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Secondary school places in Kent: What can parents do to guarantee their first place choice?

Every year tens of thousands of Kent families are tasked with choosing a secondary school for their child. But with many schools in charge of their own admission policies, combined with stiff competition for places, the responsibility of getting it right weighs heavy on the minds of many.

Senior reporter Lauren Abbott looks at the application process and asks how much choice do parents really have with so many schools setting their own rules?

There is often stiff competition for places at secondary school
There is often stiff competition for places at secondary school

Long gone, it seems, are the days of putting your name down at the local school and getting a place.

While families in Kent have had to accept – or perhaps become resigned to – the county’s academically selective 11-plus system there is an entirely different selection process at play every year among pupils needing secondary school places.

Since the growth of academies, many more schools have taken charge of their own destiny, joining voluntary-aided or foundation schools in setting their own intake rules and becoming their own admission authorities.

No longer is it only faith schools controlling the students they admit – hundreds of schools across the county now publish their own, often unique, criteria for getting through the door.

As a result, being granted a place at your nearest or ‘local’ school is not always the process it once was while competition for places, many feel, is only increasing.

And while the vast majority of pupils - including those passing the Kent Test - will ultimately get their first choice school, parents faced with a calendar of open evenings, visits and prospectuses must get to grips with the admission rules for each school they’re interested in to understand if they even stand a chance of being considered.

Admission policies themselves are far from secret, published by law ahead of each intake and easily found on school websites.

Those schools that have Kent County Council (KCC) as their admissions authority or who continue to follow its admission arrangements consider pupils with a statement of educational needs, ‘looked after’ children, those with a current family association with special health/ access reasons before ranking all other applicants on the basis of distance.

But policies at other schools shed light on an intricate system in which the playing field is not necessarily level and doesn’t always account for where you live, at least not initially.

KCC remains the admission authority for some schools
KCC remains the admission authority for some schools

Talent and ability

A quick study of some academy admission policies suggests it’s not just grammar schools selecting children on the basis of their ability.

And while not necessarily assessing across-the-board academic performance like the Kent Test, there are many schools in the county open to pupils with a particular skill.

Valley Park School in Maidstone, The Whitstable School and Fulston Manor in Sittingbourne are among those which give some priority to pupils with a particular talent.

Fulston Manor School, Sittingbourne
Fulston Manor School, Sittingbourne

According to Valley Park’s most recent admissions policy, around 10% of its 240 places will be given to pupils who can demonstrate a talent for art, a sport, or performing arts – to be judged by a panel for one of the coveted spaces.

Fulston Manor also gives priority to a similar number of Year 6 children with a ‘particular aptitude in either sport or performing arts’. Again, determined by some form of audition or trial, which in previous years has also required candidates to also speak in person about their outside interest.

The Whitstable School too has 10% of places reserved for those with a ‘special aptitude in music, dance, drama or art’.

Pupils there, says the policy, are ranked based on the evidence they can provide. However, if competition is fierce and those places oversubscribed, how close candidates live to the school could come into play.

In Canterbury, The Canterbury Academy reserves up to 31 places for students with ‘musical ability’ according to its most recent admissions policy.

Auditions are used to rank children against a set criteria with successful applicants expected to take up vocal or instrumental tuition, to attend at least one music/drama club each week and participate in academy performances, explains the policy.

Westlands School offers the chance to sit a maths aptitude test. Photo: Stock image.
Westlands School offers the chance to sit a maths aptitude test. Photo: Stock image.

Further along the road back over in Sittingbourne, the hugely-oversubscribed Westlands School – part of the Swale Academies Trust – gives an element of priority to prospective pupils who can score highest in its maths aptitude test.

Like those offering scholarship places for sport or music – around 10% of children can try and guarantee themselves a place at Westlands via this route with the best performers getting priority for a place both over siblings of current students or those living closest to the Westlands Avenue site.

According to Westland’s 2023 admissions document – around 29 spaces are reserved for the most skilled maths students.

Now-retired education advisor and former head teacher Peter Read says each district is faced with its own unique set of circumstances when it comes to secondary school selection.

Oasis Academy on the Isle of Sheppey
Oasis Academy on the Isle of Sheppey

In the case of Swale there are two popular academies in Westlands and Fulston Manor, both with unique oversubscription criteria.

However they neighbour the troubled Oasis Academy on the Isle of Sheppey, which makes competition for places in Sittingbourne exceptionally hard-fought as many families on the island attempt to find an alternative, ‘swelling’ the numbers interested in neighbouring schools.

Figures for this September show 166 children were given Oasis through the Local Authority Allocations system meaning the candidates didn't choose the school as one of their initial four options.

He said: “Sittingbourne, by my analysis, is one of the worst in terms of decision making.”

Peter points also to Tunbridge Wells where, he says, competition for places at Bennett Memorial Diocesan School and St Gregory’s Catholic School, which both give priority to hundreds of families with a religious background, can sometimes mean children on the west side of town who don’t meet the criteria can face attending schools in Paddock Wood or Tonbridge some considerable distance from where they live.

Primaries can serve as feeder schools to secondaries in the same academy trust. Image: PA.
Primaries can serve as feeder schools to secondaries in the same academy trust. Image: PA.

The primary schools with priority

The development of academies, and large academy trusts incorporating a number of primary and secondary schools under one umbrella, mean a percentage of available places at many secondaries is reserved for primary pupils at a feeder school.

Meopham Secondary near Gravesend prioritises children from its feeder primary in Istead Rise above those who may live nearer to the school in Wrotham Road.

Back over at Fulston Manor, its oversubscription criteria makes space for any interested pupils who currently attend a primary within its academy trust – most notably neighbouring South Avenue primary school which has a potential 60 children in Year 6 who can take priority over applicants applying based on their distance to the school.

Canterbury Academy welcomes Year 6 children in the academy’s ‘primary phase’ while Leigh Academy in Dartford also says it will allocate space to children attending a Leigh Academies Trust Primary where The Leigh Academy is also the closest secondary school to the child’s permanent address.

St George's School in Gravesend
St George's School in Gravesend

In Gravesend, explains Peter, St George’s secondary school also now has its own all-through primary section, which will make admission to the very-popular ‘secondary phase’ considerably easier for those fortunate enough to be given a primary school place at the age of four.

When competition in certain areas for secondary places is so fierce, the issue of large numbers of children being given priority as a result of the primary school they attend can be an added consideration for parents weighing up the likelihood of being successful with their secondary application.

But for those considering their child’s very first reception place, does the firm guarantee of a particular secondary school seven years down the line serve as an added draw?

Mr Read said: “I would be interested to see the figures on it but I wouldn’t know how to measure it. But, yes, it has got to be a carrot.”

Many schools in Kent now set their own admission and oversubscription criteria. Image: Stock photo.
Many schools in Kent now set their own admission and oversubscription criteria. Image: Stock photo.

The postcode lottery

With demand for places regularly outstripping available space, a school’s oversubscription criteria is used to ‘rank’ pupils.

The list clearly outlines how a school will admit pupils in order of priority. The same rules are also applied in the event of any appeal.

While some schools place the issue of distance or ‘nearness’ to a school high up the criteria, other schools drawing on their own guidance may find room for pupils with special skills or those at feeder primaries, above those applying purely on the basis they like the school and live nearby.

Some schools also give priority to families living in more rural areas ahead of those who may have a house around the corner.

In the case of Sittingbourne’s Fulston Manor, children living within certain village ME9 postcodes receive greater priority than those living closest to the school in the town centre.

In fact, distance, or nearness to the school as the crow flies, is the final criteria when it comes to the school determining who it can accommodate.

Across town, Westlands School also ranks residents in the parishes of Bobbing, Borden, Bredgar, Hartlip, Iwade, Lower Halstow, Newington, Stockbury, Tunstall and Upchurch more highly than those who may live closest to the school according to its oversubscription criteria.

So what is the advice?

Parents with a child applying to secondary school must rank their choices, in order of preference, one to four.

KCC says parents should always fill every available option on the form to increase the chances of being given a school that was at least among their choices even if not the top option.

A total of 22,620 parents (19,007 from Kent) applied for a secondary place at a Kent school for this September. The number offered a place at their first-preference school was 14,865 or 78.21%.

The percentage of those allocated a place at a school they did not choose fell to under 5% - the lowest since 2018.

Graham Jones from, Whitehead Monkton
Graham Jones from, Whitehead Monkton

But the current system, says education specialist Graham Jones from law firm Whitehead Monkton, means the onus is firmly on parents to do their research.

He says there is no choice but to visit schools, make a list of possible options, understand the admissions criteria for each school and how the rules will be applied if they’re oversubscribed and – increasingly - explore if their child meets any available aptitude criteria should it be an option.

He said: “The onus is on the parent to do the research. Looking at Ofsted, visiting it, finding out about school specialisms.

“It might not be as straightforward as being at your closest school.”

His thoughts are echoed by Mr Read who says parents must ‘get to know their district’ in some detail.

This, he says, includes fully understanding oversubscription criteria to appreciate what might be a ‘safe’ option and what might be a more risky choice.

With, says Peter, an emphasis on ensuring a safe option among the four choices where it is possible to leave as little to chance as is possible.

“If you haven’t got a safe school then a least use all of your options on the form” he added.

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