One rule for grammar schools, another for the rest of us?

If we can provide additional grammar school places by building annexes to existing schools does that mean we can provide additional local authority comprehensive school places in the same way?

The announcement that a grammar school in Kent is to be allowed to open an annexe in a separate town raises interesting questions for the Free School proposal in Brighton and Hove. The rationale which has always been given by both the Local Authority and the University of Brighton is that a Free School is the only way to provide Brighton with the additional secondary school places it is going to need in the near future. For the Local Authority it is the explanation of why they were happy to support the University of Brighton Free School application while the University of Brighton have said they were happy to respond to the Local Authority’s invitation to put in a bid as part of their ‘civic responsibility’.

No one disputes the need for more secondary school places in Brighton and Hove but trades unions and individuals have raised concerns about the prospect of this Free School which would be part of the University of Brighton Academies Trust, an academy trust which is seeking to expand through taking over schools in Brighton and Hove as well as East and West Sussex (you can find out more here and here). The latest GCSE statistics (see here) show that Local Authority schools in Brighton and Hove have the most improved results in the country. Many want the Council to create new secondary school places for Brighton within this successful family of schools with local democratic accountability and don’t want a Trust to set up a non-accountable and divisive Free School (see petition here).

As yet, there has been no news on the University of Brighton’s Free School bid, it was not amongst the 18 announced at the end of September by the DfE. Neither has there been any confirmation of the possible location of this new school. However, Brighton and Hove’s Children and Young People’s Services committee did recently consider a report looking at the methodology for predicting pupil numbers in the authority. This was to check whether the council’s existing methodology is robust and provides accurate estimates of demand for school places. The review report is available here

Key Points of the report:

  1. The analysis states estimates in primary numbers were good though there is overestimation in the secondary school forecasts (for 2014/15 the overestimate was 2%).
  2. This doesn’t remove the case for new secondary school places (but note ‘places’ not ‘school’)
  3. B&H is unusual (and going against DfE implied ‘good practice’) in not having school level analysis.

With reference to the first point, it should be noted that a 2% overestimate of the projected 2019 figures in the School Organisation Plan 2013-2017 (available here )would mean a correction to projected shortfall in places illustrated in the table below.

Year Capacity Estimate low Estimate high Surplus/Shortfall

Based on low estimate (Correction)

Surplus/Shortfall

Based on high estimate

(Correction)

Surplus places created by new 180 place Free School based on corrected estimate
2019 2610 2660 2750 -40 (+13) -140 (-85) 193-95
2020 2610 2620 2700 -10 (+42) -90 (-36) 222-144
2021 2610 2680 2760 -70 (-16) -150 (-95) 164-85

There is clearly a need for additional secondary places – the issue remains whether a new school is the best way to meet the prospective demand.  What would be the impact of a significant surplus of places (at least in the short term) on other schools in the authority? Because of parental preferences, given existing catchment areas and depending on location, any new school would not affect recruitment to all other schools equally. It would not be a question of spare capacity of 7-15 places across all schools but more likely a significant fall in recruitment for already under-recruiting schools unless catchment areas are significantly redrawn.

It has to be presumed that this will be part of what is examined in the forthcoming school admissions review based on research commissioned by the Children and Young People’s Committee from a research team at the University of Brighton (is there a conflict of interest issue here?). It is therefore, perhaps surprising that the committee voted not to extend the pupil forecasting methodology to include school level analysis as suggested in the report where it was argued that inclusion of school level analysis “would help to identify schools at risk of low numbers, surplus places and consequent unviability; or under pressure from growing populations, or very high levels of parental preference. It could help schools and the council plan budgets by giving them more advance warning of changes in numbers on roll. It would also enable the methodology and accuracy of the forecasts to be more rigorously monitored.” (p.40)

The decision in Kent to allow an existing school to build an annex to cope with additional demand (see here) re-opens other possibilities for Brighton. Would the city be better served by expansion of existing provision through one or more ‘annexes’? This would safeguard local accountability and democracy for our schools and guarantee a school under the auspices of the Local Authority and join the best performing Local Authority schools in the country. It would also allow flexibility over location or location(s) to best manage impact on all other schools. Why not ask head-teachers?

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