I posed the following education question on Radio Kent this morning to the five Tunbridge Wells candidates in the General Election:

Plans for a new six form entry non-selective school in TW have collapsed as no sponsor came forward to run it as a Free School. The three TW schools have each expanded by 60 pupils since the admission number set in 2018. Still, girls from TW were allocated to High Weald Academy in Cranbrook and boys to Hayesbrook School in Tonbridge this year. For 2021-22 entry the latest KCC commissioning plan shows a shortfall of 6 forms of entry in TW. The land earmarked for the new school has been lost under government rules that state such land cannot be kept indefinitely. Suggestions?

Shockingly, not one of the candidates knew there was a problem, let alone the crisis that is currently upon local families looking for non-selective schools in TW. Several could only respond about the shortage of grammar school places, which is completely irrelevant to this crisis, or the abolition of selection at 11, with grammar schools not mentioned in any party manifesto. Conservative candidate, Greg Clarke, the previous Member who was also State for the Department for Communities and Local Government, had never heard of the issue or the collapse of the land deal, although it is explicitly described in the KCC Schools Commissioning Plan for 2018-22 (below), and suggested I must be mistaken. Several candidates talked of long term plans for expanding school places in general without reference to Tunbridge Wells, presumably from the magic money tree on offer from all sides. In no way does this solve the local problem of short and long term need described by KCC whose solution is: ‘the strategic response to this demand is a proposed 6FE expansion of an existing school or a new school from 2021-22’. This after each of the three local non-selective schools has increased their intakes for 2019 entry by 60 places since the Planned figure for 201, with no sign of where the additional capacity is coming from.

In other words, don’t expect any help from whoever wins tomorrow!

The stark nature of the problem was set out in the 2018-22 KCC Schools Commissioning Plan, on pages 159/160 as follows: although the 2019 Plan tries to disguise it! 

There is significant pressure for Year 7 places across the Borough that rises from a forecast deficit of 121 places in 2018-19 to a peak of 245 in 2022-23. There is particular pressure in the urban areas, with approximately 8FE deficit of places forecast in central Tunbridge Wells for the September 2018 intake, based on published admissions numbers. The forecast demand indicated in the table above is skewed by surplus capacity in Cranbrook, which is outside of the historical travel to learn distance for children resident in Tunbridge Wells Town. Consequently the pressure on places in Tunbridge Wells Town will be approximately 3 FE greater than indicated in the table. It was previously anticipated that the majority of the central Tunbridge Wells demand would be met by a new 6FE free school from 2018/19. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) had agreed to undertake purchase of the identified site in conjunction with TWBC and KCC. No Wave 12 application was submitted to sponsor the free school. This alongside the ESFA’s change in policy around speculative land purchases, has meant that a new school could not be delivered before 2020 at the earliest, necessitating the expansion of existing schools for 2018-19 and 2019-20.

In order to address the demand for Year 7 places we are working with existing Secondary schools in the Tunbridge Wells urban areas to offer 190 temporary Year 7 places in 2018-19, leading to 4.3FE permanent provision and 120 temporary places for 2019-20. During the 2017-18 year we will finalise proposals to establish a further 6FE of provision from 2020-21.

 
What Mr Clarke offered was that he believed two possible sites for the new school have now been identified, many years from purchasing the land, finding a sponsor given that none could be found in 2018 and it is now proving more difficult, and then securing planning and building the school. That is if one of the two sites proves suitable!

The second quotation ‘the strategic response to this demand is a proposed 6FE expansion of an existing school or a new school from 2021-22’, comes from the Kent Commissioning Plan for 2019-2023, as explored in my article on 2019  school allocations, here.  The article also explores the problem of two thirds of TW places being in the two church schools: Bennett Memorial Diocesan (CofE) and St Gregory’s Catholic which select on religious grounds, and also admit some 50 children a year from outside Kent, to displace further children. As a result, for 2019, some 55 TW boys were offered places at Hayesbrook School in Tonbridge, the nearest school with vacancies for boys, and another 40, probably all girls, at High Weald Academy in distant Cranbrook the nearest school with vacancies for girls. Both these two latter schools were awash with vacancies.

Meanwhile a common bolthole for many TW families, the comprehensive Beacon Academy in Crowborough, which took 82 Kent children in 2018, admitted none in 2019 as it was full of local children.

Whilst it is clear from the above that local candidates for Parliament have no awareness of the crisis or interest in it, local families of children who are not found to be suitable for grammar schools can expect no favours from the winner of the Tunbridge Wells election. Sadly having listened to several of the other Radio Kent local constituency programmes, they appear no more ill informed than in other districts. Apart from extravagant promises from the  magic money pot for education, on the ground it is clearly not seen as a priority for anyone. 

Source: Kent Educational advice
Candidates for Election in Tunbridge Wells know nothing of local non-selective places crisis

Candidates for Election in Tunbridge Wells know nothing of local non-selective places crisis
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