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Wednesday, 29 February 2012 20:09

New Tunbridge Wells Free School proposed: another failure of planning by KCC

In 2009, a senior KCC officer produced a confidential paper for the then Director of Education, forecasting there would be an 8% shortfall in primary reception class places in Tunbridge Wells in 2011. This wasn't actually difficult to foresee, as these children had been born two years previously, and so the issue should have been raised earlier. No action was taken at a time when finance may well have been available to tackle the impending crisis.  

In 2010, there were considerable problems in finding primary school placements in Tunbridge Wells.  I wrote a newspaper article publicly outlining the issues, expanding it later in the year. No action was taken, but KCC explained that there wasn't actually a problem. I am not saying that KCC should have responded to my articles, but they had prior access to the same data I had subsequently unearthed. 

In 2011, the expected forecast shortfall of 8% shortage of places in Tunbridge Wells  proved exactly correct........

 

KCC stated that there wasn't actually a serious problem as the figures in the 2009 report were out of date. In other words, KCC was claiming that some of the children who were in existence in 2009 had mysteriously vanished!  Rather the problem was caused by the economic climate with TW parents not sending their children to private schools. However, fortunately, KCC had guessed this was going to happen so some long term planning had solved the problem. and no school had had additional children imposed on it at short notice. Unfortunately, this was almost immediately proved untrue when a primary school headteacher sent a letter out to parents stating that he had had an additional class foisted on him at short notice and spelling out the serious consequences of this for the school. I also found two schools in Gravesham where a parallel crisis had developed, who also had children dropped on them at short notice. It later transpired that at least one other TW primary school had the same treatment.  The final figures for placements of children at TW primary schools highlight the problems. After a planned increase of 70 children, there was a late increase in places of a further 95 children. However, even this was not enough, and so KCC was obliged to place another 31 children at Sherwood Park Primary, who had not asked for places at the school, taking the numbers to 14 children over even the extended figure. How on earth was Sherwood Park, one of the lowest performing schools in Kent supposed to cope with this flood of additional children who didn't want to be there. Not surprisingly, by September most of these had made alternative arrangements, which could only be expected (and perhaps was part of the strategy)! However, TW primary schools were still 25 places over this very extended capacity, with not a single place to be had in any school. 

In passing, KCC's Primary Strategy says that all  through primary schools should have no more than two forms of entry except in very exceptional circumstances.  Although the strategy does not spell out the reasons for this recommendation, it is quite clear that the reason is primary schools need to be small enough to operate as a proper community where all pupils are known. In 2011 a third of TWs 15 primary schools break this very exceptional recommendation, and so according to KCC are not operating to their optimum capability.

And so we come to 2012, with results due in four weeks time on March 30th. All TW primary schools have been written to, to find out if they can increase their capacity and senior officers and Councillors have made a number of visits, so we can anticipate further problems, and mobile classrooms being crammed onto small playgrounds. I feel that the new Cabinet Member for Education has been left holding the baby, as a result of lack of appropriate action in the past. 

This will be the last year that Sherwood Park can be forced to mop up the surplus as they are likely to be part of an academy group for 2013 entry, who will no doubt refuse to take them in, as it is inevitably harming the education of those already admitted. 

One should perhaps mention Bishops Down Primary in TW, a very a successful and oversubscribed primary school with an intake of 30 children, part of its success being down to its small family atmosphere. It has now been forced to double its intake (initially for 'just one year', now permanently), and cope with the numbers by placing mobile classrooms on a very restricted playing field, seriously reducing resources available for the children. It has clearly lost its small school feel, and how much longer will it be before it loses part of its cachet as a very successful school, through having to cope with increased numbers in unsatisfactory accommodation.  I would be interested to know what governors feel about this, for as in many of the other cases cited, as it is they who are responsible for the quality of education in the school, but not to carry out the bidding of the Local Authority at the expense of their children.  

Not surprisingly. a group of TW parents have sought a way out of this mess and have come up with a proposal for a Free School, provisionally called the The Wells Free School. The philosophy of the school to keep to one class per year group and have small class sizes means it won't make a significant impact on the provision problems in TW and will certainly attract parents who would otherwise go for private school places, tempted by the free education offered. However, KCC has welcomed the proposal as it may go some small way to digging it out of the mess it has created (just as in Kings Hill) and certainly would attract additional funding into TW, although it is evident that this could have been used far more effectively in other ways to support mainstream schools. 

Meanwhile, in Gravesham, which may not have sufficient parents with the same level of resource, KCC has written to local schools.  In the letter KCC claims to have created 90 new infant places for 2012 entry. 30 of these are to be at Whitehill Primary School, up from an intake of 60 to 90. However, these places were put in three years ago, so how can they be new?? In any case, this is hardly good news for families, for Whitehill is the least popular school in the Borough, with nearly a quarter of its Reception class this year being despatched by KCC, not having applied for the school. Another 30 are in Dover Road Primary School, already in Special Measures, but bringing it up to the number of 90 it had already accepted for the next few years to ease the pressure in Northfleet (the West part of Gravesham). So how can these be new places; and will parents wish to have their children allocated to a school in Special Measures?  I am pleased to see that there are genuine places  out of the 90 claimed, 30 additional children  allocated to the popular St Botolph’s in Northfleet, even if there will need to be temporary accommodation, and I look forward to learning if these places are temporary or will be repeated year on year as at the other two schools. It is worth remembering that KCC actually turned down the option of forcing developers to build a new school at Springhead in Northfleet, on the false premise that if built it would place other local schools at risk of closing because of shortage of numbers! The reality is that for 2011 entry, there were just 2 places in the whole of Northfleet that were not filled after an additional 42 places had been put into local schools. You will find further details on the Gravesham issues here

Of course this makes the KCC policy of keeping 5-7% of primary places free in any area somewhat hollow, but perhaps the policy has been quietly dropped. Perhaps we can now see an open discussion of the issues, with possible solutions aired, in time for 2013 entry, rather than the current highly secretive approach, no doubt adopted because it is impossilbe to challenge unpopular solutions unveiled at the last moment when primary school placements are revealed to parents. 

Last modified on Monday, 25 February 2013 18:58

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