The school place conundrum. Plus: Former KCC boss tells public sector to be more cost-effective.

The school place conundrum. Plus: Former KCC boss tells public sector to be more cost-effective.

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, February 1 2013

When county education chiefs set out their blueprint for Kent's schools for the next five years, the introduction to the extremely lengthy Commissioning Plan acknowledged the education authority was operating in "an increasingly diverse environment."

Some of the consequences of that environment are beginning to be seen, not least in the challenge facing Kent County Council to ensure there are not just enough school places across Kent for children but that there are, in its own words, enough "appropriate places". At the same time as fulfilling that statutory obligation, it retains a general responsibility for the performance of schools in the area - regardless of whether schools have broken free of the supposed shackles of the county council and become academies.

Squaring this circle has its problems and data from the authority shows wide-variations in the intake of Year 7 pupils across the 99 secondary schools. The data was obtained by the well-known Kent education adviser Peter Read.

That there are five - including Kent's first academy, The Marlowe in Ramsage - that took in less than half the 11-year-olds they actually had places for is not quite as shocking as it might appear. Worrying, true, but Kent is no different to any other area in seeing fluctuations in pupil numbers across both the primary and secondary sector.

Education chiefs say that a general surplus - or spare capacity - is not necessarily a bad thing, although if it applied the same calculations to the empty desk data now as it did when it embarked on a programme of closing and merging more than 40 primary schools a few years ago, we might be seeing the same happening in the secondary sector.

The arguably more interesting aspect of the figures is not the under-occuppied schools but the third where more pupils were accepted in Year 7 last year than schools had places for. They include nine academies and 13 grammars and it hardly needs saying they are all among the best performing schools in the county.

There is nothing KCC can do to stop popular over-subscribed academies enlarging as the government, which likes to apply a market forces philosophy to education, has decreed that is what should be permitted: it's a question of supply and demand. This approach marks a return to the Thatcherite ethos in which competition between schools was considered the best way to drive up standards. No politician will ever say it but underlying this approach is a view that if schools can't make the grade, they should wither on the vine.

For KCC, this means trying to provide places while some schools, understandably focused more on their own interests, look to increase their numbers to respond to parental wishes. But the only real area where KCC has direct control is over its maintained schools. It has very little power over academies which is precisely the point (whether you agree with it or not) of the policy. If successful schools expand, continue to be succcessful and siphon away more able children, where does that leave the others? And where does it leave KCC as the commissioning body?

That 13 grammars took in more children, coupled with plans by at least three more to add places next year, should also be a concern. There may be an issue of a shortage of places in west Kent but there are some who suspect something else is going on here.

The relentless quest and obsession among politicians for diversity in the schooling system has over the years, created as many problems as it solves. If the government does genuinely believe that academies and free schools are the answer to declining standards, perhaps the solution is for all schools to become them.

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When Katherine Kerswell was managing director of Kent County Council, she embarked on one of those "re-structuring" exercises with the Orwellian title of "The Change To Keep Succeeding" programme. This was dressed up in all kinds of impenetrable jargon but was basically about cutting away staff and particularly management.

It was not, to put it mildy, terribly popular especially with county councillors, who at one point questioned just how successful the programme could be considered when in an early incarnation, it appeared KCC was to end up with just as many top officers as it had under the old management structure.

Of course, the managing director secured more notoriety when she left KCC after less than two years in the job and picked up a £420,000 pay-off in the process, not exactly what council taxpayers considered value for money. Now she has written an article extolling public sector leaders to do more to be cost-effective in "these austere times".

It's hardly the most revelatory suggestion ever to have been uttered and the irony of it coming from someone who was extraordinarily well remunerated when she quit has not been lost on some.

However, I do agree with one thing she writes - namely that "decision-making that is obscure, unseen or hidden fails the test of a modern democracy. As citizens, we now want 24/7 accountability, and we expect the full disclosure and transparency of those public decisions taken in our name."

Why then, did we have to wait for KCC to fulfill its statutory requirement to publish its annual accounts to find out about her payout - six months after she left?

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Where is Kent's Big Society? It's hard to tell on the strength of the pitiful take-up of Kent County Council's £3m fund available to social entrepeneurs to set up business in the county. Just three loans have been taken up in a year, suggesting there's not much appetite out there for this kind of initiative.

Of course, KCC's loan rate of between 12 and 15% may have something to do with the low take-up.

 

 

 

 

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Categories: KCC | Precept

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Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis

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