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Tuesday, 12 March 2013 00:00

Christian Free School wins the battle of the Wildernesse site?

wildernesse

The headmaster of the Trinity School, the new name for the proposed Christian Free School in Sevenoaks, has sent an email to parents who have applied to the school for their children, stating that government has awarded the site of the old Wildernesse School, currently occupied by part of the Knole Academy, to Trinity School as their long term permanent home for September 2015. This has been confirmed by a letter from the Department for Education to KCC although the latter is slightly hedged by "I am minded to excercise the Secretary of statee's powers", suggesting that there is still more time for persuasion. Trinity chool already has a temporary base until 2015 at Ryedale Court in Riverhead.

The email from the school states: "We will be on the Knole East site in Seal Hollow Road, popularly known as 'Wildernesse'.  This is an existing school site with excellent sports facilities, a lot of green space, and plenty of parking for cars and buses.  The existing buildings will either be replaced or refurbished so that they meet modern standards. As you probably know, Kent County Council announced in January their intention to use the Wildernesse site for the proposed Grammar satellite.  Kent told us that they did not believe that the site could be shared with our school so we looked for, and found, a number of good alternative options. In the event, however, the Department for Education has decided that Wildernesse is the best site for Trinity School out of all the available options.  The Department has therefore written to Kent County Council to express its intention to base our school at the Wildernesse site once it is vacated by Knole Academy.  The Academies Act 2010 gives the Secretary of State for Education the legal powers to ensure this outcome.  We continue to believe that the site is big enough for two schools and it may be that this will be the eventual result of these discussions.......

 

Knole Academy have a lease on the Wildernesse site which expires in 2015, though they have stated that they wish to relinquish this at an earlier date if possible. We are confident that - with the help of the Department for Education - we will be able to gain access to the Wildernesse site in time to make it ready for our move from Ryedale Court in September 2015".

Kent County Council has invested a great deal of political capital in the success of their proposal for a grammar school annexe on the site, and appears to be preparing to legally challenge this decision. This means the battle is not over yet, although the email and a letter from the Department for Education to KCC make clear the Department for Education's belief that they have powers to take over the site against the will of KCC, the legal owners, to whom the site would normally revert in September 2015. The take-over would mean that KCC loses the site without recompense, although this is also a very valuable possible development site whose value is lost to Kent taxpayers (what would happen to the capital raised if the free school did not prove viable and government subsequently sold off the site?).  KCC is already arguing that they are plainning to start the grammar school annnexe operation in September 2015, so there will be continuity of education on the site and therefore government cannot use the Academy Act 2010 to seize the site as it claims it has power to do so.  KCC is of course responsible for planning school places in Kent, although government policy supporting the setting up Free Schools where there are local lobbying groups, irrespective of the need for new places, makes a nonsense of this aspect of local democracy. However, the government letter to KCC claims the Trinity School is being driven by parental demand and has the support of the community. The supporters of the annexe have, of course, made the same claim.   

 

I have already expressed my doubts about the viability of the Trinity School previously, and it is odd that the government is forcing this through given the surplus of non-selective spaces in the area. Most critical is Hextable School in North Sevenoaks District with just 41 students bound for it in Year 7 this September, although discussions are underway with government about turning it into an academy.  If this goes through, Hextable will be attempting to attract students back from the Knole Academy where they now flock, along with 22 children Bromley in next autumn's Year Seven. Even more spaces available to Sevenoaks children.  I count a total of 243 vacant spaces forecast for this and other local non-selective schools in Year 7, all schools who are probably losing local children to the Knole. This is a number which will certainly rise by September. The Director of Education for KCC wrote about the other controversial proposed Free School in Wye: "the proposal for a Free School in Wye is a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time..... we fully support the establishment of new free schools in areas of need". Mike Whiting, Cabinet Member for Education for KCC is quoted as saying "The provision of a free school at Sevenoaks could be seen as a poor use of public money, given the actual needs in the area and the surplus of places in high schools in the Sevenoaks district that already exists". I made most of these points in my interview with Radio Kent, as a free standing argument not dependent on the alternative case for the grammar school annexe.  

 

My heart goes out to those of the 240 applicants, a number identified on the free school website,  who have decided to accept the places offered. A third of these were for the 60 faith places, although I have talked with several of these families who used the Trinity School as a back up in case they did not get places at Bennett Memorial School. I have looked at the data for all Kent schools with between 220 and 260 applicants across their four choices for this September. The average number of offers made is around 100, all for schools with a clear future, and all likely to lose some of these children through waiting lists and appeals to more popular schools. I can't see the Trinity School achieving this level of take up, given the uncertainty of legal action by KCC. 

 

The Department of Education, in a statement says: "we are clear that this site is large and there would be plenty of space for both the Free School and another school to operate there" , although KCC is opposed to this idea. So at present, if the free school project goes ahead, the grammar school annexe proposal is likely to fall, although it has been widely watched across the country as a pilot for setting up new grammar schools. If the proposal for what is effectively a new gramamr school is not put to the test, it is unikely that other grammar school projects will come forward in the near future. Is it that government policy remains opposed to development of new grammar schools, or is this just one part of the Department for Education meeting its targets for new Free Schools, without joining up policy? 

 

I know that the organisers of the Grammar School Campaign are very disappointed, but I believe there was no call for the vicious, factually wrong, and offensive tone they  used in print to decry the Christian Free School, which has shown nothing but reasonable comment on the situation before and after the decision made by government, not by them.  The day after I posted this comment, the remarks were removed although I have no reason to think I triggered  the action. 

Last modified on Sunday, 16 March 2014 17:24

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