All posts tagged 'Sevenoaks'

Kent's new grammar takes a step forward

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, March 10 2014

After being knocked back by Michael Gove late last year, the bid to open a grammar school annex in Kent has taken an important step forward.

The Weald of Kent Girls Grammar School - one of the two original bidders - is consulting parents and staff about becoming co-educational, a move that - if agreed - would remove one of the obstacles to the scheme the Education Funding Agency flagged up in its rejection letter.

This time you get the sense that the school has done its homework and governors believe that if the school does become mixed, there ought not to be much that could stand in the way of the Sevenoaks plan getting the approval of Michael Gove, at least in terms of whether it would be lawful.

Of course, there are caveats. It is difficult to read how parents and staff will respond to the consultation, for one thing. The school has taken the step of underlining that existing pupils will not be affected, which should head off any worries among existing parents but might also mean they won't take much interest in the changes planned.

And once concrete proposals are put forward to the Department for Education, it is highly possible that anti-selection campaigners will try to hold it up through the courts. The timing is potentially awkward politically, with a general election next May meaning that the school will want to get it cleared with the DfE at the earliest opportunity. (If it doesn't, UKIP will no doubt be poised to capitalise on the issue.)

Having said that, there is more logic to the Weald of Kent's plans than there was to that once favoured by Kent County Council, the bid by Maidstone's Invicta Academy Trust.

In hindsight, that was flawed from the outset and it is inconceivable that  education chiefs at County Hall weren't aware that it was a gamble - as, no doubt, the expert lawyers it paid more than £6,000 to had told it.

The latest development has been welcomed by the parental campaign group which has led the call for a Sevenoaks grammar satellite although it was, to put it mildly, rather underwhelmed when the Weald of Kent school announced last year it was putting in a rival bid.

However, the group has pre-empted criticisms of the new plans by saying that in west Kent particularly, parents have not really had the option to choose a mixed co-ed grammar because of the proponderance of single sex grammars in the area.

There is another good analysis of the implications here by Peter Read.


The decision by Thanet South MP Laura Sandys to stand down at the next election has opened up a potentially interesting selection contest for a key seat. But the Conservative candidate will not, I am told, now be finalised before the European election in May.

There are two ways of looking at this: one is that the local association arguably may have a wider field to draw from after May. The other is that the delay makes it harder for the eventual candidate to establish themselves in the area.

My guess is that when the association does come to choose, it will opt for someone with local roots and connections rather than someone who could be construed as a parachute candidate.

Constituency officials will also be painfully aware of the UKIP factor, with hints from Nigel Farage that he is eyeing up a Kent seat.








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Categories: election

Kent gets caught in grammar vs free school tussle

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, March 14 2013

To say that Conservatives at County Hall are miffed is something of an understatement.

The news that the government has intervened to say that the site Kent County Council wanted for a new grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks should instead be offered to a free school has gone down like a lead balloon.

Wrangle over Kent's grammar school plan >>>

This is, after all, a Conservative government where there remains plenty of residual support for selective schooling and plenty of backbenchers who think that among David Cameron's' most catastrophic decisions was to turn the party away from supporting the return of the 11-plus.

The irony here is that KCC had come up with a plan, widely supported by local parents, for additional grammar school places in an area without a selective school. It is consistent with the government's own policy of allowing existing schools to expand where there is an issue of lack of places.

The problem is that the coalition has another policy to deal with unmet parental demand and that is free schools.

And on this occasion, at least for the moment, free school plans are deemed more important. So, the Kent case for more grammar places has been undermined by a decision by the schools minster that the Sevenoaks site of the former Wildernesse School be handed to the proponents of the Trinity Free School.

Why? Partly, I supect, because the government is concerned that it is way off its target for several hundred free schools to be open by 2015 and wants to maximise "buy in" from those behind such plans for new schools. And while selection is important in Kent and a few other areas, it is not across most of the rest of the country where grammars do not exist.

The government is desperate to promote the idea that parents can do something to enhance choice by opening free schools and it is a message that has much greater resonance with parents where grammars are not a feature of the local education lanscape as they are in Kent. 

County Hall Tories are livid not least because they see a political dividend from being seen to support more grammar places, which like it or not, remain extremely popular with parents here. With an election in May, they were probably hoping to plaster election leaflets with the claim that they were acting to respond to parents' wishes by extending selection.

And the decision to offer the site to a free school is the worst example of top-down politics which will raise all sorts of questions about the government's commitment to localism and not interfering with councils. KCC has had other tussles with the secretary of state Michael Gove, notably over the scrapping of the BSF project. It joined a legal action brought by other councils challenging the decision and it was not welcomed by Mr Gove.

Now KCC is suggesting it might have to go into battle through the courts again on a fairly arcane issue surrounding the question of whether the government has correctly interpreted its own legislation about handing sites to others for schools where the site is already occuppied by another school (albeit temporarily).

The view from the campaigners is that the Sevenoaks plan for more grammar places is not dead in the water and that once Mr Gove is apprised of the background he will be won round to seeing the case.

Given the rather fractious relationship he has had with KCC and its leadership in the past, he may need some convincing.


It would be interesting to know exactly when KCC was aware of the government's thinking on the move to offer the site at the former Wildernesse School to the backers of the Trinity Free School.

KCC was very keen to let everyone know that it had chosen the site for its grammar annexe and got into a spot of bother about it - it now looks rather like a pre-emptive strike although one that has yet to pay off. 



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Categories: Education

Why Kent's decision to back grammar expansion won't spark a return to selection

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, March 30 2012

If the eyes of the nation weren't exactly turned towards County Hall, as one over-excited Conservative county councillor claimed, Kent County Council's decision to back new grammar school places is an undeniably significant one.

Kent to get 'new' grammar>>>

There was, to be frank, never that much doubt that the plan would receive the backing of the council, given the huge Conservative majority at KCC and especially in view of the wriggle room created by Michael Gove's decsion to allow the expansion of schools to meet demand for places where population growth creates the need.

KCC had been careful to emphasise that it was considering the case on these grounds alone and was not being driven by an ideological zeal to see the return of selection - which the Conservative party has banned.

Nevertheless, the debate at County Hall gave a vivid illustration of just how totemic the issue remains for many in the party. Some county councillors were clearly delighted to have the unexpected chance to actually do something to demonstrate that whatever David Cameron might have said, many believe the cornerstone of the party's education policy ought to be a commitment to restore the 11-plus.

The rhetoric showed the debate had not, for politicians on both sides, really moved on. In fact, I half expected to step out of County Hall to be confronted by people wearing flared trousers and tank tops and billboard posters encouraging me to go to work on an egg.

There was plenty of old-fahioned rhetoric from the Conservative backbenches about how Labour's abolition of the 11-plus had kicked away the ladder of opportunity from the working class and how anyone who dared vote against the plan would be depriving them of that chance - although there was no reference to the fact that these days, in many parts of Kent and especially the west, grammar schools are not really giving many from this 'leg up' because of the intense coaching culture that has evolved.

Cllr Jim Wedgebury (Con) told the meeting how KCC would be opening the floodgates for a host of new grammar schools across the country - fundamentally inaccurate as such expansion can only take place in pre-existing selective areas - but it gives you the sense of feeling that some felt the best thing KCC Conservatives could do would be to organise a march on the citadels of comprehensive areas and tear them down.

His colleague Andrew Bowles, also the leader of Swale council, made a pitch to head the crusade in a speech in which he declared that it was not just Sevenoaks that should have a new grammar but every town the length and breadth of the county - conjuring up images of an army of grammar school freedom fighters marching through the Garden of England with spades and forks, digging the foundations for new schools and handing out pamphlets extolling the virtues of selection.

Labour sought to deflect these attacks by adopting the political ruse of asking for a review of admissions and the 11-plus and suggesting that County Hall Conservatives were engaging in the educational equivalent of tax evasion - a tactic which didn't work out too well.

So, in political terms, there will be ripples from this decision and it certainly will give ballast to the large section of the Conservative party who think Cameron was mistaken at the outset to rule out more grammars. But it does not presage a full-scale restoration of grammars up and down the country whatever county councillors in Kent might believe and hope.

Parents in Sevenoaks mobilised a well-organised campaign which was based around their view that if they lived in a selective area, then it was wrong for their children to have to travel miles away to attend a school and that was entirely reasonable.

I never once heard any of them argue publicly that this was based around a view that selective schools were somehow 'better' and that is to their credit. And to be fair to KCC's cabinet member Cllr Mike Whiting, he has been scrupulous in sticking to the line that this is all about meeting a legitimate demand for places.

But it will be interesting to see how the story unfolds. There are any number of practical hurdles to overcome - the money, the site and the possible challenges that may come from other schools in the area who are concerned they may be adversely affected. One option that is apparently under consideration is for an academy chain to be invited to run the school - something Michael Gove would no doubt find acceptable.


One interesting thing that came out of yesterday's debate was the news that KCC has asked a group of headteachers to carry out a review of the 11+plus test. The authority is concerned that the the extensive coaching that some children get to take the 11+ has effectively disproved the accepted notion that children cannot be 'taught' to pass it.

And because coaching costs money, the argument that grammars improve social mobility is if not blown out of the water, badly under-mined - especially in view of the heightened competition caused by the emergence of a group of super-selective schools.


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Categories: Politics

Does Kent's east-west split stack the odds against some schools making the grade?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, March 28 2012

Two education stories involving Kent may, at first glance, appear unrelated.

The first involves parents in Sevenoaks petitioning Kent County Council for more grammar school places; the second involves Ofsted failing Kent's first secondary school academy and placing it in special measures. Seven years after it first opened its doors, the Marlowe Academy in Ramsage has been deemed to be offering students an unacceptable education.

Marlowe Academy failed by Ofsted>>>

Nothing could better illustrate just how stark the differences are in Kent when it comes to schooling. In one of the most prosperous and least disadvantaged areas of the county, parents are making the case for more selective places while in another - the county's economic blackspot where nearly 15% of 18-24-year-olds are out of work, the life chances and prospects for hundreds of children are being undermined because a school that cost £30m is, according to inspectors, failing.

The failures of the Marlowe cannot, of course, be laid at the door of those in Sevenoaks - which has the lowest unemployment rate in Kent and fewer 18-to-24-year-olds out of work than anywhere in the county -  where parents say they are simply arguing for increased capacity in the area to avoid children having to travel out of the area.

But the impact of selection on some schools in many areas cannot - and should not - be underestimated when it comes to making judgements about their achievements. Imagine being in a 100-metre sprint against Usain Bolt and just as you line up ,the marshal instructs you to move 25m behind the start line.

That is how many non-selective schools feel about the impact that grammars, which top slice the 25% of the most academically able children,  have. To their credit, many choose not to offer that as an excuse and are justifiably proud of what, in many cases, are outcomes that are - given their starting point - arguably better than some schools which select.

Roger De Haan, the chairman of governors at the Marlowe, says selection hasn't helped the challenge of improving the prospects of its pupils but you won't ever find Ofsted acknowledging - or even taking into account -  the potential impact that a selective system has on a non-selective school's performance.

It is often said by those in charge at County Hall that the "diversity" of Kent's schooling system is one of its strengths, and that such diversity affords parents the kind of choice not available elsewhere. Except, of course, that presumes a system in which all schools are doing equally as well - which is patently not the case.

To its credit, KCC has sought to bridge the gap between selective and non-selective schools in some ares through federations and partnerships and has set up the Kent Challenge to address the shortcomings of under-performing schools.

But the fact remains that there is a wide - some suggest widening gap - between the outcomes of pupils that is not being adequately addressed. Indeed, KCC's own director of education Patrick Leeson has been candid enough to say that there is less social mobility achieved in Kent through its schools than elsewhere and that the gap between the achievements of less well-off pupils and the more affluent is "extremely unacceptable."    

The damning Ofsted inspection of the Marlowe Academy is a striking reminder for both KCC and the government - which is ultimately accountable for academies - of just how far things still have to go before there is a genuine level playing field in Kent when it comes to schools and the outcomes and prospects for all children.


IT is now more than two years since an audit inquiry into Kent County Council’s extensive commercial trading operations cleared the authority of competing unfairly with private business.
The probe followed well-publicised complaints from the private sector about KCC having an unfair competitive advantage over others and allegations of cross-subsidies.
The Audit Commission cleared KCC of this but noted in a report that to allay concerns it needed to be more transparent about the activiites of its companies like Kent Top Temps and Kent Top Travel.
In response, the council set up a committee to oversee the various companies that together have a turnover of £400m a year, called the Governance and Audit Trading Activities Sub Group. Given the extent of KCC’s commercial trading companies, and in the face of an on-going trial involving fraud allegations, it is something of a surprise to discover that this committee has not met since May 2010

Are we to believe that there has been nothing of note to record about any aspect of commercial trading at KCC? Nothing like a high level independent review of the way they are governed, for example?


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Categories: Precept

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