This article looks at way the plans of the government to invest £320 million in new free schools including possible grammar schools might impinge on Kent and Medway. The proposal is to fund an initial 30 free schools including some grammar schools in the life of this parliament, as well as helping with the pre-opening capital costs of some of the remaining 110 free schools due to open later. The investment is on top of the current commitment to 500 new schools.
With all new schools being required to be Free Schools under current legislation, most of this money should be targeted at areas where there is most pressure on provision, although until now this has not always been the situation. One can only hope that government will work more closely with Local Authorities in the future to ensure that new schools are only provided where they are needed.
There are clear areas of present interest in Kent for this limited extra funding. However, on the scale of the investment one can see no more than one or two of the following being taken forward: a possible new grammar school in Herne/Bay Whitstable; additional grammar provision to meet the expanding pressure from London families for places in North West Kent and now Medway grammars; the limited provision of grammar school places in the Wealden area ; the single sex-grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks; the strange proposal to turn Meopham School into a grammar; a range of non-selective pressure areas where new schools are planned (previous funding) or could make sense; together with Primary and Special Schools in a number of areas. Then as always there is Medway…..
I will shortly be publishing my annual survey of oversubscription and vacancy levels in Kent and Medway secondary schools following allocation this month, identifying key pressure points more closely. My recent article on secondary school allocations identified some of these, but this article specifically addresses some of the possibilities for new schools, with many priorities already addressed in the Kent School Commissioning Plan 2017 – 2021. The figures look far more conservative than the initial statement, so it is be unlikely that Kent will only benefit from one or two extra allocations in the next few years, although others of the possibilities below may already be covered by the alternative forms of capital funding.
You will find my initial thoughts on several of the grammar school possibilities here (including expanding the Sevenoaks Annexe to admit boys and a Coastal Grammar at Herne Bay/Whitstable expanded here) and other secondary possibilities below. At present I would refer browsers to the Commissioning Plan for details of proposed new primary and Special school provision, but plan to cover this shortly.
North West Kent Grammars
The Member of Parliament for Dartford has already suggested a new grammar school (ignore the errors in the news article) in the area, to absorb the pressure created by London children seeking places. The two Dartford Grammar Schools changed their admission criteria for 2015 to give priority to high scoring pupils irrespective of residence. When challenged by the Schools Adjudicator following complaints, the two schools falsely assured him that there would be no problem with admitting local children. They are both now turning numbers of Dartford children away who are grammar school qualified, leading the MP to conclude there is a shortage, solely created by the schools chasing league table positions. However, there is no doubt that a new grammar school in the area would rapidly fill, if not with Kent children then others from the London Boroughs.
Possible Grammar School in the Weald of Kent, also looking south and east.
The Weald of Kent currently provides a large number of children looking to grammar schools in West Kent and Maidstone. The area is currently served by three comprehensive schools, with Homewood (Tenterden) and Mascalls (Paddock Wood) both being highly successful. Marsh Academy in New Romney has been improving for some years and is full on allocation this year for the first time. Cranbrook School is in the process of slowly adjusting to an 11 plus intake, partly converting from 13 plus but with a day intake of 90 places would still only partially soak up potential demand. There is no doubt that a further grammar school in this area, whilst viable, would severely undermine the standards of the three comprehensives and create empty spaces in them. Is this really the point of the new policy?
Meopham School as a grammar????? To date the Swale Academies Trust has not withdrawn this ridiculous proposal, but would government actually be foolish enough to back it?
The KCC Commissioning Plan identifies a total of around 2500 new non-selective secondary places in Year 7, which need to be followed through to provide places for all year groups and needed by 2020. There are already clear proposals for a number of new schools identified in my allocations article, in Canterbury, Dartford, Maidstone, and Shepway which will presumably be funded through the main Free School budget.
Three of these in one sense are not new places at all, replacing failed and closed schools: Chaucer Technology College, Canterbury; Oasis Hextable Academy, Sevenoaks - but close to Dartford; and Pent Valley, Folkestone. In Maidstone the new school will put another unpopular school at risk.
The Plan also includes a need for further new schools in Ashford (2022); Gravesham (2019); Sittingbourne (2019); Thanet (2019); and Tunbridge Wells (2018!)
Gravesham will need 7 new forms of entry by 2019. There appears little scope for enlargement of current schools which is continuing to happen in most Districts, so this should equate to a new school.
Sittingbourne is seeing considerable pressure on places, although there are vacancies at the unpopular Oasis Sheppey Academy, so a new school would be welcomed by many, KCC forecasting a need for 4 FE in the town by 2019.
Thanet non-selective provision
Thanet is currently pulling in considerable numbers of children from different countries and cultures and Children in Care being placed by London Boroughs creating immense problems which are focusing on the two least popular schools. All others are full and oversubscribed, and there is certainly scope for an additional school, although it could spell the end of the road for one of the two weaker schools, following the unlamented demise of Marlowe Academy in an expensive re-cycling exercise.
Tunbridge Wells has an urgent need for a new 6 FE non-selective Free School in by 2018 (!) as identified by KCC, so there is a massive issue in providing a site by then. The likelihood is that if a sponsor can be found it will need to open in temporary premises, as all the other current secondary Free Schools in Kent have begun their existence.
As always, I find it difficult to speculate about Medway, given the sparsity of information coming forward. The recent discovery of Medway grammar schools by London Borough families, unable to access schools in Dartford or Gravesham has possibly filled all six schools, but given very recent history, there appears no planning for increasing provision. Last year there were 9% vacancies across the two Chatham grammars, with just seven remaining in October of Year 7, but I have been contacted by out of county parents at both this year, who have been refused places on oversubscription grounds. Not yet grounds to look for additional provision. There were still 10% vacancies in the non-selective schools in October of Year 7, although the schools polarise in terms of popularity, so little demand for additional provision there.