This week's published OFSTED Report on St Philip Howard RC Primary School in Herne Bay which places it in Special Measures is one of the most damning Reports I have read in recent years, the school being placed in the lowest category in all four measures considered by the Inspectors. Parents have clearly recognised this pattern of failure of recent years, as it occupies the lowest take up of any primary school in the county this year, with 76% of its reception places due to be left empty in September, just 7 children applying for and being offered places back in March out of the 30 available. For 2011 entry, it had the second lowest intake in Kent with 56% of its places being left empty. Overall, it currently has over half of all its places empty with just 100 children out of a capacity 210. Poor KS2 performance by the children may indicate one of the reasons for the lack of popularity of the school, it appearing in the bottom 5% of all schools in the county for performance in English & maths in 2011.
So what is the mystery, and why am I devoting space analysing this issue? In May, Michael Gove announced the names of the 261 schools to be awarded funds for refurbishment, including 14 from Kent. At the time I wrote an article expressing my bewilderment at some of the schools chosen, highlighting St Philip Howard, given the pressures on the many schools in need of critical improvement or even replacement. This latest news makes the decision even more bewildering............
The following article appeared in the first edition of the new "The Reporter" newspaper, reflecting the pressure on the newspaper industry as it replaces the old established Gravesend Reporter and the Dartford Times.
Kent County Council has made a largely successful commitment in recent years to improve the quality of the school building stock following many ‘drought’ years when this aspect of our children’s education was neglected. Projects such as: the ‘Old Style’ academies - 10 brand new luxury schools brought into being (including Leigh in Dartford and Longfield); the six PFI project schools; and the first eleven schools completed under the now defunct Building Schools for the Future programme (including Northfleet Girls, Northfleet Technology, St Johns and Thamesview in Gravesend), have resulted in over a quarter of Kent’s secondary schools being completely replaced. The Special School Review saw many of Kent’s Special Schools rebuilt or refurbished (including Ifield in Gravesend), and many readers will be aware of major primary school rebuilds, and new schools in the area (including Manor Community at Swanscombe) that have transformed the learning of so many of our children. Kent has also been working on a schedule to reduce major maintenance issues, which saw a reduction in the backlog from £147 million to £98 million over the past four years.
However, all this has come to a juddering halt with government cuts in education spending, some of which is retargeted at other priorities. Seven ‘Old style’ Academies (including Wilmington and Orchards in Swanley) are waiting a government review which will probably provide them with budget new buildings and KCC has gone to court to try and recover the BSF programme for the remainder of Gravesham’s secondary schools (or more likely the millions of pounds lost in preparation works. You will find further details of these projects at www.kentadvice.co.uk.
Meanwhile, all schools are grappling with a swingeing 80% cut in their own grants for the repair, maintenance and improvement of buildings and provision of ICT from 1 April 2011. Whilst this is a hammer blow, worst affected will be the ten schools which lost out under BSF (including Gravesend Grammar, Gravesend Girls, Meopham and St George’s). For they will all have cut back on their maintenance and building plans expecting that BSF would solve their premises problems, but now there is no money to carry out essential repairs and improvements. A typical secondary school would have been awarded some £120,000 for this work last year, but now sees this reduced to £24,000, inevitably leading to safety concerns. This comes the week after compensation was awarded to families whose children were taking examinations in the school hall at Minster College (now The Sheppey Academy) when central heating ducts fell on them. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries or deaths, but this will certainly not be the last such incident now that schools have been deprived of sufficient funds to carry out repairs.
All this leaves KCC with a backlog of maintenance problems, currently totalling £90 million, its main hope of shrinking this being to say goodbye to schools who are choosing to become academies. Some of these will be leaving because increased budgets may give them the opportunity to resolve these issues, but when all secondaries have become academies, the pain will need to be shared equally once again.
The BSF (Building Schools for the Future) project was conceived nationally as a series of annual waves of building programmes and has just been scrapped, with all new projects being cancelled. Kent has 16 Academies in existence or planned, some o fwhich have also seen their building projects delayed with an expectation of budget cuts. In addition Kent has seen six schools rebuilt under PFI schemes. This article on my website was linked to a KOS report about the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future.
Kent was first involved in Wave 3 of BSF. Schools are planned to be completely rebuilt under PFI (Private Finance Initiative) funding schemes, subject to a major rebuild from Government grant, or else receive substantial refurbishment again from direct Government grant.
Headteachers at 28 Kent secondary schools, 8 Special Schools and 4 Referral Centres were devastated on Monday to learn that the plans to rebuild their schools under the Building Schools for the Future programme had been scrapped. The vast number of hours spent by heads and governors in negotiating with architects and officials are wasted. The many hours of planning by staff to develop new methods for teaching and learning using opportunities created by purpose designed premises will be consigned to the scrapheap. Some of the Special Schools are required to admit children with complex physical and learning needs, but will now find it impossible to cater for these unless alternative funding can be found. Also spare a thought for KCC officers who have worked tirelessly through the mass of red tape imposed on them, to try and ensure the best for our schools.
For the following schools in Thanet - Clarendon House Grammar, Chatham House Grammar, Foreland Special, Hartsdown Technology College, Hereson, Laleham Gap (Special), Northwood Centre, St Anthony's (Special), Stone Bay (Special) and Ursuline College; and in Gravesend - Gravesend Boys & Girls Grammars, Meopham, and St George's CE ,along with Portal House (Special) in Dover, the shock was so much greater. For in these schools building plans have nearly all been finalised and construction due to begin in the near future. They will now have to compete for students with the gleaming new premises of those schools who have benefited from BSF. Hartsdown is not alone in Thanet in having very poor buildings and now little prospect of these being eased. 8 newer Academies already operational or in the planning stage whose replacement buildings have not begun (at an average cost of some 40% more than mainstream schools), are to have any plans reviewed in the summer. It would, however, be bizarre if many of these were upheld, as new Academies converting from mainstream schools join them on an equal basis in September with no prospect of new buildings.
This is a sorry end to a project that promised so much. However, it is important to realise what has been achieved. Paul Carter, KCC Leader has taken a personal interest in attracting maximum capital expenditure to Kent, which historically had low levels of investment in school buildings. His drive and vision means we now have new schools worth some half a billion pounds, either completed or in construction. These include all other secondary and Special Schools in Gravesham and Thanet through BSF (most of which are close to completion), 9 Academies, and 6 secondary schools built under separate PFI funding. Parents in many parts of Kent will be aware of other major investments in new or replacement buildings for schools of all types. Whatever the future holds, these remain and nearly 20% of secondary schools will have been completely or substantially rebuilt; an impressive record of investment in the future of our children.
I saw a few of the complications of BSF as a Governor of Ifield Special School, the first Kent school to be completed with BSF funding. Because of the special nature of our project, involvement with bureaucracy was mainly limited to agreeing contracts for ICT equipment and services. Three governors spent innumerable hours grappling with details of complex documents and requirements to meet impossible deadlines (we are of course all unpaid volunteers). The headteacher and senior staff spent much greater time. However we did have the satisfaction of seeing our work come to completion. What about those governors who see their work junked? Sadly a few will walk away in disgust, never to return. What about children whose education has suffered, as heads and staff have had long periods of absence dealing with BSF issues? That cannot be restored. It would have been good to see Michael Gove acknowledge this labour and sacrifice.
Whether this dramatic purge was necessary in full is for others to pronounce on. I only know it must be wrong to put part of the proceeds towards the bribe to persuade mainstream schools to become academies themselves, with another portion going to start up free schools that will often be set up to suit self-interest groups who have little interest in the education of the majority.