|Most recent Update: 5th November 2015 |
The proposed Sevenoaks Annex to Weald of Kent Grammar School has today received government approval to go ahead, creating what is almost certainly the largest grammar school in the country with an annual intake of up to 265 girls. Below I give some excerpts from Mrs Morgan's statement of Parliament, making clear the government view that this does not break the law prohibiting the creation of new grammar schools but is, in accordance with government policy, simply the expansion of a good school with integration between the two sites which is allowable. In no way is it a green light for other grammar school developments that fail to fit with such criteria.
The path to approval has been a long, controversial and difficult one since the original proposal four years ago, including rejections of two previous schemes on grounds of illegality and one vote by Weald of Kent parents against the girls’ school becoming mixed to facilitate approval. You can trace back the history of the proposal from previous articles on this website, the most recent being here.
The delays mean the school will not now open until September 2017 (not confirmed yet and there may well be legal challenges to the decision causing further delays), by which time there will be intense pressure on existing grammar school places in West Kent for both girls and boys. Building plans for the new premises have been approved; and builders appointed, just waiting for final approval to begin work.
In the meantime to respond to the pressure on places, the school has increased its intake from 145 to 175 in the past few years, taking in a massive 211 girls in September 2014, presumably on the expectation of the Annex arriving by 2016......
Secretary of State for Education, Mrs Morgan’s Statement
(taken from the BBC website until the full statement is published)
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said this was a "genuine expansion" of an existing school and not a change in policy on selection…. Mrs Morgan said permission had been given on the grounds that all good schools should be able to expand - and she was satisfied this was an expansion of an existing school, with integration between the two sites… Any bids from other grammar schools would still face the "statutory prohibition" on new selective schools and would need to "meet the criteria for being a genuine expansion", said the education secretary.
Much of the delay since the most recent scheme was put forward in September 2014, has been due to uncertainty over the recent General Election and the threat of legal challenges to the scheme which has to fit the most recent legislation, the 1998 school Standards and Framework Act, banning new schools from being wholly selective. Presumably today’s approval means that government now believes the decision is watertight, and there may be specifics in the approval to help ensure this.
However, those legal challenges may still be made which would delay implementation further. A previous article on this website in May, sets out the post-election possibilities and consequences elsewhere in the country if and when the decision is made, but there are still many issues to be sorted out before the annex opens. For parents, these will certainly include:
How will children be allocated across the two sites?
Parents will make applications to the school as a whole and it will then be up to the school to which site they are allocated, although parental preference will almost certainly be taken into account. In the early years this may create some unhappiness as many parents even living at the Sevenoaks end of West Kent may prefer their children to be educated at the main site in Tonbridge, along with the full age range of girls, although the expected new facilities at Sevenoaks may prove an extra draw. It is possible the new annex will offer places to older girls from the Sevenoaks end of the area, who are already members of Weald, but who would prefer to be taught locally – one of many decisions now to be made.
How will the admission rules work?
One of the difficulties with the previous schemes was that under current legislation the two sites have to have a single admission policy for a single school, especially with regard to oversubscription. This will not be an issue initially given the additional spaces, but in fact the current rules already prioritise children in Tonbridge and Sevenoaks, so apart from a few tweaks I cannot see this being an issue.
What about staffing?
This is a single school with a single staff, and in the early years at least specialist staff will need to move between the two sites to ensure a balanced and well-taught curriculum – again, how this is achieved is a school decision – the next eighteen months are going to be busy.
Where will the additional 90 girls come from to fill the spaces?
I don’t see this as an issue. For September 2015 entry, the school turned away 17 first choices on allocation in March, and of 50 appeals heard this summer, just 6 were successful, most of girls who were already grammar qualified, whilst others were found to be of grammar school ability by the Appeal Panel, but there was no room for them. Both of the other two West Kent girls’ grammars, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells Girls are regularly heavily oversubscribed, so there is no flexibility there. This being West Kent, a number of girls who cannot access the grammar school of their choice look to private education as an alternative, some of whom would swing back if there was capacity. Still in the county, outside West Kent there are areas where there is pressure on grammar school places and parents may well now look towards Weald when there is capacity. In particular, the tribulations of Cranbrook School, Kent’s only remaining 13-18 grammar, as it seeks to increase its age range to 11-18, see a considerable number of children seeking grammar school places at 11 elsewhere. Then there are the out-county children who would come from East Sussex, Surry and Bromley. Last year Tonbridge Grammar offered 30 places to girls from these Authorities and there are many more who would be attracted if the opportunity were there. But the bottom line is that the number of children and of able children, in and moving into West Kent is rising inexorably. Population forecasts for children already living in West Kent show that demand for grammar school places is on the cusp and will soon exceed current supply. On top of this, I am weekly advising families planning to move into West Kent, returning to the country from work placements abroad, or else out from London, attracted by the high quality of grammar schools in the district.
What about the boys, and expansion elsewhere in the country?
What indeed? The current proposal at Sevenoaks, for girls only, is all that can be achieved under current legislation, and there will need to be a change in the law to create additional grammar school capacity except on current sites. The Judd and Skinners’ have already both increased capacity by 30 places to 155 and 150 places respectively, and Tunbridge Wells Boys at 180, is bulging at the seams. The Sevenoaks Annex was originally conceived as a mixed gender school extension, but this has now been ruled out. My previous article on Sevenoaks Annex: Post-Election, explores the options for boys, further annexes and even new grammar schools, but this remains a highly sensitive political issue, with some Conservative members opposed to such expansions on the grounds of damage to good existing non-selective schools.
Will there be a legal challenge?
If there is no challenge to the decision, which would presumably be via an application for Judicial Review, the precedent this would set would have enormous ramifications, as in the previous paragraph. As a result I anticipate such an application coming forward, which would in itself delay implementation of the proposal. A BBC article gives further insight, stating: "The Sunday Times said Whitehall lawyers had told ministers the move had only a 50% chance of surviving any legal challenge and recommended such a plan needed at least 60% to go ahead".If so, there is indeed a considerable risk, and the article goes on to state: "Comprehensive Future, a group which campaigns for equality of opportunity in education, confirmed they were taking advice on the feasibility of a judicial review of the decision in the High Court".
Any issue will be bound up in the considerable distance between the two sites and the implications of declaring this to be a single school. A judicial decision that the proposal would create a new school would rule it out as illegal under current legislation which makes the creation of new grammar schools illegal. The two sites are in different towns, and the distance between them is 7.9 miles as the crow flies, or 10.0 miles by road, although supporters appear to find it less and critics more than the relevant figure for their argument! Unfortunately, as there is no precedent for the question being asked previously, there is no defined answer. Governors of Weald of Kent aided by KCC, will have taken advice and worked hard to minimise any risk of successful challenge. So, there will be a single governing body for the school, and a single admission policy with one set of oversubscription criteria applying to the school as a whole. A single staff can be demonstrated by teachers moving between sites to deliver lessons. Girls will apply to and be offered places at the school as a whole following application but, if they are subsequently allocated to one site only, does this open the way to challenge? I think not, as there are counterexamples in Kent and elsewhere. And so we come back to the fundamental question. Is a school, based on two sites in different towns and Local Authority Districts around eight miles apart, a single entity? There is a lot riding on this question. Let us hope for the sake of the children that if, as I expect, it is raised that it be resolved quickly.
Knole Academy and Trinity Free School
The Knole Academy is the main non-selective school in Sevenoaks with an intake of 240 children, and has built up an excellent reputation in recent years, with 62 first choices oversubscribed in March, attracting children from across the county border (35 from Bromley on allocation this year). The school has set up a grammar stream, populated by some children who see it as a genuine first choice, others put off by the journey to Tonbridge or Tunbridge Wells grammars, or else near misses for grammar school selection who would have secured grammar school places elsewhere in the county. They may well lose many of their brightest girls through this development, but should be strong enough still to thrive.
The new Trinity Free School, on the same site as the Sevenoaks Annex, is still somewhat of an unknown quantity, being just in its third year of operation, but has made an excellent start in spite of still being in temporary accommodation whilst waiting for the new premises to open later this school year. Its recent OFSTED found the school “Good”, it awards half of its places to children with a Christian background, and was 82 first choices oversubscribed for its 120 places.
How does this affect September 2016 admissions?
This section supersedes my speculation below
In a letter to parents from governors last month, which I have confirmed with Weald of Kent, the school announced that it is to expand its intake from 6 forms of entry to 8 (which would be 235 girls) for admission in September 2016 if the demand is there. My caveat is that it is not legally committed to doing so, but it would be very difficult to draw back given this unambiguous statement. Admission and appeal data from the 2015 intake shows that this greater level of demand is highly likely, so I anticipate it will go ahead. Last March, 29 grammar qualified girls who placed the school as first choice were turned down for admission in September 2015, so it is likely this time round that all grammar qualified girls who live within a reasonable distance of the school will be offered a place in March, if they have applied and it is the highest school on their list for which they are eligible. Clearly the argument at appeal last year that the school had no capacity to expand has been overcome, as the school seeks to build up its staff and infrastructure for the planned arrival of the Sevenoaks Annex in 2017.
Again it is a how indeed? For 2014 admission the school encouraged the Independent Appeal Panel to uphold an unprecedented 48 appeals, swelling the final intake in September to 211, 36 girls above its official capacity. This presumably was in the expectation of an early positive decision on the annex, but for 2015 admissions the school was far more cautious, given the new uncertainties and just six out of 50 appeals were upheld, the school submitting a very strong defence, that it had no capacity to expand further and was forced to remain at six forms of entry.
Will the school again be happy to increase its intake for September 2016, knowing that the capacity will increase just a year later on the Sevenoaks site? Or is this a step too far? Whichever, children who live in West Kent who pass the Kent Test, should have no problem about securing a place. For those living further afield or who have not passed and are relying on an appeal to win a place, I am afraid have no idea and I am sure decisions will not be made until some way into the new year when issues are clearer.
If browsers consider there are issues I have not covered or errors in fact in this article, prepared on the morning the decision to approve is to be announced, please let me know and I will update.