Kent Village of the Year

Why KCC may tread carefully over 'new' grammar school.

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, January 11 2012

When David Cameron ruled out the expansion of grammar schools in 2007, he said they were "unpopular with parents, who do not want children divided into successes and failures at the age of 11."

The comments - along with some rather barbed criticism about supporters of selection being people who "held on to out-dated mantras that bear no relation to reality" had party activists and councillors in Kent frothing with indignation.

Now it looks like a door has opened on to the possibility of Mr Cameron's veto being overturned in Kent, which - with 33 grammars - is regarded as the torch bearer for supporters of the 11-plus.

The irony is that parents urging a new grammar school for Sevenoaks are doing so on the basis of the government's own new policy of permitting popular, over-subscribed schools to expand to meet demand for places. (Actually, several grammars have expanded their intake in recent years incrementally through admitting extra pupils via the appeals process).

Plenty of Conservatives will be looking to see how Kent County Council responds. To date, it appears to be treading cautiously around the issue, saying that it needs to assess a range of issues before deciding what to do.

It certainly throws up some difficulties, notwithstanding the fact that there has been a long-standing issue in Sevenoaks about the fact that there are no grammar schools in the borough.

A key issue is that there can be no entirely new grammar school. The legislation only permits the expansion of existing schools - and there are none directly in Sevenoaks.

However, the government would sanction a "satellite" school, affiliated to an existing one and it is that idea which is gaining some traction at County Hall. But there is a further issue, which is that the legislation requires the ethos of any such satellite schools to reflect the ethos of the sponsoring school - described colourfully by one politician as "the mothership".

The schools that are discussing becoming involved are, like all but five of the 33 grammars in Kent, single sex - meaning that the satellite school could have to be, too.

It is unclear who would pay for such a satellite and KCC will be wary about committing significant sums to a capital project when other schools in Kent expecting major redevelopment have been left in the lurch after Michael Gove's abrupt cancellation of the Building Schools for The Future programme last year (which KCC challenged in court).

And if KCC doesn't have the money, will the government step in? I can't help thinking that might be something of a hostage to fortune if it does.

Then there is the problem of what to do if other popular and over-subscribed schools seek support to expand their numbers and whether, in opting to increase grammar school places in one area, there could be a detrimental impact on other schools.

Underlying all this is the political desire among Kent Conservatives - and others - to offer some tangible evidence that the party has not completely turned its back on selection, regardless of what their Prime Minister may have said in the past.  

KCC managed to alienate some county MPs when in a cost-cutting measure, it ended a scheme offering help with transport costs for grammar school pupils last year.

Opening a new satellite grammar in west Kent would send a signal that it hasn't completely abandoned its support for a totemic article of faith for many in the party.

 

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Categories: Education | Kent Village of the Year

KCC leader fires salvo at local press for 'biased' reporting: a response

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, January 3 2012

Relations between politicians and journalists can often be uneasy ones, characterised by mutual suspicion, a lack of trust and, just occasionally, a touch of paranoia.

Politicians often think we are out to get them and are working to some kind of hidden agenda. And the word that sometimes gets bandied about is that we are 'biased'.

It is a word that KCC leader Paul Carter used when he fired off a New Year salvo at the local media in general just before departing for a month long break to participate in a vintage car rally to South Africa.

Paul Carter's New Year article>>>

In a piece, which for the most part was a look back over the year, he ended with a short section 'looking forward'. It began with a pledge that he wished to "improve our relationship with the local press."

This laudable aim was then rather undermined by a series of comments that together amounted to an attack on those that he wished to foster improved relationships with.

The article claimed that 'some stories have been particularly biased against KCC' and although he stopped short of specifying which ones, it is pretty clear that he was referring to the controversy surrounding the departure of managing director Katherine Kerswell.

Acknowledging that there had been 'several high profile issues' in the last few weeks, he claimed that the media's 'constant sniping at KCC 'impacts on morale for our hard-working staff' and 'the consequence will inevitably be a knock-on effect to frontline service delivery.'

If this was intended to be the start of his desire to improve relationships with the media, it was not only misjudged but perverse.

Perhaps the most risible comment was his appeal to the media to play stories with a 'straight bat' and give 'credit where credit's due' - and to let the public 'actually decide for themselves'.

This from an organisation that has over the years accrued a reputation for evasiveness and PR spin that might make even Peter Mandleson blush.

Unfortunately for KCC, its own unwillingness to play with a straight bat has contributed to a sense of distrust - which was only made worse by the debacle over departure of managing director Katherine Kerswell. 

KCC moved heaven and earth to persuade everyone, including its own staff, that nothing was going on when it was common knowledge that discussions were already underway about scrapping her £197,000 post.

Its initial statement responding to media queries was a classic piece of Orwellian double-speak, a contrivance of misinformation that - while strictly accurate -  was as far removed from 'playing with a straight bat' as could be imagined.

Equally ludicrous was the claim that our 'constant sniping' was threatening front line services by damaging morale among staff.

Does KCC, which never lets us forget that it is one of the biggest authorities in the country and the county's largest employer, expect us not to report job losses and the potential consequences for residents because of the squeeze on public spending - not to mention huge pay-offs for directors on six-figure salaries?   

Nothing has damaged morale at County Hall more than the lamentable way it dealt with events leading up to the decision to scrap Katherine Kerswell's role. The evidence came in some of the scathing comments posted by staff on its own Intranet site about her departure and reported pay-off, showing that many felt duped by KCC, their own employer.

Uncomfortable though it can be for politicians, our job is to hold them to account for their actions and decisions and ask the questions that the public - as taxpayers - would want answered.

It is not to suppress information although you get the sense that KCC sometimes thinks it should be.

It is true we are often sceptical - not biased - and if KCC wonders why we are, it really does have its head in the sand far deeper than even we imagine.

 

 

 

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Categories: Kent Village of the Year | Localism

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