THE new Weald of Kent Grammar School annexe could have been judged illegal if it had been challenged through the courts, the Times can disclose.
The £22million extension to the Tonbridge grammar was officially opened on Friday [November 3], although it has been up and running since September.
David Laws, the Schools Minister for the coalition government, wrote in his diaries that the new selective option might not have been allowed to go ahead if it had been taken to a judicial review – when a judge reviews the lawfulness of a decision made by a public body.
Mr Laws claimed legal advisers had told the Department for Education that ‘by 70 per cent to 30 per cent’ the ‘balance of judgment’ was that the proposed new grammar site in Sevenoaks, which is nine miles from its sister school in Tonbridge, would be considered ‘a new school’ rather than an extension of an existing one and ‘therefore would be illegal’ – in other words, the government had only a 30 per cent chance of winning a judicial review.
‘If the Tories go ahead we are going to have one hell of a public row’
David Laws, former Schools Minister
Mr Laws, who was the Lib Dem MP for Yeovil until the 2015 election, said in Coalition Diaries 2012 to 2015: “If the Tories try to go ahead and ignore the legal advice, then we are going to have one hell of a public row.”
A campaign group called Comprehensive Future put forward the plan for a judicial review but had to abandon it because a request to see the legal advice given to the government was ‘not forthcoming and unaccountably delayed’.
New selective schools were banned in Britain by the Labour government in 1998, but because the annexe was not deemed to be a ‘new’ school it was approved by Mr Laws’ boss, the Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan, in October 2015.
The expansion met the conditions set by the Department for Education because it would entail the 450 pupils at the new facility also spen-ding time at the original site in Tudeley Lane.
When the school opened on September 8, it was ann-ounced that the initial intake of 120 Year 7 students would be bussed back to Tonbridge for one full day every fortnight to attend lessons.
Ms Morgan said at the time: “There aren’t going to be any more grammar schools under me. I am resistant to selective education.
“But if they want to expand, we certainly won’t stand in their way.”
It is understood that the decision to proceed came directly from the then Prime Minister David Cameron. When Theresa May succeeded him the following July, one of her first flagship policies was to build more grammar schools.
Mr Laws asked the education ministry’s Permanent Secretary, Chris Wormald, to show him the exact legal advice, and wrote: “Basically, it says that by 70 per cent to 30 per cent the balance of judgment is that this is a new school and therefore would be illegal.
“As far as I am concerned, this proposal should now be dead in this parliament. What I shall say to Nicky is that if she wants to delay her decision until after the election, I am happy with this, but if the Tories try to go ahead and ignore the legal advice, then we are going to have one hell of a public row.”
But Ms Morgan has said the legal advice changed bet-ween Mr Laws losing his seat in May 2015 and her decision to proceed with the development six months later.
The project was funded by Kent County Council, and Roger Gough, County Hall’s representative for Sevenoaks and Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Education, commented: “To the best of my knowledge, this is the first we have heard of this.”
Weald of Kent Grammar School also said they had not been made aware of such advice.