David Bowie’s education and the Sevenoaks grammar school annexe

bowie-school_3546112bDavid Bowie died on Sunday and we all mourned a creative genius; while some Twitter fans worried about whether or not he’d passed his 11-plus.

He went to a secondary modern school in Bromley, and much of Twitter claimed he was bright enough to pass the 11-plus test and could have chosen the better grammar school. Others said he’d failed the test and his mum cried when he was forced to go to the lesser school.

It seems bizarre that people care about an intelligence test David Bowie took at ten years old. David Bowie was a genius in so many ways, but this test is often used to judge people. The 11-plus is divisive by nature, a pass = clever, a fail = not smart enough. Most Twitter fans wanted to label their hero with a pass because that makes him a clever rebel who chose the lesser school. A few talked about a fail, but if they did the story was that he proved educational aspirations meaningless.  The truth is that life is never so black and white, but of course the 11-plus has no shades of grey.

The judgements about David Bowie reminded me why I dislike the 11-plus so much. It’s a test that labels our children too young, often inaccurately, and I believe grammar schools are divisive. I came across the David Bowie debate accidentally when searching for news of the grammar school annexe to be built in Sevenoaks.

11694816-largeThe Weald of Kent grammar school annexe is controversial, because although Kent divides children with the 11-plus no new grammar schools are allowed by law. Parents in Sevenoaks wanted a grammar school in their town so they started a campaign. It was a popular campaign because Sevenoaks has many grammar school fans. They hoped to get around the legal problem by asking Tonbridge’s  Weald of Kent grammar school to build an annex 9 miles away in their town. A school annexe is more usually in a field next door to a school,  not in a neighbouring town. Doing it this way is odd, but it’s the only legal way to create a grammar school in Sevenoaks.

Nicky Morgan the Secretary of State for Education had to review the application to accept that this was truly one school split over a distance, not two schools which would break the law. Her predecessor Michael Gove turned down the plan in 2013. The decision was finally approved last October and this week the 3 month deadline for a judicial review passed. It seems the Weald of Kent have won and  it’s likely the annexe will be built. The Comprehensive Future campaign group  claim they had no evidence to use in their case because the DfE and Kent County Council would not provide the school plans.

Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Lucy Powell, criticised the lack of transparency. I think this information should be public too, I can’t really see why school plans should not be revealed. So I made a request for the plans in the most transparent way possible, on FOI site What Do They Know. This is one of my favourite sites because if I have an interest in something I like to see both sides of it. On this site everything is in the public domain, the questions asked, the replies from public bodies, the the data given. If you have an interest you can create an account and get updates by email when there are responses to requests.

I asked KCC for the plans, I asked the Department for Education for the plans, and I asked the Weald of Kent grammar school too. FOI responses are supposed to be within 20 days so there should be a response of some sort before February 10th. If the plans can’t be given then the reason for the refusal will be interesting.

Last Friday our new Kent education group met for the first time, sadly without one of our founding members.  And we were busy over the weekend. We sent out our first press release, we featured on BBC South East and we had our quotes in many Kent papers.

Our group wanted to present Kent’s side to the Sevenoaks annexe story. Of course I do have some sympathy for the parents in Sevenoaks who want a grammar school, but I see the bigger picture. This sets a legal precedent. Grammar schools are disallowed by law, but if each of the 134 remaining grammar schools opened a school ‘annexe’ ten miles away there would be 268 grammar schools, and then if each of those expanded again… You get the picture! This is a decision that effects everyone in the country because it circumvents a law, and I believe it to be a good law.

The pitch for this school was that children were travelling too far to reach grammar schools. I have sympathy for this point too, my daughter used to travel 10 miles to school each day, and will do so again in September. No one likes this kind of journey, but it was our own decision and we chose her school knowing it meant a bus ride. Such journeys are common in grammar school Kent. And of course Sevenoaks children could go to local secondary schools too, but grammar schools have more appeal to parents.

Grammar schools are popular to a certain kind of parent, and there are many who supported this campaign,  but laws are there for a reason. If you feel that a law is wrong then I think it is better to try to change the law and not attempt to find a route around it. The first lesson this school is teaching children is that it’s okay to try to dodge a very clear point of law.

The 11-plus is often described with mention of sheep and goats, but ducks come into this too! The Sevenoaks annexe fails the Duck Test (maybe Nicky Morgan doesn’t know about the Duck Test?) The Duck Test goes… ‘If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck then it probably is a duck.’

The Sevenoaks school plan doesn’t look like a school annexe, it doesn’t work like a school annexe, and it wasn’t campaigned for as a school annexe. I’d say it’s probably not a school annexe, but is in fact a new school.

People in Kent don’t often stop to think why the rest of the country bans this type of school. There are a lot of reasons… Most of the country do not think it right to define children aged 10 in a test. The majority of people outside Kent do not feel two types of school, one ‘academic’ one ‘less academic’ are necessary or desirable. Most schools outside Kent are achieving comparable exam and university results without this system of education. Most people believe grammar schools are bad for social equality, including our own council who have just set up a commission to review social mobility in grammar schools. The Sutton Trust place most of Kent’s parliamentary constituencies in the bottom 5% for social mobility in secondary schools, despite the county doing just fine with primary school social mobility. The ‘bring back grammar schools’ campaign is almost as right wing as ‘bring back hanging’ and has only UKIP support. Even when politicians support academic selection they often state reservations about Kent’s 11-plus system, for instance Boris Johnson supports grammar schools but called  our 1950’s style system ‘brutal.’

None of these arguments  have any bearing on parents in Sevenoaks. They just like grammar schools and they want one in their town. They skipped all the debate, and they side stepped  the law.

So their plan worked it would seem… But did it? The school was designed to avoid journeys to schools, this was the whole point of having a Sevenoaks school. But the Weald of Kent grammar school was forced to put together a plan to prove it was really one school with a 9 mile gap between buildings… This plan means there needs to be travel between these buildings.

This is the odd contradiction, to prove that this really is one school the Weald of Kent has to use both sets of buildings every day. This means that children and parents will need to be ferried between these far away buildings, or else half the children will be taught in the Tonbridge building, and half in the Sevenoaks school building. So then half the Tonbridge children will have to travel to Sevenoaks, and half the Sevenoaks children will have to travel to Tonbridge… The expressed purpose of the school was to avoid children travelling, but this school is clearly causing children to travel. It doesn’t solve the problem at all. In fact the travelling may be worse and may be in lesson time.

Of course we can’t see the plans yet and say this, because they were not made public with those Freedom of Information requests. It will be interesting to see the plans when they are finally revealed.

Our new Kent education group has many members already and features heads, senior teachers, governors, former school inspectors and education researchers, and I’m the token parent! We decided to call ourselves a ‘think tank’ and use a research and evidence based focus. We agreed on the aims of the group, though the name was a different matter! We are Kent Education Network for now, but it’s possible this name will change.

I don’t know whether David Bowie passed or failed his 11-plus, or whether his mum really did cry because he didn’t attend an aspirational grammar school. Do you think he passed or failed?

Do you notice how your story of him changes a little when you consider each option? Each child who takes the 11-plus has their story changed by a test result. I told my daughter’s story in an article for Schools Week here.

Bromley, where David Bowie grew up, is still a grammar school area. The children in his old school made a tribute video, called ‘he is one of us.’ I like their style. To me it seems our children’s educational path should not lead to different stories with a test at 10. I think Kent needs to realise that the rest of the world has moved on from the 11-plus, and for very good reasons.


Richard Stainton – A tribute to a Whitstable campaigner who cared to make a difference

CYCrsR0WsAI_e-jRichard Stainton was found dead on Monday January 4th, and many in Whitstable will miss him. He was someone who chose to take an active part in all the things that mattered to him. It’s such a cliché to say ‘he tried to make a difference,’ I’m sure he would never have phrased it quite that way! It seemed more like a passionate caring for things, and that overspilled into action.

And he cared about so many things things!  Kent education, libraries and museums, Palestine, politics, peace, literature festivals, local issues, and anything big or small that improved our town. His actions involved letters to the paper, tweets to spread information, petitions, council meetings, organising events and demonstrations, and simply engaging people with his enthusiasm for any cause. I know his actions had impact, and he influenced many people who crossed his path.

There are many campaigners for causes, but it was his dignified style of his campaigning that I most respect. Many people who feel passionately about an issue get so wound up they think ‘I must be right’ and that tunnel vision alienates people. Richard and I disagreed on a few things, but I always felt he listened.  His style of debating was a patient presentation of facts, intelligent points, and a respect for the opposing view.

Our politics were poles apart but he did not write me off as ‘the enemy’ instead we got on with working on something we both felt needed attention. In recent weeks we were working on a new group to highlight issues with Kent’s eleven plus and grammar school selection.

Up until the day he died he was helping with our group’s first meeting. He sent an email to suggest a change in the agenda. It was a good point, and I changed the agenda. Now when that item comes up I will need to be strong and get on with things..! It feels awful that we meet tomorrow without him.

Our last email exchange was about the purpose of the group and the name to call it. I wish he’d answered my last email, I think we would have called the group anything he suggested! I know that he cared passionately about this cause, had a good mind, and a skill for getting attention for things. We will miss his campaigning skills enormously.

Richard’s take on education was certainly more ideological than mine, he wanted a grand plan, where perhaps I might accept practical improvements. However I will not forget his wishes and ideology, and I hope our group will turn into something he would be proud of.

He was a great one for letters to the paper, and often sent me scans of education debates in Kent papers. Yesterday I was given a quick deadline to write something about Kent education in influential magazine Schools Week. I got up at 6am, worked like crazy, and hit send at 9am on the hastily written, heartfelt, article. It was such a strange day, it started with pride and ended with sadness. Just a few hours later I heard Richard had died. He would have loved to know we got Kent education in that paper! I think he would have enjoyed scanning that one for his clippings collection.

I will do my best to do good work for this cause we both believe in. If anyone else has an interest in helping do get in touch. Though I think a better message is to  simply say if you care about something take one small action to do with it. Richard took many small actions, and that led to a fine life of acting on beliefs and getting things done. Our town will be a lesser place without his presence, and the Whitstable Gazette won’t be the same without his letters.

I’ll miss you Richard.


Let’s help the council make some money!

imageI spent years trying to persuade my company to set up an ideas and suggestions system.  Ten years ago there was a one room office, and I could send ideas to my boss. He would always look at my random suggestions (and he must have been fed up with getting them) but a few ideas did get implemented. Then the years passed and the company grew and grew… My boss was busy managing six offices  full of people, and my  line manager only liked ideas about our department. There was nowhere for general ‘this might work’ ideas. This drove me nuts!

Ideas are free, everyone has them, they can be bad, indifferent, good or amazing…  And do you know the best way to find a good idea? Have lots of ideas! Ideas are powerful, ideas are my favourite thing, and a good idea can change the world!

ideas (1)So I was happy when my company finally set up  ‘The Innovation Hub,’ an online place to harness the free resource of their thousands of idea-generating staff. I was even more thrilled when they realised how useful it was and invested millions in innovation.

So what’s all this got to do with the council? Well a small post on a Facebook page just got me really excited. The post used my favourite word ideas! Canterbury City Council (yes, a council!) have this thing called ‘Ideas Lab.’ It’s a workshop in January for people to help the council with income generating ideas.

ideasThe document detailing this starts with the problem to fix – and it’s a big one.

‘The ‘age of austerity’ has taken its toll on Canterbury, we have already had to find £4m of savings in the last four years. ‘

Uh oh. No one likes cuts! The presentation goes on…

‘The autumn statement made it clear that from 2020 we will not be able to rely on central grants to fund services – placing additional pressure on council budgets. ‘

Great, more cuts..!

‘It is our ambition to achieve financial self-sufficiency by finding alternative income, as well as potential savings, to offset the loss of this funding and maintain service delivery levels. To help achieve this goal, we will need to generate additional income by 2020.’

That s pretty sensible. So, how?

‘We are already challenging all our services to reduce costs, but it won’t be enough. So we are asking people to help us be more creative and generate ideas on how we could generate income. We are talking with a wide range of people including residents, businesses, parishes, community groups, partners and suppliers – everyone we do business with and for.’

So, the council has told us about a problem. I like honesty… They’ve said what they’re doing. Good…. And they’re open to offers of help. I like this best, because we are all in this together. We need important council services supported, and so of course I am willing to help.

Ideas to generate income are needed because these days councils can set up any money making enterprise.

I will admit I had reservations when I heard about the changes of the Localism Act, this act allows councils set up any business venture. If it’s a business that you or I could run, then the council is allowed to run it too. It seemed worrying to me that a council might set up a chain of hairdressers, and use its massive promotional power to create profitable council-run hairdressers… in the meantime putting every independent hairdresser out of business! So I think they do need to be careful with this income-generating plan. But that’s another reason why it’s good that they’re involving people from the start. There might be a hairdresser in the Ideas Lab meeting saying, ‘Hang on a minute..!’

The Ideas Lab will showcase ideas that other councils have used, and from what I’ve heard about all this there are some clever, and responsible, enterprises out there. There is no reason why the council couldn’t generate income and also  improve tourism, or generate income by adding features to services they already operate.

So, this is Canterbury Council realising that ordinary people might care to get involved. I don’t have any amazing ideas yet, but I’ll try to think of some. Even if the ideas people come up with aren’t much good I still think people will appreciate being involved in this way.

Council’s get an awful lot of bad press, but if they inform people what they’re doing and give them a say things work better. It’s like any relationship, it’s better with listening, involvement, and a date night once a month.*

It took ten years to get the Innovation Hub set up at work, it’s taken this new council just six months to realise that ideas matter. I read about the Ideas Lab on the excellent Campaign for Democracy in Canterbury District facebook page. If you’re interested in participating contact Haroon Awan on haroon.awan@canterbury.gov.uk. I believe there will also be ways to participate online.

I hope some bright ideas get found and we can help the council make some much needed cash.



*That might just be me.



Food Fight

Cheese is funny… Why is that? Maybe it’s just me, but some words and concepts make me smile. Coleslaw is silly too.

29-utterly-puerile-rounds-of-cards-against-humani-2-3844-1401459108-7_dblbigI love Cards Against Humanity, it’s such a simple giggly game after a few drinks. I play a lot of board games with my kids, but of course I can’t play Humanity with them. (If you’ve tried it you’ll know why.) Apples To Apples is a a child friendly version, but we don’t much like it. So the kids and I decided to create our own  word fighting game.

Our game wasn’t exactly the same as Cards Against Humanity. We decided to write some words on cards (bits of paper) and the object was to put the words together, to create characters with weapons, to see who would win. We had great fun coming up with the words. There was ‘awesome’ and ‘bunny’ and ‘sparkly’ and ‘dead.’ There was ‘zombie’ and ‘smelly’ and ‘silly’ and ‘tickle.’ There was lots more word madness. We tried it, and even in its most basic form it worked.

So you might have, ‘Cute bunny shooting flower gun’ versus ‘Giant robot with pizza breath.’

Clearly a no-brainer, the pizza breath robot wins..!

We chatted about the game on the way to school. We talked about a system of levels where you gain more powerful words. We worked out how the points were scored. We spent days saying, ‘That’s a good word’ in conversation and adding it to the game list.

Yesterday my daughter came running downstairs, wailing “Nooooo!”

She told me the bad news. “Google Superfight,” she said.

So I did.

superfight-card-game-10317 (1)There was our game! There were a few differences, it was more serious and adult orientated, and the phrases were  a bit longer… It meant we could buy this game and play it. Perhaps I should have looked up ‘fighting with words’ card games and found it? I decided it would be good to have a proper copy of a game professionally produced.

Who am I kidding? We were gutted!

“Don’t worry Mum, we can make other games.”

This is true. We are a family who like to talk games, and sometimes, sitting on the living room floor, we invent games that are different versions of the ones in our cupboard. My son was right. We would make other games. So I decided to put Superfight on my Christmas list and forget about it.

Then we had pizza.

“All the best foods in the world have cheese on them,” I said. “The best countries for food always use cheese.”

“What about sushi?” my son pointed out.

“Italian and Mexican are pretty good,” my daughter pointed out. “But there’s no cheese in Indian.”

“Cheese on toast,” I said.

This argument was poor. My children laughed. You see? Cheese is funny!

This is when I got the idea. We started again with our game… It had a new concept now, it was ‘Food Fight.’ We scribbled down the silliest food words on scraps of paper. We fought with food and the yuckiest won. We had ‘Stinky cheese custard splat gun’ versus ‘Terrifying baked bean fountain’. The grossest food won, and our randomly invented characters were covered with splats when they lost.

43545fb2-3bcc-43e3-bce1-ca72b8ffde7bYou had to use only the food you had in your cupboard, and in a twist that seemed to work , a ‘food fight’ would sometimes switch to a ‘food feast’. Then suddenly it got all Great British Bake Off, and we were trying to create the most delicious concoctions with our silly ingredients.

There will be a lot of laughs about my passion for Pot Noodle, there will be many references to the fact I love the word falafel… The kids will argue for the inclusion of the word ‘fart’ and I will say no.

I don’t think it matters that someone has run a Kickstarter campaign and that a better game exists. We like our game, it even has ‘sea food platter’ which is a hilarious family thing. There’s just as much fun in the making as the playing.

I stand by my statement that cheese is important to world food culture. Yoghurt too. So I know that when I play Food Fight tomorrow I will score maximum points for yoghurt barbecue sea food platter.

This is a family  joke, and this is a family game. And it’s so much better that way.

Ovalgate – A timeline of events

This post has not been received positively by all Oval supporters, I have been asked to add a lot of further information (such as the use of the land for holiday lets and more on the Yacht Club lease ending) and to put a different emphasis on some facts. So, I wish to make it clear that this a summary of events, and  that any blog post is a presentation of the view of the author. This post is already too long, so I did not want to revisit it in every way suggested. I think it does a good job as it is. I suggested the Oval team use this as the basis of their own more detailed timeline. They now have a timeline on their official site here.

I’ve been accused of speaking for my Conservative councillor husband a few times lately, simply because I don’t think the Oval Chalet controversy is as black and white as the protesters claim. If you check the posts on this blog from back in June you’ll see that I was angry about the sale from the start. I think the council certainly made mistakes, but I also think the council’s recent explanation for what happened is both honest and open. Their position doesn’t lead to outcomes I’d like, but I do understand why they acted as they did.

project-ssw (1)
The development as it was meant to be.

As the facts have been revealed the news has been worse than I imagined.  Back in June I wrote, ‘We have to hope the council got a good deal, or the people of Whitstable will be crosser than the cross they are already.‘ Well, we are crosser than cross..! We now understand that the land was sold for as little as £160,000.

We also learn that this deal was made with an intention to offer public open space (see picture.) But the contract was botched. It was drawn up by a locum who is no longer working for the council, and the contract used the phrase ‘landscaping’ instead of adding a contractual requirement for public space. Of course the developer takes advantage of this, so we are now offered a development with little provision for public land.

The development taking advantage of a contract mistake.

The Oval Chalet group now have a web page, as do the council. This post is written partly out of frustration, the Oval Chalet Preservation Society promotes a rather one-sided view of the deal (for understandable reasons) while the council expects the public to read through 9 long documents of council minutes to understand the situation.

I accept that there are many sides to this, but this is an attempt to present a factual timeline of what happened. It is a complex situation so if I’ve got any facts wrong please let me know and I’ll do my best to correct them. I haven’t covered the historical background to the Oval Chalet land, which some people think relevant, but the history is  well described on Brian Baker’s blog here.

1961 – 30 March 2013 : The Oval Chalet land is leased by the council to Whitstable Yacht Club and used for boat storage. The Council regained possession of the land on 30 March 2013.

10133492-large2012-2013 : Barrie Green and John Knight who own the Tile Warehouse adjacent to the Oval Chalet land become aware the yacht club lease is ending. Barrie Green is quoted in the Whitstable Times saying he is closing the Tile Warehouse business. The Tile Warehouse owners approach the council and discussions begin with council property officers to see if there is potential for a joint development.

37310852012-2013 : There are a a few local newspaper stories about a potential development of the Oval land in conjunction with the Tile Warehouse. One of the stories describes a plan for a hotel. There are no widespread public concerns at this time, and the plans are presented positively by local papers. Members of the Oval Chalet Preservation group claim they contacted the council to ask what was going to happen but received few answers.

2nd and 10th October 2013 :  In meetings of the Overview Committee and the Executive in Autumn 2013, the Oval is discussed. The Head of Property is authorised to negotiate a joint development of the Council’s Oval Chalet site with the Tile Warehouse site. Here’s the relevant section from the minutes webpage.


  1. That the Property Services Manager be authorised to negotiate terms for the development of the Council’s site jointly with the adjoining warehouse, and a sale of Oval site be supported subject to suitable terms being agreed and the Property Services Manager being satisfied the sale complies with Section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972.
  2. That the Property Services Manager report back after negotiations have reached an advanced stage.

It takes nearly a year for the plans to return to to a council meeting for further discussion.

project-ssw (1)Oct 2013 – Oct 2014 : The council property officers are in talks with Sea Street Developments, the company directors being Barrie Green and James Knight (the Tile Warehouse directors) plus John Green and Richard Green (Barrie Green’s sons.)

The development at this stage seems to be this plan by Sawyer and Fisher it’s described as a raised piazza and has steps leading to commercial units, with holiday lets and luxury apartments on the Tile Warehouse plot.

January 2014 : A valuation for the land is sought. Five firms are invited to tender for the valuation. The letters of tender issued in January 2014 set out the basis on which the advice will be sought. Urban Delivery were the company selected to deliver the  Oval’s valuation report. Details  of the requests made of the council’s potential valuer, and the results of that valuation process form part of the long report here.

It appears that the price might have been low because of development limitations due to public space provision. The valuers were told the development would, ‘Include an area of elevated terrace that will provide public open space. In addition, there will be a courtyard area situated to the northwest of the site that will provide additional public open space and shelter from wind blowing off the sea. This courtyard area will provide access to two further retail units.’

land registry

April 2014: The valuations were received,and offered land valuations based on various scenarios. The valuation mentions difficulty with access if a stand-alone development of the Oval land is chosen, rather than a development with the Tile Warehouse. Some people have noted that the valuers mention access from Sea Wall (close to the beach) but make no mention of access from Sea Street (the Tile Warehouse side.)

There is a small access strip from Sea Street as part of the council land, but it is not possible to tell whether the valuer neglected this fact, or simply decided building work would use access from Sea Wall.

The valuer said this of a joint development with the Tile Warehouse, ‘A comprehensive development scheme for the whole site would be an opportunity to bring significant aesthetic improvements to the locality and meet the desired objectives of many to reintroduce an element of useable public open space within this site. ‘

Colin Carmichael, the Chief Executive was told of the plans and valuations. He sought guidance as to how to proceed. “I took the view that, given the sensitivity of the site, and the proximity of the local election, we would be sensible to consult once more with Executive Members before asking for any formal decisions.” In the old council system such discussions took place in  a ‘Leadership Steering Group.’


6th October  2014 : Colin Carmichael reports that he met the Leadership Steering Group to clarify the details of the plan prepared. He explained that, ‘This officer group pulls together advice on development matters which normally need input from officers in several services – property, planning, regeneration, transport, finance and legal.

The notes from the meeting say, ‘The open space component of the scheme comprises approximately 650 square metres which is roughly 90% of the Oval Chalet footprint. The developer would also wish to undertake some wider public realm works to improve the highway environs with the surrounding area between the scheme and the beach.’ 

The meeting discussed three options. 1) Proceed with the sale. It will be a comprehensive development in conjunction with the tile warehouse, giving a better outcome in planning terms. The proposals also provide a good amount of accessible open space.

2) The Oval Chalet Site could be disposed of at auction. This would be a quick and clean method of disposal, and secure an early capital receipt…. There may also be reputational issues for the Council to deal with, given the history of the site.  

I suspect this auction option offered no public space, and that the sale would be for financial benefit alone. This is my take on it given the reputation worries,  but I accept I may be wrong. The description in option 2 makes no mention of open space.

3) Defer any decision to sell until after the election. It has taken a year of discussions to reach this stage, and the developer has previously indicated that the tile warehouse owners are becoming frustrated at the delays.

The council officers advice was to sell the land at auction, ‘Although there were, in our view, clear advantages to a joint development, and in fact such arrangements can often be very positive, the increasing controversy behind this development and the desirability of an arrangement where the Council could be seen to tender alone and organise its own affairs, as well as the potentially higher income achievable as suggested by Urban Delivery, meant that, on balance, officers thought that an auction sale of our own land would be the best solution.’

However the councillors at this meeting didn’t go along with the officers advice. The Executive Members favoured negotiation with the developer and preferred the development as originally envisaged.

The options were then put to the meetings of the Overview Committee and Executive in December 2014.

4th December 2014 : Canterbury City Council Overview Comittee debated the Oval Chalet sale in a closed session. Like the earlier meetings this was closed to the public due to commercial confidentiality rules. ‘Financial and business affairs of the Council and other persons.. is exempt information.’ This is regular practise in any commercial deal, it means the online minutes list the item discussed but limited details.

Alison O’Dea, Neil Baker, Phil Cartwright and Louise Morgan were the Whitstable Councillors present in this Overview meeting. Phil Cartwright represented the the ward where the Oval is located. He describes what happened here.  He explains that the councillors were led to believe the development offered good public space.

The Head of Property discussed the options for the land with the councillors. The developer declined to provide the complete plans as it was claimed this would be costly until the deal was sure.

The councillors were led to believe 90% of the Oval Chalet land was a ‘public piazza’. It seems the councillors believed the £160,000 (reputed) price was low as the developer would mostly offer public land on the site. The councillors recommended to the Executive that the deal progressed through the legal department, and ‘concludes a sale of the land on the terms set out in this report.

11th December 2014 : The Council Executive accept the recommendation from the Overview committee. They approve the sale of the land to Sea Street Developments. The report they were given is here, with some details not revealed, but it seems clear from this report that the the plan is to, ‘provide an open plaza within the proposed development looking out towards Reeves Beach.‘ Regarding the developer’s requirements the report says,  ‘The policies in the Local Plan ensure that any future development of this site within the Conservation Area will include the provision for open space and access to the sea front. Indeed, the developer is keen to provide this – and enter a legal agreement with the Council in that respect, and sees it as an important part of the scheme to be put forward.’

We can see that the report shown to the Executive does not show the council land in full. Some people have speculated that the valuer was also given incorrect descriptions of the land, missing the access strip from Sea Street, but we do not know if this is true. I suspect part of the valuation process would be to check the land registry, particularly given the complex nature of the land’s history and potential for clauses to limit its use. But we do not know.

This section of the meeting was again private due to confidentiality. The minutes do record that the following options were considered.

(1)         Do nothing – the council will continue to hold a currently unproductive area of land which will incur maintenance costs, attract anti-social behaviour, and will leave a difficult site to improve in the future in the event the tile warehouse is developed without incorporating the subject site.

(2)         Agree a sale for the amount recommended in the report, which will contribute to a better overall development in Town Planning terms.

(3)         Sell the freehold on the open market. The Local Planning Authority is likely to prefer to see the site developed comprehensively rather than in a piecemeal fashion.

And 2) was chose, and the sale subject to development was agreed, with :

Reasons for the decisions

There is now a chance to do something really exciting for this part of Whitstable, and any development is likely to be more attractive and cohesive as a joint project incorporating the Oval Chalet land with the Tile Warehouse footprint than as a stand-alone site.

Should the council seek to leave the Oval Chalet untouched and the adjacent site is redeveloped in isolation, the ground level differences between Harbour Street and Sea Street will result in the council’s retained site becoming an eye-sore offering no amenity to the community of Whitstable. Any subsequent development would be severely constrained by the built form that occurs at the adjoining site, along with Rights to Light issues and would close down any opportunity to deck the land to raise a viewing platform for the public to enjoy sea views. This will provide the best chance for a more comprehensive and cohesive townscape in terms of the development format with public space provision across the two combined sites.

January 21st 2015 : A contract subject to planning permission is drawn up. This is where things go badly wrong. 

As Colin Carmichael’s report says, ‘The contract entered into seems generally appropriate except in one sense. The clear desire of the Executive to achieve open space as part of the joint development has not been clearly translated into the contract. There is mention of “landscaping” but that isn’t necessarily open space.

The contract places reliance on delivering that on the planning process. In hindsight I think more could have been done to require this contractually, though of course that ran the risk of sabotaging the scheme by making it unviable.

So the developer has a contract with no open space requirement…  I wonder what they might do!? This contract does have a a ‘Long Stop’ date by which it can be terminated if the planning approval is not given.

electFeb – April 2015 : The general election is coming up… you might say this has no bearing on a land sale, but perhaps it has? The Ward Councillors for the Harbour ward Phil Cartwright and John Wratten were not selected to stand for Labour in the local government election. I also think most councillors and members of the public are likely to be interested in the election and paying less attention to local issues. The boundary of the Oval ward is  now redrawn as  Gorrell Ward with 3 councillors standing. Labour select 3 new candidates. John Wratten did stand as an independent candidate, but didn’t retain his seat.

May 8th 2015 : The election results are in, and new ward councillors for the  Oval Chalet patch are Ashley Clarke and Brian Baker for the Conservative party and Bernadette Fisher for Labour.

View-1May 22nd 2015 : A public consultation is announced for the development. The plans are shown and the size of the public  space is minimal. It seems the 90% open space plan is more like 10% now. The open space is a small paved area outside a kiosk shop.

The developer has no contractual requirement to offer public space, and so has offered a plan that is mostly built up with houses and holiday lets.

June and July 2015 : The public interest in this Oval Chalet grows. Information is scarce, I was emailing councillors but information was hard to come by. I brought up the sale at WAMP, asking councillors to use these meeting to update the public on local issues, and asked a few questions. The Oval Chalet Preservation Society was formed to protest about the development. A petition was launched with this web page promoting it.

15 July – 28 August 2015 : The Oval Chalet and Tile warehouse planning application was open for consultation. The developer presented a massive file of supporting evidence with hundreds of pages, no ordinary mortal could spare the hours needed to go through it in detail! Despite this, and the fact the council website timed out when you spent more than 5 minutes writing a comment (!) the application received 80 complaints from the public.

23rd July 2015 : At the Full Council meeting the petition was presented to the council with 800 signatures. The petition was received without debate and referred to the Regeneration and Property Committee for a report by the Officers.

17 September 2015:  The Regeneration and Property Committee discussed how to proceed. The report on the petition discussed options, but the recommendation was pretty clear.

‘The Council is not in a position to rescind the contract. In conclusion therefore, there is no reason for the Council to revisit its decisions in the matter, and the only route left for the Council is to reject the petition. Any other decision would lead to litigation with the developer for breach of contract, with the concomitant time and costs involved in defending the Council’s indefensible position in the matter.’

The council minutes of the meeting reveal that in a closed part of the session there were discussions about the value of the land, the open space provision, and the lack of openness with the sale. Councillors were given advice on the legal and financial implications of withdrawing from the contract. There was no vote on withdrawing from the sale, because the recommendation was clear that the contract could not be cancelled.

The proposal put, and seconded, in the public session at minute 259, that the decision remains in place, was put to a vote and FELL.

 A proposal was put that the decision was reviewed with full disclosure of information, appropriate financial advice, independent legal advice and with relevant witnesses and with a site visit. This was not seconded.

 A proposal was put that the council fulfils its current contractual obligations and also undertook a review of the way in which the decision was taken. This was seconded and when put to a vote it was CARRIED.

So the decision was made to retain the contract and review the sale because, ‘The council would suffer significant reputational and financial losses by breaking the contract. However, there were some areas of concern for the public in how the original decision was taken and it may help the council to learn lesson but conducting a review of how that decision was taken.’

22nd October 2015 : This review was presented at the next meeting of the Regeneration and Property Committee. Colin Carmichael compiled a lengthy report which can be read in full here. It covers how the decision was made, reveals near complete details of the valuation report, and reveals the key fact that the contract offered no clear provision for open space just a mention of ‘landscaping’.

The report was thorough and presented the honest admission that the contract offered no safeguard for open space. The Chief Executive also said that future closed session meetings should reveal as much information as possible in their minutes.

12342806_1672922989591510_3567234605771084720_nThe Oval protestors did not like the report, they felt that the Chief Executive was reviewing his own actions, which meant the report was not an impartial investigation.

10th November 2015 : In a slightly unconventional announcement in a Facebook group, Cllr Ben Fitter-Harding the Chairman of the Regeneration and Property committee revealed independent legal advice was being sought on whether the contact could be cancelled. A highly respected Counsel reviewed the case and backed up the council lawyers. His report said the contract had to stand. 

12274423_10208503007159325_3863594542288192383_nThe Oval protestors say that the QC was swayed by the questions put to him and the evidence given.


17 November 2015 : The council creates a web page linking to documents and minutes to do with the sale.

25 November 2015: In the Whitstable Area Member Panel (WAMP) meeting Cllr Neil Baker presented a request by a member of the public for background information and details of the Oval Chalet contract to be made public. Other councillors supported the recommendation, although it appears likely council officers will deny it on commercial confidentiality grounds.

4 December 2015: The Oval Chalet group have created a web page. It details their view of the sale,and I’m glad  they have a place for information and documents. However Cllr.Ben Fitter-Harding claimed that of the 5 bullet points on the front page only 1 is accurate.

Next steps: I asked the council democracy department what the options are for effecting this sale. You can read my email here. In brief they say, the contract must stand as both council lawyers and an independent council have agreed  that the council can not withdraw from this.

A judicial review may be a possibility, but must be within 3 months of the decision, and all the decisions were made more than 3 months ago.

A complaint to the local government ombudsman may be possible, but this must be made by an individual harmed by a decision – not by a whole town. It is unlikely to lead to the contract being cancelled.

The best plan seems to be fighting the development at the planning application stage. I am hopeful the current plan will be rejected, and this means the developer will need to compromise.  Another point is that if the decision takes a long time to reach an agreement the contract may end due to the Long Stop clause.

CGQ3jw4XEAEnpceThe contract will also not stand if any foul play is discovered. ‘Bad faith or abuse of power‘ are  both reasons to cancel the contract. The Oval group are considering these points. These are certainly serious faults to find. This means fraud, an intention to deceive, or official misconduct. I do not suspect criminal acts when I consider this situation, although other people have stated suspicions of some conspiracy.

There is also a view from some, councillors included, that this development is not even worth a fight. They say we have plenty of open space a few feet away on the beach. Despite my own passion for this cause I have some sympathy for this view… Despite all the talk about the Oval there seems  to be no clear consensus on how best to use the land.

postcardBut I do believe that it is worth a fight. I still hope some solution will be found to save it. I’d like to create a development that sits prettily on a postcard, and create a bit of our town that will be loved by Whitstable people now, and by generations to come. The original plan by Sea Street Developments, voted for by the Executive and priced low because of its open space plaza and sea views, would have been a plan I could support.

I hope this review of where we are is useful. If anything is incorrect please email joanne@museumoffun.org and I’ll correct any inaccuracies. This post is an attempt to present some balance in a fraught situation, although I’m aiming to present facts, it is of course my own reading of them. Feel free to add your opinions in the comments bit.


There is more in you than you think

stichtag_juni106_v-ARDFotogalerieI have a picture of Kurt Hahn on my desk. It’s not a pretty image like the other pictures in my office; he’s an old man, rather gaunt. He’s not a famous man. He didn’t write books, he rarely bothered with speeches. He is my hero.

I am sure that he had flaws,  and he never married which leads to debate about his personal life (that doesn’t interest me one bit.) All he did was have an idea, believe in it, and take it into the world and try it.

He is listed on Wikipedea as ‘an educator’. He was the founder of Gordonstoune school, the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, the Outward Bounds movement, and the inspiration for educational movements such as United World Colleges, Round Square and Expeditionary Learning schools.

He believed that young people, when challenged, find something in themselves to become better people. He said, You can say to young people, “you must volunteer.” That is the devil. And you can tell them, “you are needed” that hardly ever fails.

He believed, more than fifty years ago, “As affluence has increased, the young person’s environment has become impoverished for responsible and productive action, or any action that tests and develops him.” 

GREAT-BRITAIN. Scotland. Gordonstoun College. 1962.
GREAT-BRITAIN. Scotland. Gordonstoun College. 1962.

He found a  mad solution with a school where teenagers had to operate the town’s fire station!

I could tell you so much more about Kurt Hahn, but the bit that got me, was that he believed in experience as a teacher. Sitting in a classroom learning stuff is important; but I know that all the most important things in life I’ve learned by trying stuff that scares me.

I got a promotion, ‘I can’t manage people’ I thought, then I had to do it and I coped. I set up a writing group, ‘No one will come.’ They came, I dealt with it. ‘This will be a disaster.’ It was, I coped.’I should try again.’ I did, it was a good decision. ‘I can do this.’ I could, and  it worked and I went on to bigger things.

I learned none of this at school. Could I lead and organise and create things at fifteen? I don’t know, no one ever tested me.

I could bore you with Kurt Hahn quotes all day. Here’s another one, ‘A schoolmaster made the remark, ‘I have no faith in this boy.’ He said, ‘Then you have no right to educate him.’

Schools are nothing like the schools Kurt Hahn wanted. And instead of just theorising or dreaming he tried things in the schools he created, and he achieved things with the lives he influenced.

I feel strongly that if someone had asked me aged fifteen, “What do you want to do?” I’d have said, “Write.” And just maybe they’d have helped me to set up a writing group… That would have been better in so many ways than anything I learned in geography.

And instead a few years ago I set up my writing group, and it was awful. I had no confidence to lead it at all, I messed up, I made a bad writing group. Somehow I got through that and I learned, and I now organise an amazing group that is fun, it works, and it’s so big it meets twice a month, and we’re publishing a book next May. Imagine if I’d learned I could do all this aged fifteen? Maybe now I’d have a worldwide writing group organisation, and we would have published dozens of writing group books!

This is, of course, a flippant point. But still. I learned that I could manage people, and organise things, and make stuff happen in my thirties and forties. Is this because I needed to be this old to learn to do all this stuff? Or did I have this ability, but school only taught me geography and never tested if I could create things, and manage people, and be responsible?

When people care they push themselves, and when people push themselves they learn.

So here I am, with a love for a long dead german educator. I’m pleased that his ideals are there in practise in schools in America. Expeditionary Schools sound like amazing places,  it’s not only exams on the agenda, it’s self discovery, curiosity, responsibility, learning from failure, competition, reflection and service…I’ve thought of trying to set up a free school in this model in Canterbury. I may yet. I’m pleased the Duke of Edinburgh and Outward bounds stuff exists in this country, although I think challenge doesn’t need to only translate to the physical things…

So I have a hero, and I know the lesson he would teach is to keep on trying the difficult stuff. Experience and challenge is always the best teacher. I tell my kids there is a bravery muscle, it gets stronger if you use it. And my next step with the difficult stuff is deciding how to translate my enthusiasm for this long dead german educator into something that makes an impact in the world in some way.





Escape from School!

It’s worrying times for Community College Whitstable, their head suspended, disappointing GCSE results, and a ‘Requires Improvement’ Ofsted.

I’ve spoken about the problems in Kent’s non-selective secondary schools before. My daughter went to Chaucer Technology School, but we were unhappy with the school and moved her just before it went into special measures. She’s now landed in yet another troubled school.

Today I volunteered for a mentoring program  that works with children at the school. I’ve been interested in working with secondary school children for a while, I’ve even considered being a teacher but I don’t think I’m quite cut out for that. I like the kind of education that encourages a love of learning. I hope a mentoring program will be more about individual children than lots of classroom facts.

I also have a love of games and community events. I set up the Museum of Fun partly because it lets me create interesting stuff. It shouldn’t really tie into secondary schools, but with the way my mind works it does.

escape-room-prDo you know about escape games? They lock a bunch of people in a space and there’s a time element, you have to solve the clues to get out. There’s a big new one based on the Crystal Maze coming to London soon.

So how do escape games, community events, and a failing school fit together?  Well I’d love to create an escape game for Museum of Fun. I was thinking of a Whitstable venue, and think the best one would be Community College Whitstable.

So I had the mad idea of creating an ‘Escape from School’ game. Perhaps the story is that an evil teacher has locked people in the school, and people playing the game need to solve clues based on science, history, or maths puzzles..? Plus it could have people dressed up as zombies. Everyone loves zombies!

Perhaps I could see if any kids at the school want to help me create it? Perhaps it will add a little fun to their lessons…

mhef9k4af6siwspmpnxsI will see how it goes with the mentor program first.

I am a very amateur school helper, plus kids these days haven’t even heard of the Crystal Maze.