Update(20 May) – please read main article below first: BBC SE broadcast an item on 18th May about correspondence they had obtained by FOI, between Kent County Council and Government. This explains the delay in approving the building works for the new Trinity Free School on the old Wildernesse site in Sevenoaks. The problem is that the project is linked to the proposed Weald of Kent Grammar School annex on the same site and government has delayed a decision on approving the annex for over six months, as explained below. This item continues in the main body of this article, also below. In any case, with Trinity School about to grow by another 90 students in September, it appears that there is now approval for temporary accommodation to be erected on the site so the whole school can move there for the new academic year.
The proposed Weald of Kent Grammar School annex in Sevenoaks to cater for local girls surely came closer to approval with the Conservative victory in the election last week. Not being a lawyer, I could not see what was wrong with the most recent proposal currently with the government, as it avoided the fatal flaws in two earlier proposals described in previous articles on this website. Nonetheless, government sat on the proposal without making a decision for six months before the election, presumably because of its contentious nature. Certainly, the political ramifications of approving a new annex are enormous, not just in Kent but also likely to spread to other parts of the country, with the Home Secretary having already advocated a satellite grammar school in Maidenhead back in November, as explained in my most recent article.
As I see them, the subsequent issues for Sevenoaks and other parts of the country are as follows:
The flaws in previous proposals centred on the requirement that, for an annex to exist it needs to have the same rules for admission and operation as the host school. The current plan is for an additional site for girls in Sevenoaks, adopting the same rules as the current Weald of Kent Grammar in Tonbridge which also admits girls only, the two previous proposals being by girls' grammar schools both proposing a co-educational annex. In addition, the school would be able to continue with a single set of oversubscription criteria for admission based on location, and then allocate girls to whichever site makes most sense. Currently the relevant criterion for admission to Weald gives priority to girls living in Tonbridge Town, Sevenoaks District and several local villages for whom it is the nearest appropriate grammar school. This can remain unchanged with a new annex. It is said either that Number Ten did not want another controversy near the election (certainly there was no need to go for extra votes in Sevenoaks!), or that Mrs Morgan, the Education Minister, was not enthusiastic. Whichever, there is now no reason for further delay on a decision which has been six months in the making.
Update Continued: I am happy to be corrected on any errors of fact in my attempt to describe this complex situation.
KCC calculates that building the two schools as separate projects would cost it, and therefore Kent Council taxpayers, an extra £4.9 million unless government was prepared to make up the shortfall. Currently, KCC will be paying for the annex premises if approved, and government for the Free School, the latter having been approved in principle but which appears unable to start at present as the two are part of the same building contract. After that, the argument gets complicated and there are several scenarios.
- Government approves the annex in the near future – no problem and the single project can begin.
- Government turns down the annex in the near future – I think (but am not confident) no problem and the Free School project can go ahead.
- No early decision on the annex – KCC attempts to delay the Free School project until a decision is made, because of the additional financial cost if the annex is subsequently approved.
- No early decision on the annex – KCC agrees to absorb the £4.9m cost if the annex is subsequently approved and the Free school project goes ahead. The Trinity School website states (3rd March 2015): “ Roger Gough, KCC Cabinet Member for Education has written to the school today as follows: ‘Kent County Council is happy to confirm that the Authority and its Contractor, Willmott Dixon, are working to ensure that Trinity’s new building is ready for occupation in September 2016. The project is on track to achieve that target date.’ The article continues: The temporary accommodation that we need for September 2015 is also proceeding well: the units have already been ordered and work in preparing that part of the site is well advanced.
Provision for Boys in Sevenoaks
The most pressing need, when the first proposal was mooted, was to find additional places for boys in West Kent and an expansion of Weald of Kent Grammar does nothing to address this need. In the interim, an additional 60 boys’ places have been created at the two super-selective grammars, Judd and Skinners, which have staved off problems this year, eased by the higher proportion of girls passing the Kent Test. Further, The Judd School has changed its own rules to give priority to West Kent boys. However, population projections show that the pressure on places can only increase and so a further expansion of boys’ places will be necessary otherwise some local grammar qualified boys will be denied a place in a selective school. It will be difficult to convert the annex (if approved) to a co-educational establishment hosted by a single sex school and would again require new legislation to deal with this unique case; or is it better to wait and sweep it up under additional legislation as in the next paragraph? Now that West Kent possesses two Government Cabinet Members, as well as the KCC Cabinet Member responsible for schools and one of his Deputies both representing Sevenoaks, the pressure to sort this one could become irresistible!
Further Annexes in Maidenhead and Elsewhere
The next step possible step is to venture outside Kent, setting up further annexes, with grammar schools in various parts of the country, including Devon, eyeing the Sevenoaks situation closely. We also have a proposed annex already suggested by Mrs May, Home Secretary, in her constituency of Maidenhead possibly sponsored by a grammar school in Slough. I have written about this previously, noting that it would surely fail under current legislation. It might be possible to form a single set of oversubscription criteria to cater for two distinct centres, but admission would be to the school not to the centre and chances of the numbers of offers made balancing between the two sites would then be small, unless something very clever were devised. More likely, but also more controversially, new legislation could be formulated to allow different criteria to operate in main site and annexes in general. This would then also apply to the Sevenoaks annex. However, unlike Sevenoaks it would certainly destabilise the comprehensive systems currently in place in other counties, stripping out some of their ablest pupils.
The most radical solution, which appeared as a Manifesto commitment only for UKIP, and which I don’t think arose in the Conservative agenda in any way, is to set up new grammar schools. I have always thought that if the Sevenoaks annex ever became co-educational, it would be a logical next step for it to become free-standing. However, this again would require controversial legislation, with some Conservative Members opposing it, given the level of disruption and damage it would cause to existing schools. Such new grammar schools would be academies or, I think, more likely new Free Schools.
In the meantime, the new site in Sevenoaks, with planning permission for both a six form co-educational grammar school annex, and also new buildings for the existing Trinity Free School currently housed elsewhere, is waiting for building to go ahead for the latter alone. The part of the site designated for the proposed annex still lies derelict, waiting for a positive government decision to begin building. Will it ever come?