I have considerable sympathy for KCC in managing primary school places, and a previous article looks at pressures in each Kent district. The key issue is the shortage of places in urban areas with some towns – Dartford, Folkestone and Sevenoaks having NO places vacant on allocation in April. Finding space for a new school, which has to be an academy or Free School, is very difficult in a built up area, the only other solution being to expand existing schools. A permanent expansion, which according to KCC policy needs to be of an OFSTED Good or Outstanding school, is going to require seven classrooms by the time it has worked through, which will normally require an existing school with a large amount of surplus playground or something similar, increasingly rare. A temporary enlargement for more than one year sets up this issue of fast shrinking opportunities for children without older siblings which can last for up to seven years, as sibling admission numbers are disproportionally higher, although the effect does reduce year on year as can be seen at Bishops Down and Claremont.
Using new data I have received for 2015 admission, this article looks at some of the pressure points. Kent only started publishing these figures since 2014, and the information I am using will be published in the Primary School Prospectus available sometime in the autumn before applications are made. Medway has made this publicly available for some years. It can be no more than a guide to chances of success at admission, as the proportion of siblings will generally fluctuate considerably year on year, so distance limits expand or retract accordingly.
A previous article of mine looked at the pressure on places for 2015 entry, especially for urban areas. However, in a letter to the M.P. for Gravesham, the Director of Education for Kent writes with regard to Gravesham: “The demand for primary places peaks in September 2016. The demand will of course be accommodated (although it isn’t in 2015) but it is not always in the interest of schools to propose a permanent expansion, only to see demand tail off, leaving half empty classrooms (I am aware of no examples of this). The plan therefore is to, where appropriate, investigate the establishment temporary enlargements (sic) and then follow up with a permanent solution if demand warrants it in subsequent years”. This is of course a nonsense. I doubt there is a single urban school in Gravesham, or indeed in many other parts of the county, where seven classrooms can be built on to an existing urban school without severely curtailing necessary play space. It was certainly not an option in Tunbridge Wells, the ad hoc approach to temporary enlargement being the source of today’s difficulties.
Back to the 10 smallest catchments in Kent, all with a furthest distance of less than 240 yards and all considerably oversubscribed. After St Peter’s and Bishops Down, come Leigh (Sevenoaks, 180 yards, 78% siblings); Claremont ; Goat Lees (Kennington, 194 yards, 47%); Singlewell; St John’s CofE (Sevenoaks, 207 yards, 60% - also following a temporary enlargement); Crockham Hill CofE (Sevenoaks, 210 yards, 80%): Horsmonden (227 yards, 70%); and Dartford Bridge (237 yards, 35%).
Other oversubscribed schools with a very high proportion of siblings in their intake include: Lyminge (Shepway, 77%); Headcorn (70%); and Chartham (67%).
This article does not express a view on the two debates common amongst parents affected by either of the two issues raised.
- Sibling priority: For Kent County Council run primary schools, Kent’s Free Schools, and some academies, there is a laid down order of priority where a school is oversubscribed. This is: SEN statemented children; children in Local Authority Care; Siblings; Health, Social and Special Access reasons (where there is a need to attend a particular school); and then distance. KCC has strongly tightened up the rules for residence to determine distance for primary school admission – the subject of an article come. The argument for this priority is a powerful one, as it can become physically impossible to transport children to different schools with the same starting time. However, with shrinking catchments or families moving further away after their first child has gained admission, other families will argue unfairness when their child is forced to attend a distant school, at the expense of a sibling who lives further away.
- Temporary enlargements: The Tunbridge Wells example is an extreme warning of what can happen when temporary enlargements are introduced for a few years without a long term strategy. However, I have enormous sympathy for KCC as it tries to manage growing numbers in urban areas without obvious areas to create new schools. KCC is now far more pro-active than previously in ensuring new schools are brought forward in new residential areas, but this cannot address the essential problem of established towns.
NOTE 3: There are 426 infant and primary schools and academies in Kent admitting children at Reception age (omitting junior schools). This article has explored the 185 of these which are both oversubscribed and use the KCC oversubscription rules, including The Wells Free School. Many Voluntary Aided (mainly church affiliated) schools, academies and free schools use their own criteria, which have to fit approved rules. Voluntary aided church schools often do not give sibling priority, giving preference to current church attendance, which can causesconsiderable family grief. Some other schools introduce allowable additional criteria such as "children of staff".