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Crisis is looming in Gravesham unless we boost classroom places

PUBLISHED: 11:33 30 September 2010

Peter Read

Peter Read

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This week education advisor Peter Read writes about the crisis facing primary education in the borough.

The former head of of Gravesend Grammar School for Boys raises his fears as an internal Kent County Council report reveals that within a year there will be 11 per cent fewer places at schools in Gravesham than the number needed.

He is calling on council chiefs to act now to prevent problems in future years...

The desperate shortage of primary school places in Gravesham was starkly illustrated this year when, after allocation of primary reception class places in March, there were no vacancies in any school in Northfleet, with many children being offered places out of the borough at a school in Swanscombe.

Only three schools had vacancies in urban Gravesend (north of the A2), between them taking in 40 children who did not apply for any of them but were turned away from all three of their preferred schools.

Of course, the situation will have changed since then with continued movement of families, but my impression from inquiries and information I receive is that there is still movement into the area so the problems may be even worse.

I warned Kent County Council in December 2008 of the coming problems in both primary and secondary schools in Gravesham, but the written reply from its Cabinet member at the time dismissed my concerns.

They were, however, very real and an internal KCC report the following July forecast an 11 per cent shortfall in infant reception class places in Gravesham for September 2011, the largest deficit of the only three districts in Kent with a shortage of places (Dartford is next with eight per cent).

This enormous shortfall is further masked by the distribution of places, with a considerable surplus of empty spaces in rural Gravesham.

Kent’s response so far has just been to reinstate places at two Gravesend schools that had previously shrunk in size because of their limited popularity with families, but there appear to be no plans to increase numbers at any of those schools that are oversubscribed.

The county believes this is just a temporary blip with numbers beginning to fall again in a couple of years, but data I have from KCC itself for pre-school children from birth age upwards show no such decline.

I appreciate that the influx of Eastern European children into the town could be temporary, but the forecast appears to assume that there will be no net movement into the town, in contrast to the pattern of recent years, which has also seen considerable immigration from London.

Now is the time to face up to this problem and look to expand some of the more popular schools permanently before disaster strikes.

I do appreciate it is difficult to forecast school numbers, and government places local authorities under intense pressure to keep vacant spaces to a minimum.

However, Kent is a large county and Gravesham children are suffering because of the large number of vacancies in schools in other parts of the county, which inhibits any expansion.

However, in Tunbridge Wells, the third oversubscribed district (also eight per cent shortfall), an additional 50 places were created this summer in very popular schools. Our local representatives must respond to the urgent need to create new primary school places where they are needed before additional housing is agreed, otherwise we really shall have a crisis.

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