Published: 15:40, 21 November 2019
| Updated: 15:41, 21 November 2019
A former council leader fiercely defended his decision to reverse plans to create a new secondary school in Thanet during a tense public meeting.
Kent County Council's ex leader Paul Carter (Con) and his successor, Cllr Roger Gough (Con), were both grilled about the U-turn for nearly two hoursby a KCC committee at Maidstone County Hall on Tuesday.
The decision to backtrack on the construction of a new place of education on the site of Margate's former Royal Deaf School was made just moments before Cllr Carter stepped down from office four weeks ago, causing alarm.
Several KCC scrutiny members raised concerns about its ad-hoc nature, questioned the proposed temporary expansion of Ramsgate Royal Harbour Academy, and were alarmed by the inaccurate Thanet housing projections.
But, Cllr Carter told KCC's scrutiny committee: "I passionately made the right decision 20 minutes before resigning as authority leader."
The Maidstone member also claimed it would be "fundamentally wrong" for the Department of Education's regional schools commissioner in Kent to force KCC to build the new Margate school for 690 pupils by September 2020.
Low rates of housing development in Thanet combined with financial savings of at least £10.3 million for the county council were among the driving factors behind KCC's change of heart over the last 14 months, the committee heard.
Instead, KCC is seeking to expand two existing Thanet schools, Westgate's Ursuline College and Birchington's King Ethelbert's School, while Ramsgate's Royal Harbour would be temporarily extended until 2024.
The former cabinet member for education, Cllr Gough, said the change had also been driven to fill up school capacity and desire to improve existing ones.
Cllr Rory Love (Con) described the accounts of Cllr Gough and Cllr Carter as "defensive" and felt there was a "reluctance" to accept the notion that a new school could be a welcome addition to the education on offer in East Kent.
An angered Cllr Rosalind Binks (Con), who represents a Broadstairs, also took issue with the proposed expansion of the Royal Harbour Academy due to the school's underperformance after it was rated 'inadequate' by Ofsted in June 2018.
She said: "We are sending children to a school that's failing at the moment."
Several Thanet schools and Margate county councillor Barry Lewis (Lab) have given their support to Cllr Carter's U-turn, the committee was told, with two representatives attending the Maidstone public meeting.
The CEO of Thanet's Coastal Academies Trust, Paul Luxmore, which covers Royal Harbour Academy and King Ethelbert, defended the proposed temporary expansion of the Ramsgate school.
He said there had been an upswing in the quality of teaching in the last eight months and advancement of a new curriculum taught to Year 7s and 8s.
Mr Luxmore said: "The school is rapidly improving its performance for younger years, which would be most affected by the temporary increase in numbers."
Other committee members were alarmed by a major discrepancy in housing growth projections, which was deemed a fundamental cause of the issue.
Around 857 homes-a-year were expected to be built in Thanet based on 2014 housing projections, but it recently came to light that only 200 are being built.
Cllr Cooke (Con) said: "The problem is the data was rapidly wrong in some way and it has taken us five to six year to find out."
A behind closed doors session took place after 103-minutes of the public meeting, as members discussed "commercially sensitive" material before making a series of recommendations, which have yet to be disclosed.
The Department for Education still has a final say and could reverse KCC's decision, but have yet to respond amid the General Election campaigns.
More by this authorCiaran Duggan, local democracy reporter