Kent's 'new' grammar school testing the Tories

Kent's 'new' grammar school testing the Tories

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, January 11 2013

Whatever else the Conservative-run Kent County Council does this year, one thing is clear: it will be moving heaven and earth to ensure that its plan to open a grammar school annexe in west Kent come to fruition.

Of course, on one level, the argument is simply about the authority responding to a genuine grievance held by many parents about the lack of provision of selective places in Sevenoaks.

Kent sets its sights on new grammar annexe>>>

But the politics - and politicking - involved goes to the heart of a debate about grammar schools that has simmered and occasionally come to the boil within the Conservative party ever since David Cameron, in something of an educational Clause Four moment, decided that his party would not support any further selection and the idea of more grammars.

Kent Tories have never made much effort to conceal their unhappiness with this U-turn, believing fervently that many parents actually want more selection, rather than less.

For many, selective schooling is something of an article of faith and have been aghast at the party turning its back on the policy.

So, the possibility of adding more grammar school places, through new arrangements allowing the expansion of popular schools and where there is a proven shortage of available places, has been seized on with something approaching Messianic zeal in Kent.

Which goes a little way to account for the fanfare surrounding the announcement that Kent County Council has identified a potential site for its new annexe. 

A press release unveiling the news was about as overtly political as you could get without breaching the protocols on local government publicity that are designed to prevent councils from issuing anything that might be construed as seeking to solicit support for a particular party.

Education cabinet member Cllr Mike Whiting was even quoted as saying that parents not just in Kent "but across the country" were relying on "Conservative administrations across the country to champion and provide" more selective schooling. How that got cleared for release is anybody's guess.

The release was crammed with supportive statements from various Sevenoaks county councillors (all Conservative) and the Conservative MP Michael Fallon. The only surprise was that they obviously could not prevail on Michael Gove to provide a suitable soundbite - but I daresay that will come in due course.

I understand there has been some tensions behind the scenes about how this was all handled. The ruling Conservative administration at County Hall won't be especially bothered, even if it is lacking a rather vital piece of the jigsaw - namely which existing grammar schools are going to partner or sponsor the annexe.

What matters from the political, rather than the educational perspective, is that Kent Conservatives can go into this May's council election campaign being able to underline - unlike the national party - that they stand firmly behind selection and grammars and are actually doing something about it.

Not just so they can bolster support from within their own ranks but so they can back the other parties into a corner - not least UKIP, who I am told, are fielding candidates in every single division and have been scornful of the Conservative's decision to abandon support for selection.

 

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The omission of any details about would-be sponsors for the grammar annexe is intriguing. The line from KCC is that it is making sure everything is watertight before going public on who might be involved.

There will have to be two partner schools but quite who they may be is anyone's guess. There have been rumours that the council has found it hard to get anyone interested.

One interesting aspect of the announcement was the apparent support of the Knole Academy, which is currently using part of the Wildernesse School site, for the masterplan.

Could it become one of the sponsors in some way or have some other involvement, perhaps in helping provide additional support for those who do end up attending the grammar annexe?

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With most council decisions, there is some kind of process - consistent with the authority's constitution - by which the decision is considered, sometimes consulted on and agreed.

It is a process that generally speaking happens in the public domain, with supporting reports and other documents that anyone can access.

And on occasion, decisions might get called in by backbenchers so they can chew it over and ask questions. Indeed, KCC is so keen on ensuring that councillors do this before decisions happen that it has set up an entirely new system of cabinet "pre-scrutiny" committees.

However, the decision-making process involved in identifying a site for its new grammar school has gone through no such process. The "decision" was announced via, as I've pointed out, a triumphantly worded press release.

It's precisely the sort of thing that makes people like me rather cynical and suspicious that KCC can often be more interested in the political PR value of its activities above anything else.

Next week, we will get the judgement from Ofsted about how well Kent's most vulnerable children are looked after, following the damning assessment two years ago. It will be interesting to see how this may be spun.

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Categories: Precept

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Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis

News, views, gossip and analysis on Kent's political scene, from County Hall to Westminster.

Welcome to my blog. As KM Group's political editor, I keep an eye on the county's corridors of power.

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