In October 2015, the Weald of Kent grammar school in Tonbridge was granted permission by the Secretary of State for Education to open an annexe at a site around nine miles away in Sevenoaks. It was a controversial ruling because new grammar schools are currently banned by law, and so the school had to prove that it was operating as one school not two.
In January of this year the Kent Education Network used a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to see the proposal for the expansion, but we were refused. However, an appeal to the information regulator, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has led to a ruling that the government must release the school’s plans to the group.
ICO senior case officer, Alun Johnson, acknowledged releasing the application would help: “to reassure the public it is an appropriate expansion”, and would also help groups planning similar expansions.
This ruling made it clear that the secrecy surrounding this expansion was unnecessary. The Information Commissioner’s Office said that the public interest is served by making this proposal available, and we agree.
Kent County Council is using £20 million of public money to build this “annexe” and many people feel a nine mile gap between buildings makes this two schools, with effectively a new grammar school being built to bypass the law.
In this proposal, the school explains token efforts to merge the two sites into one ‘school’ but this mainly involves Sevenoaks girls spending one half day a week doing PE in Tonbridge. The proposal is also very vague about the results of consultations, and we feel they should have presented the true numbers from all consultations in the document they sent to the Education secretary.
KEN also submitted FOI requests to see the results of the school’s consultations, but these have not all been forthcoming. We made an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office when a consultation result was claimed to be lost by the Weald of Kent school.
In 2013, Weald of Kent put forward a plan for a mixed-sex annexe in Sevenoaks and in one of four questions they asked the public ‘Do you support the Weald of Kent Grammar School Trust proposal to open an Annexe in Sevenoaks?’ The school provided the group with results of other questions in the consultation, but claimed to have lost the results for this key question.
The Information Commissioner’s Office this week gave a ruling on this matter, and accepted the school’s answer that this result was not recorded in writing or given to school governors in any meeting. The school claim that the consultation results have since been destroyed in line with their data protection policy.
KEN believes that that a later consultation described in the school’s proposal is also misleading. A consultation in September 2014 asked parents whether they supported expansion to a single sex annexe in Sevenoaks, but only 106 parents responded, the results showing only a small minority in favour of the annexe. To the question: ‘Do you support the Weald of Kent Grammar School Trust proposal to open an Annexe in Sevenoaks?’, just 59 parents said Yes and 46 said No.
There is clearly support for this annexe in Sevenoaks, but we feel that the Weald of Kent did not take enough care to seek the views of parents with children at the school when they proposed the annexe again in 2014.
We feel that the school felt under pressure by KCC who were keen to see a grammar in Sevenoaks; or even by politicians who wished to test the waters with a grammar school built without changing the law? Is it not odd that so few parents responded to the consultation? And is it not surprising that the school went ahead when the result of the survey was inconclusive?
Now that we can see how the consultation was presented in this document, we feel that the Secretary for State must have read the school’s proposal and thought the consultations overwhelmingly positive. However, this was not the case because there were issues with the school’s consultation in both 2013 and 2014.
The annexe in Sevenoaks is a landmark case because it’s the first selective school to expand in this way. Now that the May government is pledging £50 million a year to expand existing grammar schools, it is likely that more annexe schools will be built.
It is our hope that the ruling by the ICO means that future plans will be available for public scrutiny and that future consultations will be thorough with the results reported to parents.”
Weald of Kent grammar school annexe decision notice can be seen here.
Joanne Bartley, Chair, Kent Education Network