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Sunday, 27 January 2013 00:00

Vacant Places in Kent & Medway Secondary Schools:

In Kent as a whole, 88% of secondary school places are filled in Year Seven, although the target figure is 90-95%. Under previous governments, pressure was applied to Local Authorities to meet their targets, but now most secondary schools in Kent are academies, government relies on parental preference to see popular schools expand and unpopular ones to disappear. This battle of attrition is now affecting the seven Kent & Medway secondary schools which currently have fewer than fifty per cent of their Year Seven places filled, all having witnessed a sharp decline in their intake numbers over the past four years. For four of these, their unpopularity with families has been underlined by OFSTED failures over this time, ........

The Marlowe Academy, Walmer Science College and Hextable School still having an “inadequate” rating. The Marlowe Academy has now failed its OFSTED twice, has endured three less than flattering monitoring inspections  since, and appears in the most vulnerable position with just 34% of its places filled. This in spite of several changes of headteacher, a year being managed by an Academy chain, and a £30 million investment in new buildings, none of which has stopped a halving of its admission numbers over the past four years. The headteacher of the second most unpopular school in Kent, Chaucer Technology School, with 62% of its places vacant, resigned last week. High Weald Academy, previously Angley School in Cranbrook, is now out of Special Measures. Bishop of Rochester Academy has had a troubled hstory since its opening in September 2010, including the removal of its first Principal six months later. Whilst it does appear to have settled down recently, this week the academy served 'at risk' redundancy notices to 60 support staff, having launched a massive advertising scheme for support staff in local newspapers last year. Perhaps its new buildings due to open in September will reverse its fortunes, but like others the academy may be reacting to September's admission figures which it will now know. Pent Valley School in Folkestone makes up the list, in spite of a positive OFSTED Report in January, and sound examination results.

The penalty for such unpopularity can be severe as numbers of children at schools become unviable. Walmer Science College, which has been troubled for some years, is now effectively being closed, combining with Castle Community College in Deal on the latter’s site, after its own revolving door of headteachers.

Good leadership by headteachers and by governors or trustees is obviously central to the success of a school, and the people of Cranbrook must be hoping for a change of fortune after High Weald Academy was taken over by the very successful Hayesbrook school in Tonbridge. Hextable School is now being run by the outstanding Executive Headteacher of Fulston Manor School in Sittingbourne. A few years ago, I used to advise parents in Wilmington and parents of boys in Sevenoaks district on how to gain places at Hextable School, as their local schools were not perceived as successful, Wilmington High School having failed its OFSTED. Both of the schools concerned have now been replaced by well led sponsored academies, well resourced and in new buildings that are proving successful and attracting children away fom Hextable, both being oversubscribed!   

If one widens the net a little further and looks at the fifteen schools with over a third of their places empty, it’s not perhaps surprising to see that seven of these are sponsored academies, the original concept of an academy being to take a low performing school provide it with spanking new premises, extra resources and a change of leadership to provide children of the locality with a decent start in life. One has to question this philosophy watching so much investment apparently having little effect in some academies, although the above counter examples at Sevenoaks and Wilmington balance the picture. Nearly all of the schools with high numbers of vacancies are still on a downward slide of numbers, as parental choice polarises popularity and these schools are no doubt looking towards school allocation numbers in March with trepidation.

 However, some schools suffer further during the period March to September, as parents chase after places in more successful or popular schools through waiting lists and appeals, with some ‘upgrading’ as many as three times, what I call the churning effect. Worst hit of these was the Chaucer Technology College in Canterbury with a capacity of 235 students, which was allocated 139 students in March 2012, and no doubt started to plan for staff and facilities to provide for these, only to see just 90 turn up in September. Hextable School suffered a similar fate, losing 32 of its expected intake over this period, and its head before the end of the year.

Government promotes what is effectively a battle of attrition over school numbers by strongly promoting, in some cases insisting on the movement to become academies , in one sense rightly as all children should be entitled to a decent education and not one in a failing school. However, the luck of the school in being provided with decent school leadership and decent facilities, producing a polarisation of schools as some become ever more popular and others fade away, is producing surely undreamt of situations, as children in some localities are deprived of decent life chances through education. There are of course success stories. Longfield Academy has gone from unpopularity to becoming the second most popular non-selective school in Kent, with a change of leadership and its own £30 million new premises. Swadelands School in Harrietsham has turned from being an unpopular and failing school to rising numbers and a “Good OFSTED”  in just a few years, whilst remaining under the control of Kent County Council and without massive investment, thanks to good leadership. I well remember when I started my consultancy, talking with too many parents who wished to avoid Valley Park school in Maidstone at any costs. It is now the third most popular non-selective school in Kent, with a very tight catchment area which carries its own housing premium. I could go on.....

 Apart from attrition, it is very difficult to remove surplus places, the closure of Walmer Science College being the exception. KCC has had to pretend this is merging with Castle Community School which has received a £20 million grant for new premises to help its progress. Chaucer Technology School has removed 85 places a year, a total of nearly 500 as this works through the school. Kent County Council has no powers to close or remove places from academies, so any action it takes can only be applied to maintained schools. This issue has already risen in other parts of the country, in  Bedfordshire ; and Kirklees in Yorkshire where three succssful schools are being sacrificed to keep academies open. 

It surely won’t be long in Kent for the same decision to be made for a thriving school which neglected to become an academy; perhaps even sacrificed to save the Marlowe!

The importance of this story,,based on information I provided following a Freedom of Information request, was demonstrated by media coverage on both radio and television this week. I had an extended interview on Radio Kent, and featured in the  lead stories 

Last modified on Sunday, 16 March 2014 17:18

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