THE Weald of Kent’s Annexe in Sevenoaks was officially opened on Friday by the town’s MP Sir Michael Fallon – even though the school welcomed its first 120 students on September 8.
It was Sir Michael’s first public appearance since his decision to step down as Minister of Defence over allegations of sexual harassment.
The press packs from Sky News and the Daily Mail were camped outside the gates, not allowed in, and the atmosphere of controversy was strangely appropriate.
The £22m expansion of the grammar school has caused heated debate since it was first mooted six years ago.
The building of new grammar schools was outlawed by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1998 and the idea that the Annexe was not technically a new school has caused a furore.
The provision of new grammars was a flagship policy of Theresa May after she became Prime Minister but the policy was abandoned after her poor showing in this year’s election.
And an early day motion was put to Parliament on September 12 accusing the establishment of the Annexe as ‘selection by stealth’.
‘In my 20 years as an MP for Sevenoaks
this is my proudest moment’
On a local level, however, its creation has been greeted with pride and acclaim, and 87 per cent of students come from Sevenoaks or its surrounding villages; previously, 40 per cent of the pupils at the Tonbridge site had come from the area on buses and trains.
“In my 20 years as an MP for Sevenoaks this is my proudest moment,” said Sir Michael, with no hint of irony as the storm clouds hung over him.
“This has been a very long running campaign. For far too long my constituents have had to travel out of town to go to school.”
He described the long, drawn out process that his personal endeavour had involved. “We took action against the schools adjudicator in 2010,” he said.
“We tried to persuade grammar schools in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells to put Sevenoaks students first [before other out-of-town applicants] but we failed.”
In 2011 a petition was launched by the Sevenoaks Grammar School Campaign, which accumulated “thousands of signatures in days. Six years and three Education Secretaries on, we’ve got our grammar school education in Sevenoaks.”
He added: “Pupils will spend more time with their families, not on buses and trains. It’s about the promise this building holds out for the next generation, turning out happy, confident young people who can play an important part in our society.”
The opening ceremony included the planting of an amelanchier tree, a dance performance by Georgie Hales, Megan Tarr and Jemima Helm, poetry readings of Good Books by Charlie Edwards and Tula (Books Are Door Shaped) by Polly Wild, and a stirring rendition of Lean On Me by Year Seven students.
Tom Tugendhat, MP for Tonbridge & Malling, described how it was the second girls school he had opened, after Lashkargar in southern Helmand, Afghanistan while he was serving in the army.
“I saw the transformation that women’s education can bring,” he said. “This school is exactly like that one. It is a symbol and a beacon.”
The theme of enlightenment was picked up by David Bower, the Chair of Governors, who boasted that the sign outside the gates ‘is so big that you can see it from space. So we are not only world famous, but stellar famous too’.
The Annexe is more infamous than famous because of the grammar ban. To persuade the Department for Education they were not creating a new selective school, the Sevenoaks students spend one day a fortnight at the Tonbridge site.
The school feels very empty with only one year’s intake so far – and a boys’ school adjacent to the Annexe is still deserted with no tenant in prospect. One issue identified early on was the lack of mentors to help the Year Seven students.
Maureen Johnson, the Headteacher of Weald of Kent, said: “We were tasked with making the expansion one school so we are indebted to the older students who are here today. Many of them come down here to mentor the younger students.”
The new generation of grammar school students in West Kent not only feel the weight of history on their shoulders, but also the encouragement of their peers whispered into their ears.
Transport issues tackled
The one hitch with the expansion has been the different timetable followed by Weald of Kent compared to other schools in Sevenoaks, which has meant Annexe students have come out of the school gates to find that the bus home has already departed.
Assistant Headteacher David Marchant explained how the school had tried to tackle the problem. “We have worked out a classic British compromise,” he said.
“We’ve persuaded the buses to hang around for five minutes, or we’ve let pupils leave lessons five minutes early. We are waiting for a new [bus] timetable to be sorted out.”