In the last few years in Kent, the County Council has been working hard to build a strategy to cater for the growing demand for places, but unfortunately is recovering from previous years when resources were available, but primary places were not seen as the priority. I was writing about the issues back in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and indeed even before then (items now deleted on the website) but the Local Authority in those days was responding to pressures often on an ad hoc basis, rather than planning to deal with them in advance.
In 2012 under new leadership, the Authority prepared a Commissioning Plan setting out how it would put in 5194 identified additional places by 2014, and another 5000 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”.
The Commissioning Plan, as well as identifying ways forward for 2014- 2018 also includes some “over-arching principles” to guide its decision making, of which more later.
My articles on oversubscription and vacancies describe the situation on allocation of Reception places in Kent and Medway in April. This section primarily reflects information I have received from parents since. Much of this comes from families moving in to Kent or Medway, often from London, 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 actually likely to be the major problem.
It is evident that Kent County Council is overriding its own rules in places where there are particular problems, and 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. This tactic of increasing class sizes over 30 is easiest in Junior classes as can be seen by the following paragraph.
Infant Class Legislation and Reasonableness
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 where some very exceptional cases apply. However, the rules do say that amongst these categories of children who can be excepted from this rule:
“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, for example in the Holborough Lakes area where several additional infants have been added at Snodland and St Katherine’s Primaries in Snodland. 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 Assessment of 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 children without schools should go between 2013 and 2015. I have now talked with several families who have given up hope of a local school and gone private until the new school opens, hoping they will secure one of the 15 places created in 2015 in each of Years 1-4 until the Reception intake of 30 works through the school. 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, 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.
My previous article refers to there being just two vacancies in the whole of urban Gravesham on allocation of places in April, with another twelve in the far south of the District at Vigo Primary. 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.
There is 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, in yet another new model, is to be sponsored by Chilton Primary School, currently a Community school under the control of KCC. The two schools will be led by Executive Head, Christopher Dale, currently headteacher of the heavily oversubscribed Chilton.
Meanwhile, in Broadstairs, in another imaginative move to ease pressures, St George’s Church of England Foundation School last week 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 the subsequent need to find additional primary school places in the district. This year, 76 of the total 79 Chatham Reception Class vacancies occurred in the New Horizons Children’s 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.
My previous article refers to Tonbridge, with NO vacant spaces in any of its Reception classes. News has just broken of a proposed new Free primary School designed to ease the pressures especially in south Tonbridge to open in September 2016. It would be called Bishop Chavasse School and would be run by Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Tunbridge Wells. It is planned to be: be a Church of England primary school with an inclusive Christian ethos serving the local community in South Tonbridge; have two forms of entry with sixty places in each year group; and prepare children to transfer to a secondary school of their choice (i.e. not just the church schools). It is proposed that 25% of places will be allocated on the basis of parental church attendance, and 75% of places will be open enrolment, available to those of all faiths or none in the local community.
Sevenoaks with just 10 places available in 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, as being the Districts with the greatest problems.
At the other end of the scale, there are 14 schools, almost all in East Kent, with half or more of their places left empty; a further 8 would be joining them if it weren’t for Local Authority Allocations. However, only three are repeats on last year’s list, showing how popularity can change rapidly at this end of the scale, and making rational planning even more difficult.
Kent’s Overarching Principles for Planning
Kent’s Commissioning Plan outlines a series of overarching principles by which it will determine where new primary school places are to be sited. These are:
- 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.
- We recognise perceptions may differ as to benefits and detrimental impacts of proposals. We aim to ensure our consultation processes capture the voice of all communities. To be supported, proposals must demonstrate overall benefit.
- Organisational changes should promote greater diversity of provision in a locality.
- The needs of Children in Care and those with SEN will be given priority in any commissioning decision.
- We will give priority to organisational changes that create environments better able to meet the needs of vulnerable children, including those who have SEN and disabilities, those from minority ethnic communities and / or are from low income families.
- We will make the most efficient use of resources.
- Any educational provision facing challenges in difficult times will be supported and challenged to recover in an efficient and timely manner, but where sufficient progress is not so achieved we will seek to commission alternative provision or another provider.
- 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 housing growth we will actively seek developer contributions to fund or part fund new and additional provision.
- In areas of high surplus capacity we will take action to reduce such surplus.
Sadly, as too many parents will testify, KCC has a long way to go if these ‘principles’ are to be put into practice. However, what I would prefer to call aspirations are certainly laudable even if entirely unrealistic.
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 2 forms of entry to three and even four forms of entry, so presumably, the quality of education on offer in these overlarge schools is declining.