UPDATE: A comment at the foot of this article asks what would happen to those SEN children who are currently catered for in the Nick Hornby Centre, the only SEN Specialist Unit in Gravesham for children with an EHSC Plan, which caters for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder if the school changes to become a grammar. Answer - I don't know, and an answer may emerge as the plans develop, but I suspect they could be sent to the Iris Centre, a similar provision at Wilmington Academy, in the far West of Dartford, although this only has a capacity for 15 students at present.
This plan is dependent on Parliament approving the proposals outlined in the Green Paper. The relevant part allows new grammar schools to convert from non-selective schools, or to be set up independently, or else to expand from existing grammar schools, using as yet unknown methods of selection to improve social mobility. A fund of £50 million is to be made available as a start-up aid. This may be the first, but certainly won't be the last such proposal.
My greatest concern, looked at in more detail below, is that there appears no consideration given to the whole community – it is as if to paraphrase “there is no such thing as community” which would consider the needs of all within it.
However, I can see superficially convincing arguments for the proposal if one does not take such matters into consideration. Meopham School, which a few years ago was struggling, has now been transformed into one of Kent’s highest performing non-selective schools, based on this year’s provisional GCSE 5 A*-C pass rate. This was 71%, which would have put it second in the county in 2015. There would be a strong market locally. Meopham and its surrounding villages send a high proportion of their pupils to grammar school, mainly in Gravesend, but some to Dartford or Medway grammar schools. The neighbouring areas of Hartley, Longfield and New Ash Green would be very tempted, because students currently face longer public transport journeys to Dartford or Gravesend. It is on a direct rail service to the south of Bexley, Bromley and into London, which would prove an attractive alternative to those on the busy mainline to the north into Dartford and Gravesend. London currently offers what appears to be an inexhaustible supply of selective ability boys and girls. The school is planning to introduce its own Meopham Selection Test and admission may be completely independent of the Kent Selection procedures.This would enable it to frame its own admission rules and academic levels, although it would need to provide appropriate rules to encourage social mobility. There is no mention of using the Kent Test as an alternative assessment, as happens in Dover, Folkestone and at the girls' grammar schools of Gravesend and Sittingbourne, all of which fill their places as a consequence. The school would therefore be able to determine its own level of academic performance or potential for admission, and thus could prove an attractive option for Gravesham families, creaming off what would otherwise be the higher performers in local non-selective schools to their detriment.
Swale Academy Trust, an expanding and acquisitive Trust, currently runs non-selective and primary schools in various parts of Kent, and can argue that it currently caters strongly for children at the lower end of the ability and social scales, so it is not being elitist. It currently has a struggling primary school in the next village, Istead Rise Primary, which could be turned into a feeder school to the Grammar School, with priority for admission.
However, against all this, I return to my ‘community’ theme. Children who have not qualified for grammar school in the Meopham area in previous years have looked across the District for alternatives but, as the school’s reputation has improved, numbers have grown. However, it did not quite fill this September, according to initial figures. The problem comes if it is completely removed as a non-selective school. Where do the displaced children go? The rest of Gravesham is under massive pressure for non-selective places, with local children being sent to Ebbsfleet Academy in Dartford, and Meopham itself. KCC already acknowledges the need to expand non-selective provision, but does not have the current option of increasing places in existing schools as numbers continue to rise.
The nearest alternative would be Longfield Academy, but this is already heavily oversubscribed. Wrotham could take a few, Thamesview in Gravesend might have a little capacity. The only school able to absorb numbers is Holmesdale in Snodland, six miles away by narrow roads. Meopham School was also designed as a whole community facility with a range of local facilities, including the Public Library in its centre, which could be lost. The school is already going to benefit from a completely new set of buildings, due for occupation next year, now to be taken from most of the local children if this proposal goes through.
Gravesend and Mayfield Grammar Schools in Gravesend will also feel the cold if those proposals goes through, as both have a high proportion of students from the south in Meopham, Longfield and district, who may be tempted to go locally, Gravesend Grammar in particular. This school, with an intake of 174 boys, does not fill locally by a long way, so the claim by Meopham School that there is a local need does not stand up. Gravesend offered places this year to 43 out of County boys, mainly from SE London and Essex, and so would inevitably see this proportion rise sharply if the proposal went through, with a significant effect on the nature of the school population.