You may have seen the news in the media that the Sevenoaks Grammar School project is apparently in difficulty because the Government and the proposed Christian Free School are threatening to confiscate the grammar school site and instead award it to the Christian School.
This article from today’s Sevenoaks Chronicle summarises the issue well:-
However, should anyone consider that the site owners Kent County Council (“KCC”) will hand over the Wildernesse site to the Christian School without a legal battle, then KCC leader Paul Carter’s interview on the BBC Radio Kent Breakfast Show yesterday morning should dispel any doubts:-
“We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to establish a grammar school in Sevenoaks, and we would very much like a Conservative Secretary of State’s agreement to do exactly that.”
“On this issue we have the high ground. The Academies Act is by no means clear as to whether the Government has the power to confiscate County Council sites that are still being used for educational purposes. The Academies Act only applies to redundant school sites where there is no other (school) provision being considered. We have an existing school on that site – Kent County Council owns the Wildernesse site upon we have a lease agreement with the Knole Academy until 2015 to educate the young people in Sevenoaks. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and we are continuing with our plans to establish a grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks for the young people and parents of that area.”
“We strongly believe that there is no need for a free school in Sevenoaks. We support free schools being established in the right areas where there’s a shortage of places and a demand for places. There clearly is not in Sevenoaks…(but) there is a significant demand for grammar school places…Putting public money into the establishment of free schools when there is no demand for places in the area of Sevenoaks is not the best use of public money.”
We are sure that the 2,600 Sevenoaks parents who signed our e-petition calling for a Sevenoaks grammar school will share our shock at the sheer brazenness of this misguided attempt by a fringe group and their Government backers to try to misappropriate a community asset for their own ends, and to try to deny the people of Sevenoaks a much-needed grammar school. We believe that the Wildernesse site is an asset that should be enjoyed by the wider community of Sevenoaks, and not just by regular churchgoing families who account for only 4 per cent** of the UK population.
Nevertheless, we have studied the law* in detail over the last year and we are confident that the Christian School and the Government have fundamentally misinterpreted the law, and that they therefore have no legal powers to confiscate the Wildernesse site. As Mr Carter comments on Radio Kent, “Possession is nine tenths of the law”. The site issue is therefore likely to be resolved reasonably soon, together with an announcement over the detailed plans for the grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks.
However, in recent days the Christian School and the Government have made a number of inaccurate statements about the Wildernesse site. We have therefore addressed these inaccuracies below in our responses to an email sent by the Christian School to its supporters yesterday.
Sent: 12 March 2013 14:07
Subject: Trinity School Permanent Site Announcement
CFS Email: Dear Colleague, I am finally able to tell you the long term location of Trinity School!
SGSC Response: This follows an anonymous and convenient leak to the local media the day before of a private letter from John Nash of the Department for Education (DfE) to KCC which states that “the applicants (the Christian School) believe that the Wildernesse site, which is due to be vacated by the Knole Academy, is ideally sited for their new school.” This letter was leaked to us last week via an anonymous email from someone calling themselves “Whistleblower”, with a message encouraging us to leak it further. However, we did nothing with the letter. The letter was then anonymously leaked to the local media this week. We have strong suspicions over the source of the leak.
CFS Email: We will be on the Knole East site in Seal Hollow Road, popularly known as ‘Wildernesse’. As you know, this is an existing school site with excellent sports facilities, a lot of green space, and plenty of parking for cars and buses. The existing buildings will either be replaced or refurbished so that they meet modern standards.
SGSC Response: The DfE letter states that, “it is immaterial if there is an intention on the part of the local authority to use the site for the purposes of a different school.” This demonstrates an outrageous disregard by the DfE for the wishes of Sevenoaks parents. 2,600 Sevenoaks parents signed our e-petition calling for a grammar school in Sevenoaks; only 800 Sevenoaks parents signed the Christian School’s e-petition. Furthermore, an independent survey of Sevenoaks parents conducted by the Sevenoaks Chronicle last year found that 70% of respondents were in favour of a new grammar school, and only 19% were in favour of the Christian School. It is therefore clear that the only school proposal that “is being driven by parental demand and has the support of the community” (to quote the DfE’s letter) is the grammar school.
CFS Email: KCC announced in January their intention to use the Wildernesse site for the proposed Grammar satellite.
SGSC Response: KCC’s January press release is here:
CFS Email: Kent told us that they did not believe that the site could be shared with our school so we looked for, and found, a number of good alternative options. In the event, however, the DfE has decided that Wildernesse is the best site for Trinity School out of all the available options. The DfE has therefore written to KCC to express its intention to base our school at the Wildernesse site once it is vacated by Knole Academy.
SGSC Response: This is a disingenuous statement. When the Christian School submitted its original application to the Government in February 2012 to set up a Free School, the application stated they that they wished to base their school on the Wildernesse site. The Christian School is therefore very much the driver behind the bid for the Wildernesse site as they have been trying to persuade the DfE to buy into this idea for over a year. Indeed, the leaked DfE letter states that “the applicants (the Christian School) believe that the Wildernesse site, which is due to be vacated by the Knole Academy, is ideally sited for their new school.” Why therefore is the Christian School now trying to deflect the blame onto the DfE?
CFS Email: The Academies Act 2010 gives the Secretary of State for Education the legal powers to ensure this outcome.
SGSC Response: This is a dubious interpretation of The Academies Act 2010, which states no such thing. The law in fact says that the Wildernesse site can only be confiscated by the DfE from its owner, KCC, if the site is no longer being used for the purposes of a school. However, the Wildernesse site is currently being used by the Knole Academy while its flagship new £18m extension is being built at Bradbourne Vale Road, and this will continue to be the case until September 2015, at which point the new grammar school annexe will open there. As a consequence, the Wildernesse site will be in continual educational use, and so cannot in law* be compulsorily purchased by the DfE for the Christian School. We understand that KCC will therefore be strongly challenging the DfE’s stated legal position, as is acknowledged by the DfE in its leaked letter (in its reference to KCC’s letter of 31 January).
CFS Email: We continue to believe that the site is big enough for two schools and it may be that this will be the eventual result of these discussions.
SGSC Response: Again, this is a disingenuous statement. The leaked DfE letter in fact threatens to compulsorily purchase the whole site, not part of the site. There is no mention of a site share in the DfE’s letter. Setting that aside for a moment, the practical issue with a site share is that there is insufficient space for two schools to share the existing school buildings on the Wildernesse site. KCC’s plan is to refurbish the existing buildings for the grammar school annexe as this is the most cost effective option for Kent taxpayers. (KCC have set aside approximately £6m for this option). The DfE have also said that they wish to refurbish the existing buildings for the Christian School, and we understand that this is also on low cost grounds. However, the DfE have not committed to spending the £25m needed to build wholly new school buildings for the Christian School on the school playing fields, which would open up the possibility of a site share. Presumably this is because the DfE are already spending £18m on new school buildings for The Knole Academy, and therefore there is no more money in the DfE’s budget for other new school buildings in Sevenoaks. Consequently, whilst the Christian School and DfE continue to brazenly insist on the low cost option of refurbishing the existing Wildernesse buildings, a site share is not possible.
CFS Email: Knole Academy have a lease on the Wildernesse site which expires in 2015, though they have stated that they wish to relinquish this at an earlier date if possible. We are confident that – with the help of the DfE – we will be able to gain access to the Wildernesse site in time to make it ready for our move from Ryedale Court in September 2015.
SGSC Response: This is not true. The Knole Academy’s lease expires on 31 August 2015, and we understand that Knole has no intention of vacating the site before this date because it is needed whilst Knole’e flagship new £18m extension is being built, a project that ironically is being funded by the DfE. (Building work began last week).
CFS Email: We are holding a meeting next [REDACTED] for parents who have applied to our school for 2013. It will be at [REDACTED]. This meeting is by invitation only. You would be welcome to come if you are able to but please do not publicise the meeting more widely.
SGSC Response: Noted.
CFS Email: We have not yet signed our Funding Agreement – this is winding its way through the DfE. This means that we cannot yet make formal offers of places. Parents who are holding offers from Kent should accept them at this stage. Once we can make formal offers, which should be in the next few weeks, they can safely reject their Kent offer. We realise that this is a very difficult and frustrating time for parents: we are working to try to move the Funding Agreement along as fast as possible.
SGSC Response: Leviticus 25:23.
*Specifically paragraph 1(2), Schedule 1, Academies Act 2010 (as amended by the Education Act 2011, which only applies to a school site that ceases to be used for educational purposes.
**4% refers to regular churchgoers not Christians. Being Christian is not enough to gain admission to most of the faith schools in West Kent; instead you need to be a regular churchgoer at the right church.
The figure 4% figure is taken from the official statistics of the churches themselves. The CofE and the Catholic Church’s published weekly church attendances are 1,145k and 916k in England & Wales, and the press articles below estimate that if you include the other Christian churches then the total weekly attendance at Christian churches is 2.5m.
The population of England & Wales in the 2011 census was 56.3m, meaning that 4.4% of the population attends church weekly. Whatever way you look at this figure, 4% represents a pretty fringe group, but unfortunately the 4% monopolises admissions to faith schools at the expense of the 96% of less dedicated Christians, Christians who attend the wrong church, those of other faiths, and those of no faith.