as their ‘Educational Expert and Official Adviser’. Remarkably good natured, the debate concluded with what appeared to be a consensus that ‘This is just a distraction. The real issue is the desperate national shortage of good teachers coming into and staying in the profession'. Was this the first use of the word ‘distraction’ now widely applied to the government’s nonsensical grammar school policy? Certainly the shortage of good teachers recruited and retained, and of headteachers' has now reached crisis level, as foretold and illustrated by Kent examples in a newspaper article I wrote 18 months ago. The website has a number of articles triggered by the high rate of attrition of headteachers, whilst the difficulties of attracting new leaders to what is becoming an unenviable task should be an increasing priority. The financial crisis that is also biting into the quality of education offered to our children can only get worse, and amongst other measures we are seeing staff redundancies (at a time of teacher supply crisis!), the curriculum being cheapened, including courses cut especially at A Level (hitting grammar schools especially hard), and class sizes increased.

An article I wrote about ‘alternative facts’ (which preceded Trumpism) relating to grammar school matters, has attracted considerable attention although the content of the websites concerned has changed considerably as a consequence.

The Sevenoaks grammar school Annexe will be opening in September, having attracted much press comment since the original seriously flawed proposal was put forward in 2012. I have reported on  developments ever since, but have chosen to ignore the many rather pointless efforts to scupper the current scheme first proposed two years later.

In spite of alarmist media stories about the pressure on grammar school places especially in West Kent, there has been sufficient capacity in the system to date, eased this year by additional classes of entry being added at The Judd and Tonbridge Grammar Schools.  Far less attention has been made to the harmful effects of the London overspill into North Kent grammars that I have followed and regularly reported. The surge started in Dartford, but has now followed through to Gravesend and increasingly into Medway, especially concerning to local children seeking places through appeals, more so since my 2014 article

Six of Kent and Medway’s 38 grammar schools now offer their own admission tests as an alternative way of entry, increasing pass rates, at least 14 more offering some or all of their places to high scoring children. The two Dartford grammar schools have both responded enthusiastically to the attraction of high scoring London children, and now also limit local places to the best performers. Other grammar schools have gone in the opposite direction, the super-selective Judd School and the two Wilmington grammars now giving priority to Kent children.

Overall, through own school tests and an increase in successful grammar school appeals, the proportion of children in Year 7 at Kent grammar schools has continued to rise inexorably to 31.2% this year up from 2015-16’s 29.9%, making the best estimate for out of county children.

I have covered and contributed to the extensive and welcome debate on widening admissions to Kent grammar schools led by Kent County Council in 2016, which is now leading the way with a policy containing explicit proposals towards improving social mobility in grammar schools. This has also contributed to an increasing number of over-subscribed local grammars including the three West Kent super-selectives making some places available for children on Pupil Premium.

Academies, Free Schools and UTCs
Recent governments have all championed a wide variety of provision through the Academy and Free School programme, and have certainly succeeded in this ambition, although there is no evidence it has improved quality or even choice. If all popular schools are full, many families are still left with only one realistic option. I have of course focused on Kent and Medway matters, but we are probably a microcosm of events across the country, apart from the added factor of academic selection the definition of which continues to widen with each new initiative.

The worst case of variety in Kent is undoubtedly the Leigh University Technical College, Kent’s first new 14 – 19 school intended to provide a semi-vocational education backed up by business and Higher Education. In its third year of operation, the UTC only attracted 38 students into Year 10, filling just 25% of places, a pattern replicated in many other parts of the country. However, by contrast the new Medway UTC managed to fill this year.

I have exposed several examples of the lack of accountability on the website, but there are of course many good Academy Trusts that have not forgotten their prime responsibility, providing the best education possible for their students. Unfortunately, these do not receive public recognition often enough, OFSTED and school league tables only offering a partial picture. So I, like many other commentators, focus on the controversial examples of which there are too many in the county as elsewhere. Profit making at the expense of educational provision is increasingly more blatant, with some owners and leaders of Trusts taking much needed funds out of academy budgets, forcing economies, a common one being the shedding of expensive (experienced) staff and replacing them with expendable NQTs, Teaching Assistants or non-qualified staff.

Academies appear by definition to be self-interested, looking after their own with the result that they don’t have to worry about other children in the community. One negative result is that exclusion results can be high, and there are increasing examples of older children being  encouraged to ‘home educate’ to avoid dragging down GCSE results. Almost certainly, the worst local example of self-interest is the Learning Schools Academy Trust in Medway, whose previous Chief Executive and head of The Rochester Grammar School departed after allegations of unprofessional conduct, with a pay-off reported to be £80,000. One of its schools, Holcombe Grammar (previously Chatham Boys’ Grammar) is proposing to become co-educational, a by-product threatening the future of Chatham Girls, although the latter may now be saved by the London effect. Holcombe’s paperwork for the proposal makes clear it has no interest in the prospects of what was previously its partner school.

One recent Report is of a new build academy, recently taken over by a profit orientated Academy Trust, that is strongly encouraging parents of SEN children to look elsewhere. Sadly, they are not alone as some academies seek to focus on attracting the highest performing pupils.  

I am regularly contacted by parents of children who have run into difficulties at their academy, but can get no satisfaction. If the academy chooses not to take not of a concern, the only route is to complain to the Department of Education which rarely takes an interest in such local matters.

Many (but certainly not all) secondary academy headteachers are on inflated salaries at a time when their schools are facing severe financial cuts - similar to some leaders in other state systems such as Local Government, universities, the NHS etc. However, I identified three local primary headteachers with salaries of over £100,000, two running smaller schools, the third and highest paid at over £155,000 p.a., an astonishing and indefensible sum, leaving his post after two of the the three schools for which he was responsible deteriorated sharply under his leadership.    

Such problems are not of course confined to Academies, and the current massive disaffection at Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar School, which failed in its attempt to become an academy has surely reached a climax since my last article in July, as the result of an investigation commissioned by KCC has been handed to governors. For an up to date but partisan view, see here

Primary School Admissions
Primary places have been a constant source of concern for families, exemplified by the runner up position on the popularity of website pages. KCC is on a hiding to nothing here, as they have responsibility for finding new school places, but no power to do so. Instead they have to rely on finding sponsors for new academies, or seeing Free Schools set up, sometimes in co-operation with them, but too often independently of county place planning.
 
Medway Council
I continue to despair of Medway Council, whose Education Department continues to fail families. Another Chief Officer has moved on, being promoted a senior position in another Council, like her predecessors having failed to make an impact on this dire situation. Parents continue to report back to me regularly about their contacts with the Admission Department, talking to Council employees who don’t know answers, give wrong or conflicting responses, or else simply ignore them. The Medway Test continues to be not fit for purpose, with its strong bias towards girls and older children. The Medway In Year school transfer process continues to be unlawful, and manages to confuse many who have to work through it. I still do not understand why the secondary schools, all but one academies, continue to put up with it. Standards of performance in primary schools continue to be woeful, the Council’s only strategy being one of defeatism, pressurising all remaining Local Authority schools to become academies. The Council has even withdrawn its objections to the Holcombe co-education proposal which will reduce secondary schooling opportunities for its own children, leaving no single sex grammar school for boys anywhere but Rochester and Strood.
Final Word
I appreciate this is a somewhat dismal picture, but those who contact me nearly all do so because of problems, so I suspect I see a somewhat distorted view. I still believe the large majority of schools succeed in spite of all that is thrown at them, because of a belief that they should offer the best for their pupils. If you are a teacher, you should be proud to be one, shaping the future of society for the better. I am just sorry so many of you are not better supported, especially by government.   
Read 789 times Last modified on Friday, 31 March 2017 23:07

1 comment

  • Comment Link Monday, 27 February 2017 22:38 posted by Kelly Simpson

    Peter, so sorry to hear you are retiring from appeals. You gave our son a chance five years ago, and last summer he achieved eight As and A*s at grammar. You persuaded me to become a school governor and have provided support when i have needed it. Your website has been a continual source of information and advice. Thank you so much on behalf of William and the many other families you have guided through appeals. Also for all those in trouble who you have helped in other ways and the thousands who have looked at the website for information and guidance. You will be sadly missed. PETER: Thanks for this, but I plan for the website to go on from strength to strength.

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