Published: 16:29, 27 September 2021
| Updated: 13:52, 29 September 2021
A secondary school troubled by poor Ofsted inspections and low pupil numbers is set to close next year, after a decision was made by the Secretary of State for Education.
High Weald Academy in Cranbrook, which currently has 276 pupils, is to shut from September 2022.
Leigh Academies Trust (LAT), which took over running the school this month, made the announcement today.
LAT is proposing to offer pupils in Year 7-10, a place at another of their academies- Mascalls Academy in Paddock Wood. There are currently no sixth-form students at High Weald Academy and those in Year 10 can, along with the other students, complete this academic year before the school closes.
The trust said the school has "struggled with low Ofsted ratings and educational outcomes for some time."
It went on: "Despite the amazing efforts of staff and the support of parents, very low pupil numbers and the financial pressures that brings have made it challenging to turn the school around."
However, Maidstone and the Weald MP Helen Grant says she "strongly opposes" the closure and has urged others to raise their objections following the announcement.
She said serious questions need to be asked of the Brook Learning Trust, which ran the school previously, and Ofsted, which has "presided over the ongoing failure of the school".
Brook Learning Trust merged with LAT in September.
A statement from LAT said: "Closing a school is always a last resort, and the decision to launch a listening period follows a great deal of consideration about the school’s future by the Department for Education.
"The Secretary of State for Education has taken the decision to proceed to close the school by mutual agreement with LAT.
"We know this will be worrying news for pupils, parents and the wider community but we hope the proposed approach to closure will help minimise the disruption for families.
"LAT is proposing to protect the education of pupils in years 7-10 by offering them a place at the successful Mascalls Academy in Paddock Wood.
"By offering every pupil a place at Mascalls we will also ensure that friendship groups are maintained, therefore reducing any emotional impact on pupils.
"As part of the proposal the trust will provide new uniforms and there will be an offer of free transport for Kent-based pupils to help minimise any disruption or costs to the families affected."
MP Helen Grant said: "I strongly oppose the decision to close the High Weald Academy.
"I believe that a town as significant as Cranbrook and the surrounding catchment needs a non-selective state secondary school. It goes to the very heart of social mobility, localism and community.
"In an attempt to save this school, I have had three meetings with the previous Minister, Baroness Berridge (one in person at the school) and have spoken with the former Secretary of State Gavin Williamson.
"In order to try and formulate a sustainable plan for the High Weald Academy I have also had several meetings with Cranbrook School who have made generous substantive offers of partnership and support to Leigh Academies Trust, who now have responsibility for the High Weald Academy. Such offers to assist the High Weald Academy were declined by the Trust.
"I also wrote to the new Secretary of State, Nadhim Zahawi, over the weekend in order to request a stay of execution in relation to any decision.
"Minister Barran’s decision today is, however, subject to a listening period of one month, during which time stakeholders can submit their objections, comments and suggestions to counter that decision.
"I would strongly urge anyone with an interest in the survival of the High Weald Academy to engage and to contribute to this consultation.
"In the event of closure, pupils from the High Weald Academy will now have to travel over 11 miles to get to the nearest secondary school. This will mean long bus journeys in the dark winter hours, especially for those who want to take part in extracurricular activities.
"Just two years since the High Weald Academy opened a brand new multi-million-pound building, there are serious questions to be asked of the Brook Learning Trust and Ofsted who have presided over the ongoing failure of the school".
When asked about Ms Grant's claims that Leigh Academies Trust turned down help from Cranbrook School, a grammar school, a trust spokesperson said: "LAT has held discussions with Cranbrook School and is keen to forge a even closer partnership.
"For instance, Cranbrook School is already part of Kent and Medway Training, the region's largest teacher training provider, led by LAT. However, none of the points put forward by Cranbrook would be enough to solve the deep seated problems at High Weald.
"For instance, the offer of some kind of shared sixth form offer would not be possible as High Weald does not have a sixth form and very low numbers of pupils coming through the school mean that this would not be viable at any point in the next few years.
"Whilst we are very grateful for the opportunity to discuss the problems faced at High Weald, unfortunately Cranbrook School is not in a position to be able to resolve the substantial financial or educational issues faced".
In 2017, the academy was given permission to knockdown its humanities, science and art blocks, built in the 1950s, to make way for a new building. The hope was that modern classrooms would attract more pupils. In 2017, the school only had 400 students, but the scope to teach 1,500.
That number appears to have slipped even further down, with Ofsted listing only 257 pupils.
Since 2014, it has received three 'requires improvement' ratings following Ofsted inspections.
The most recent full inspection, in April 2019, said that pupils made "weak progress" across a wide range of subjects and that the quality of teaching is too inconsistent across subjects and year groups.
Among other problems, careers education and guidance was not "embedded well across the school", and pupils in the past were not ambitious enough for their futures.
Student attendance was below the national average and too many pupils, particularly disadvantaged ones, were "persistently absent".
However, a monitoring inspection in July 2021 found that leaders had "worked with determination to bring about improvements".
Pupil behaviour had improved and subject leaders reviewed the content of their courses.
Monitoring of pupils who were persistently absent had tightened, but there were still too many students missing school too often.
Further action needed to be taken on strengthening teachers' subject knowledge and planning, and ensuring that low-level disruption was eliminated.
LAT is hoping to turn the High Weald Academy site into an education site for pupils with autism aged between 11 and 18, and is currently consulting on the proposal.
The statement said: "The site would be a campus of the existing and successful Snowfields Academy in Bearsted which already offers this provision."
An Ofsted spokesperson said: “Our role as inspectorate is to inspect and report our findings, which we set out clearly so that schools can make the necessary improvements.
"We’ve consistently found this school to require improvement, but ultimately the decision to close it rests with the Department for Education.”