Published: 19:26, 08 October 2021
| Updated: 19:58, 08 October 2021
The fightback to save the High Weald Academy is under way.
Helen Grant MP told a meeting of concerned parents in Cranbrook: "This is not a meeting to debate closure. It is a meeting to debate how we are going to fight to save the school."
Helen Grant talking after the meeting
And while parents had only learned on September 27 that the Leigh Academies Trust (LAT), which runs High Weald, intended to close the school, it emerged that Mrs Grant, Cranbrook School and others had been given prior warning that a closure was on the cards.
LAT said closure was necessary because of dwindling pupil numbers and persistently bad Ofsted reports. The school once had over a 1,000 students, but that had dropped to 276. Its last three Ofsted reports had all been judged Requires Improvement.
Asked why she had not shared the information with parents, the MP for Maidstone and the Weald, said she had been persuaded by the argument that there was no need to worry parents and students unnecessarily, while there was still the chance that a solution could be found.
She said she had had a string of meetings with Baroness Berridge, the Under Secretary of State for Schooling, and a meeting with the then Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson to persuade the Government not to allow closure, but she had been unsuccessful.
She had since written to the new Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi urging him to reverse the decision.
Mrs Grant told the audience of around 110 in the Vestry Hall that closing High Weald ran contrary to to her principles of fairness, social justice, equality of opportunity and localism.
She said: "A town as vibrant and growing and as significant as Cranbrook needs to have a good -non-selective school."
There was no-one in the hall who disagreed with her. Speaker after speaker lined up to express their shock and dismay.
Kim Fletcher, chairman of Cranbrook and Sissinghurst Parish Council, said the council was contacting every local feeder primary school to understand where children had gone to secondary school over recent years, to find out why High Weald's rolls had been falling and what could be done.
Anthony Staples, chairman of Frittenden Parish Council, said children from his village would face a journey of over an hour to reach the suggested alternative of Mascalls Academy in Paddock Wood.
He said: "That's unacceptable.
"As well as the wasted time travelling, it means they will not be able to participate fully in after-school activities that are an important part of school life."
There was also the issue of community. He said: "Frittenden and other villages look to Cranbrook as our local hub."
He said he understood the difficulties of falling pupil numbers, but said: "You cannot treat children as pawns, moving them around just to balance your books.
"Ofsted and KCC have let us down. They have been asleep on the job."
Cllr John Perry, the vice chairman of Staplehurst Parish Council, said: "It has emerged that this has been on the cards for some time, but we have been kept in the dark."
He asked how anyone could expect a child to get from Hawkhurst (part of High Weald's catchment area) to go to Mascalls Academy on the "infamous No 5 bus."
And he warned the change would have a disproportionate effect on the poorest families.
He said the decision was short-sighted: "With all the house-building going on in the area, there will be increased demand for school places - it's not rocket science."
Gordon Young is the chairman of governors at Cranbrook School. He said the selective school had been asked to see if it could form a partnership with High Weald to save it from closure.
But he said: "We were given a fortnight. When we recently lowered our entry age from 13 to 11, the planning process took five years."
Nevertheless, the school had come up with a plan, but it had been unacceptable to the Education Minister.
Tom Dawlings is the leader of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, but also represents Benenden and Cranbrook. He said the problem had arisen because over the years parents had clearly selected other schools in preference to High Weald. He said: "Cranbrook doesn't just need a non-selective school, it needs a good non-selective school."
Several parents told how the decision was affecting them.
Hayley Long said she had only moved to Cranbrook in July. Her daughter started in Year 7 at High Weald on September 1. No-one had said anything about the school closing. They had spent £400 on school uniform.
One mother warned that those offered places at Mascalls had been told they had to accept the offer by October 22. But when she inquired at Mascalls, she was told most of the subject options were already full.
Gail Chandler said she lived in Hawkhurst. For her son to get to Mascalls in time, he would have to leave the house at 6.35am. So instead she had made inquiries at Uplands Community College in Wadhurst, only to be told they would have to move quickly, as all its options were nearly full.
She said that some parents were now withdrawing their children from High Weald ahead of the closure, not because they wanted to, but because "they had to do what's best for their child."
She asked: "What is the point of Ofsted, if all they do is say 'You're rubbish'- and then walk away?"
Christine Newman used to teach at Angley School - the forerunner of the High Weald Academy. But she said she had left when it had became a multi-academy trust because "they don't care about community. It's all about the money."
Jeanette Batten had been a pupil at Angley, her son was pupil. She had become a school governor and ultimately the chairman of the Brook Learning Trust that had run High Weald until it was recently absorbed by LAT. She said: "We had the rug pulled from under our feet."
LAT intends to close High Weald to Year 10s in December, and the whole school will close at the end of August next year.
It has said pupils in Years 7 to 10 can transfer to Mascalls - another school within the trust, rated Good by Ofsted.
But concerns have been expressed in Paddock Wood that any mass transfer of High Weald pupils could stop children from villages neighbouring Paddock Wood, such as Five Oak Green, from going to their local school.
Meanwhile it has emerged that LAT has other plans for the High Weald site.
It's Snowfields Academy in Maidstone, that caters specifically for children with special needs, has contacted parents of special needs children in Cranbrook asking if they would be interested in joining a satellite provision in the town.
It is believed that Snowfields is planning a 144-pupil provision at the High Weald site.
One parent said she had taken her Year 8 daughter to visit Mascalls, She said: "She hated it and has been in tears ever since.
She said: "We want to stay at High Weald. I want to hang on, but I have to think of her.
"I had two emails yesterday urging us to accept the place at Mascalls."
She said: "I need to know how much chance is there of saving High Weald?
Another asked Helen Grant: "Is there any hope, yes or no?"
Mrs Grant said: "We have to try. Whether we will succeed, I do not know.
"We need to reverse that government decision.
"If we can show there was a procedural error in the way the decision was taken, or that it was irrational, then there are grounds for a Judicial Review."
Mrs Grant said she had been in touch with solicitors who might take on the case, but she would like two parents of children at High Weald who might qualify for legal aid to be the claimants in the case.
In the meantime she called for volunteers to set up a campaign group to oppose closure.
But Mrs Grant said she understood the difficult choices that parents were being forced to make almost immediately, and advised: "You have to put the interests of your child first."
Mrs Grant can be contacted on email@example.com
There were no representatives from LAT at the meeting, but the trust's explanation of the closure can be found here.
The public can also give the views on closure direct to LAT on its public consultation page here.