Published: 12:41, 22 September 2021
| Updated: 10:56, 05 October 2021
Sheppey could get another secondary school to rival the Oasis Academy in a radical shake-up of Island learning.
In theory, Oasis has room for 1,950 across its two sites at Minster and Sheerness. With 2,120 Islanders needing non-selective education it should be bursting. But it isn't.
Meanwhile in Sittingbourne, the town has 3,825 non-selective school places and 3,244 children. There should be plenty of space but Islanders have taken up the slack as parents shun the Island academy which has been labelled as "requires improvement" by Ofsted.
The surprise move, welcomed by campaigners, was discussed by Kent County Council (KCC) during Swale council's Sheppey area committee at Minster Working Men's Club last week, with KCC saying it has many avenues to pursue, before the idea can become a reality.
The meeting also heard that temporary classrooms were being installed at Westlands and talks were going on with Fulston Manor, in Sittingbourne, to see if any could be added.
KCC's education officer Marisa White explained an idea that Oasis Academy may reduce its number of forms would be objected to.
But it led to the council looking at whether the trust would give up its West site. Oasis has since said it needs the Sheerness campus.
She said: "We are going to go to the Department for Education to say the solution is a second secondary school and a second provider for Sheppey."
The council revealed it had already begun searching for sites for the new school. It will also need to find another sponsor.
The surprise u-turn follows years of complaints from parents fed-up with having only one secondary school to send their children to. They ran a campaign demanding at least two, and possibly three, alternatives to foster competition. But KCC previously rejected the idea.
KCC's area education officer Marisa White told a packed hall on Tuesday: "One way around the problem was for Oasis to give us its smaller site so we could bring in another sponsor. They said they would not give up the site as it was part of their future plans so we are going to go the Department for Education to say a second secondary school and a second provider is needed for Sheppey."
While the council does not have a budget for the new school, KCC has begun looking at land options. It is speaking to Homes England which is developing land at Rushenden. If this is an option it could take several years and not be ready until at least 2025.
However temporary accommodation for years 7 and 8 could be ready in 18 months if another provider could take it on and discussions include using the former Halfway Houses school site.
The huge number of pupils being bussed off the Island every day - more than 1,200 - is putting a heavy strain on Sittingbourne schools which now don't have enough spaces for Sittingbourne children who are being sent to Sheppey, sometimes against their wishes. This September, 70 pupils were allocated places at Oasis.
In a joint statement, Kent County Council’s Cabinet Member for Education and Skills, Shellina Prendergast, Swale Borough Council Leader Roger Truelove, and MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, Gordon Henderson, said: “Any decision to open a new school is taken over a period of time and through a process that is open to public scrutiny.
"We are all fully aware of the growing numbers of pupils in the area and have a shared commitment to improve educational standards in Sittingbourne and on the Isle of Sheppey.
“With that in mind we are working with the Oasis Learning Community Trust, the Department for Education, and others to address parental concerns about educational provision on the Island, and we will continue to pursue all options to achieve our aims.
“However, KCC has no immediate plans to build a new school on the Isle of Sheppey."
Education campaigner Tony Batchelor, former secretary of the Sheppey Parents Action Group (Spag), said it was "the best news I have heard in more than 10 years."
He said: "Parents have always wanted a choice and if KCC keep their word it looks as if they are now likely to get it. The fact that it has taken KCC so long to come to the conclusion that Island parents reached 12 years ago is a tragic loss for the hundreds of students who have already passed through the educational system. However, better late than never, and we must applaud this decision.
"The community must now work with the new additional provider to ensure that both schools work together to give the Island children the education system they deserve. Hurray for common sense!"
Pressure on school places in Sittingbourne has become more critical since plans for an overflow school at Kemsley were put on hold. According to KCC, the developer is refusing to release land until it can begin building houses.
Under strict planning conditions, work cannot start until the A249 junctions at Grovehurst and Stockbury are upgraded. It had been hoped the school would be open by now. It could now be 2028.
Sheppey's educational woes began more than 50 years ago when KCC demolished the Island's two technical and two secondary modern schools and replaced them with one large coeducational comprehensive - The Sheppey School or 'Comp' - in 1970 while leaving Sittingbourne as a selective area with two grammar schools.
It also introduced middle schools, later abandoned, to the Island which took pupils from nine to 13 while the rest of Kent remained a two-tier system.
Swale councillor Peter MacDonald said: "People took their eye off the ball. Sheppey had four good secondary schools including a world-leading technical school. There was a cross-flow with pupils from Sittingbourne coming to the Tech. We need a new technical school."
Eastchurch parish councillor Mike Brown said: "This seems like deja-vu. We put forward plans for three secondary schools for Sheppey 11 years ago but they were rudely thrown out by KCC. Since then there have been six head teachers at the academy in 11 years."
The latest, Tina Lee, resigned in the summer break and has been replaced by Andy Booth.
Swale councillor Ken Ingleton (Con, Minster Cliffs), himself an old 'Tech Boy' and who was chairing the meeting, said: "I used to be so proud to say I was educated on Sheppey. Now I am ashamed. We have some outstanding children on the Island but the only thing which lets them down is our secondary education. We need something done now."
Sheppey has 2,120 children of school age who need non-selective education. The Oasis Academy has 1,950 places across its two sites and should be packed. It celebrated its largest intake for many years this September.
Sittingbourne has 3,244 children and 3,825 non-selective school places so there should be ample space. But Islanders now take up many desks. A fleet of buses take pupils on and off the Island every day.
Figures also reveal that Island pupils are being left behind when it comes to taking the Kent Test - the equivalent of the 11-plus. Only 14% who took the test reached the pass mark compared with an average of 25% across the county.
This article has been amended from a previous version which suggested KCC had decided on a new secondary school for Sheppey and would build it. We're happy to make clear this is not the case.