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KCC may do U-turn over grammar schools merger

SURPRISED: Clarendon House head teacher Jane Bennett said she was unaware of any change to the county council's position
SURPRISED: Clarendon House head teacher Jane Bennett said she was unaware of any change to the county council's position

COUNTY education chiefs are looking again at the possible merger of Thanet's two grammar schools, it has emerged.

Kent County Council announced last month it intended to retain both Chatham House and Clarendon House grammar schools on their existing sites at Ramsgate.

At the time, the education authority said it intended to bid for government cash to rebuild and upgrade both schools and keep them separate.

While the news drew support from some, it triggered a political row and led to accusations from Labour that KCC was treating the two grammar schools more favourably than others in the area as pupil numbers were falling.

But the Kent Messenger Group has learned those plans have hit problems because KCC has discovered it may now face having to meet substantial slice of the huge costs of rebuilding both schools because of the complex government rules surrounding its Building Schools for The Future programme.

County Hall sources have indicated it is increasingly unlikely they will be able to overcome those financial constraints and as a result, discussions about a possible merger are back on. It is understood formal consultation could begin early next year.

The news of what would be an embarrassing U-turn so soon after KCC made its public commitment will dismay many.

It has also emerged KCC first considered the possibility of amalgamating the two schools more than a year ago, despite insisting no merger plans were under the spotlight.

According to information obtained by the Kent Messenger Group under the Freedom of Information Act, senior officials carried out a detailed feasibility study on the option, which was first considered by county councillors last year.

Discussions around the prospect of a merger continued throughout 2006 and into this year at a series of briefings.

KCC has refused to disclose the contents of its study or release notes from meetings and briefings.

The two Conservative county councillors in charge of Kent County Council’s education policy were tight-lipped about the council’s intentions, saying they were unable to comment in detail.

Cllr Mark Dance (Con), KCC's cabinet member for education operations and resources, said: "We are doing our best to challenge [the Government] but we have to decide what would be best given that our options are tied up under the rules."

Cllr Chris Wells (Con), who is cabinet member for children, family and educational standards, said it would be inappropriate to make any official comment.

Jane Bennett, head teacher at Clarendon House, said that she was unaware of any change to KCC's position.

She said: "It came as a surprise since I have been assured by Kent County Council officers that there has been no change in the plans announced in September, which is that both schools will remain separate entities and no formal merger is planned."

One factor that has led KCC to revisit the merger option is that if the Government does not endorse the plans for both schools, the plans for Thanet's other schools to be re-built under the Government's BSF programme could be jeopardised.

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