Cllr Chris Whitehouse heads The Whitehouse Consultancy, and is an Isle of Wight councillor.
Two months ago, I posted on ConHome about the challenge that the Isle of Wight is facing to drive up the standards in its high schools, five of which are underperforming and only one of which, the joint faith high school on the Island, Christ the King College, is “good but knocking on the door of outstanding”. But it is not just the problem of educational standards that need to be addressed. There is a massive over-capacity challenge as well.
In addition to our existing six high schools, we have a new Studio School and a new Free School, both of which are over-subscribed, opening in September this year.
Last October, Hampshire County Council officers (who now run our education services under direction from Michael Gove) calculated that we will soon have almost 3,000 surplus places in our high schools; and that is without taking into account any further expansion at Christ the King College or the new £6.5m STEM (Science Technology Engineering Maths) Centre at the Isle of Wight College to provide practical skills training to youngsters aged 16+ which will also open this year.
As several high school Principals have said to me, this acute crisis in capacity, which leads to the squandering of resources on unnecessary overheads and premises, requires a strategic solution. Instead, what Hampshire officers have been threatening is a tinkering around the edges by closing a few classrooms in each of the undersubscribed schools around the Island. We are running nine sets of premises and senior leadership overhead costs when the number of pupils really only justifies about five.
The sticking plaster approach now being developed is no substitute for the radical surgery that is required and which is, frankly, long overdue. Indeed, by sweeping this problem under the carpet and pretending we can sustain all these institutions we continue the uncertainty over their future which has been such a sapping of the morale of teachers and Principals in recent years.
Simply airbrushing surplus capacity out of the picture would be the most blatant example of policy-based evidence making I have seen in 30 years of engagement with education policy. Yet, Hampshire officers announced at the Island’s Schools Forum months ago that the conclusion of their current capacity review would be classroom closures not school consolidation, even though they have still not assessed the full impact of the capacity increases to which I refer above.
If our schools are to focus, as they are all now trying to do, on improving educational outcomes for our children, we need to stop diverting to overheads funds that should be used on teachers; we need to consolidate our high schools so that they are sustainable; and we need to allow our beacon high school, Christ the King, to flourish rather than be starved of resources as it has been since its inauguration.
Let us be clear, it has been settled public policy now for many years that popular schools should be allowed to grow to meet demand, and, conversely, that schools which are unpopular with parents should be allowed to close. The direction that is being taken by Hampshire, which despite its Conservative control is known for its lack of support for the academy and free school programme, flies in the face of that policy and smacks of a determination to thwart Michael Gove’s vision, so denying the children of the Island the educational improvements that genuine parental choice brings.
The failure by Hampshire to grasp this nettle firmly, and their undermining of Michael Gove’s policies, risks sentencing another generation of Island children to underachievement and our teachers to further stress and uncertainty. Their apparent determination to thwart at all costs the legitimate aspirations of our one good high school to expand to meet the huge over-demand for its places should be investigated by Departmental officials without delay.