Remembering that this isn’t a game
In all that follows, I want to underline and emphasise what is always true of posts on this blog. These opinions are my own personal opinions, and do not represent the views of my Bishop, diocese or other colleagues. Any alignment with their own views is purely coincidental.
In the last couple of days, I have been trying very hard to process devastating news.
Since 2011 when I arrived in my current parish, I have been championing Kings Hill’s need for an extra primary school. Kings Hill very obviously needed the extra school places and local people felt that the Local Authority wasn’t listening. Just as I arrived, a Free School bid had been unsuccessful but the pressure in the community was beginning to mount.
By September 2012, the statistics told us that over 100 reception-age kids who lived on Kings Hill couldn’t be educated on Kings Hill. A new school was desperately needed and, eventually, KCC began to redo their sums and to listen.
For myself, and the Diocese of Rochester, it seemed like an opportunity. The Church of England has a long and well-regarded history in education in this country and it seemed there was a very obvious opportunity here for us to get involved, provide schooling and meet the felt needs of a new community that we could and should serve. Indeed, very soon after I arrived, both the local Parish Council and local parents were speaking to me, asking me to whether I could talk to the Bishop and the Diocese about making a serious bid to build a new school on Kings Hill. We began to meet and to plan.
It wasn’t just about the education though, crucially important as that was. Learning lessons from other new housing developments around the country where developers often provide too few resources for community development, I also championed the possibility of building a ‘Community and Worship Space’ annexed to the school; an annexe that could be available to the school and to the community all week long and could provide an effective church building for St Gabriel’s (our church congregation there) on Sundays – thus also giving Kings Hill its own church building (again, something Kings Hill needs and many people want).
Initially, our local Authority seemed willing to give the school to the Diocese straight-up. However, when the funding question came into play, it turned out that wasn’t going to be possible. There needed to be an open and transparent bidding process in which the Diocese could compete with other potential bidders for the right to run the school. We were confident in what we could offer and we embraced the opportunity, knowing that we knew Kings Hill well, we had an excellent plan in place on the education side and we could offer a really good ‘bespoke’ solution for Kings Hill that would provide the much-needed school places but also bring plenty of added value to the community.
We made our bid. The local authority recommended our bid as the preferred option. This week, we were told that the Department for Education over-ruled that recommendation and have appointed another provider.
My children will tell you that I am a very bad loser. Monopoly in our house can get very messy. Not good for a Vicar really, is it?
But as I’ve tried to process my feelings of sadness and loss now that we know that we won’t get this chance to provide a school after all, and remembering that this isn’t a game but a serious business when you are talking about children’s education, I honestly don’t think that I’m being a bad loser when I suggest that there are some serious and eminently appropriate questions that the people of Kings Hill deserve to have answered.
If the serious questions I pose in this blog post can be answered, then I will shut up, I will cheer the new school on and I will do all that I can to support them in the same way that I support other schools in my parishes.
And I want to be really clear that I have absolutely nothing but respect for Valley Invicta Academy Trust (VIAT) who happen to have won the right to provide the school instead of the Diocese. Their background is excellent and the Academy Trust itself originated in an outstanding local secondary Grammar school. Educationally, I am sure they will bring a great deal to the table and, ultimately, the most important thing is that Kings Hill gets plenty of school places and that the schools are wonderful places to learn.
But I do think that local residents, the Parish Council, KCC, and Sir John Stanley MP could and should be asking the DfE to explain themselves. This is a list of questions I would suggest are reasonable to be asking at this juncture:
- On what basis was KCC’s recommendation overturned? Kings Hill residents and families deserve a transparent decision-making process and thus DfE ought to be able to explain clearly why they thought VIAT was the best option when KCC did not. What did they see that was wrong in the Diocesan bid that meant DfE judged it to be a lesser choice?
- DfE’s decision now means VIAT have to deliver three schools in a very short time-period. They are also involved in the controversial Sevenoaks Grammar. What capacity have they got to deliver three schools on time for September 2015 in Kings Hill given that Kings Hill’s need for school places is already acute?
- Given the need to ensure Kings Hill families do indeed get the school places they need, how will VIAT approach the issue of oversubscription criteria? The Diocese had a clear plan (openly published at an earlier stage) to ensure places went to Kings Hill kids and were not taken up by families from a wider catchment area.
- How does the VIAT bid address Kings Hill’s specific context? Or is their bid plan to basically do the same thing in each of their three awarded sites? In other words, do they think Snodland, Leybourne Chase and Kings Hill need the same approach?
- The Diocese was promising Community Space and offering to fund it. How does the VIAT bid intend to engage and promote community development in Kings Hill?
- KCC requested a specialist Autism Unit at Kings Hill. What is VIAT’s plan to address that specific request?
- How soon can Kings Hill residents hear from VIAT’s senior leadership as to their personal passion and commitment to deliver an outstanding school for the people of Kings Hill.
I don’t think any of those questions are unreasonable. If they can be answered sensibly, then I would be quite happy to sit back down and let them get on with the job. All along we’ve said that the number one consideration is that the community get a good school for Kings Hill as soon as possible.
If, however, those questions can’t be answered… well, you fill in the blank.
It seems that there will be no sensible way for the Diocese to appeal the DfE’s decision. We could ask for a Judicial Review, but that would be prohibitively expensive and it would slow everything down. Such a move would be unfair on Kings Hill families when they need school places as quickly as possible. There would be no winners, but plenty of losers in such a move. Nevertheless, for Kings Hill to be reassured that they are getting the best possible result from KCC and DfE, I think there are some questions that are reasonable to ask. Don’t you?