A London council has waded into a bitter dispute between local headteachers to urge a popular school to withdraw plans to increase its capacity.
In a statutory consultation, the oversubscribed Kingsdale Foundation School in Dulwich, south London, set out plans to boost its formal capacity by more than 42 per cent from 2024.
The Southwark school has argued it already recruits well above its published admissions number (PAN), and that its plans simply formalise its current approach.
But neighbouring Lambeth has opposed the proposal because of its potential impact on schools, with declining pupil numbers due to reduce rolls in the coming years.
The council urged the school to “work as part of the community rather than to act in isolation”. Southwark has also emphasised the lack of demand for more places, although it has not formally opposed the move.
Neighbouring schools, including those run by prominent trusts such as Ark and the Harris Federation, have accused Kingsdale of “undermining” them.
Responses to the consultation, which closed at the end of January, warned the increase would make other “excellent provision unviable”.
But Steve Morrison, Kingsdale’s headteacher, described such claims as “propaganda”, and alleged a “scurrilous disinformation campaign” fuelled in part by “envy”.
School is already recruiting above capacity
Kingsdale is rated ‘outstanding’ and offers places to children in neighbouring boroughs, including Lambeth, Greenwich and Croydon. No special preference is given to Southwark residents.
The school’s official capacity is 1,750, but government data shows it had 2,466 pupils on-roll as of last January.
Schools are allowed to exceed their PAN without officially increasing it, as Kingsdale has done in recent years. But it is now proposing to make it formal through an increase in year 7 from 300 to 420 pupils. It also wants to increase its sixth form from 250 to 400.
In a letter signed by 16 other Lambeth heads, Dominic Bergin, the head of The Elmgreen School, part of the Dunraven Educational Trust, said Kingsdale’s rising numbers had driven down intakes at neighbouring schools.
“To formalise and increase the number permanently will therefore continue to have a detrimental effect … as well as ultimately to reduce parental preference should any of those schools affected become non-viable as a result.”
In a statement, Ben Kind, Lambeth’s cabinet member for children, said the council supported the heads because of the impact on other schools “especially at a time of failing pupil number and strategic pupil place planning, which is a key priority for us”.
Department for Education data shows Lambeth will have the highest proportion of spare secondary places of any area next year, at 28 per cent.
‘We accepted the challenge’
Kingsdale was once undersubscribed, but had not attempted to halt the opening of new free schools and academies, Morrison pointed out.
“We accepted the challenge of rising to meet what can be the exceptionally demanding expectations of parental preference.”
But Bergin underlined that the stakes had changed since “15 years ago”.
“I’ve got absolutely no issue with the excellent work Kingsdale has done over many years. The key issue is that there are fewer children in the system.”
With numbers soaring, some Kingsdale pupils are taught in marquees, although Morrison described these as “deluxe” and said they had been added during building work.
A “multi-million pound” expansion is due to be completed in the summer term and a condition of receiving such funding was to “accept more students”, he said.
Leaders have also criticised other changes to the admissions policy, including a plan to designate 10 per cent of its PAN for disadvantaged children.
Currently, 11.8 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals, well below the average of 34.2 per cent in Southwark and 33.7 per cent in Lambeth
School says it wants to admit more disadvantaged pupils
The Southwark Association of Headteachers said the proposal could mean “access for disadvantaged families will continue to be extremely low against the context of the area that the school seeks to serve”.
However, Morrison said Kingsdale’s proposal was intended to increase the number of disadvantaged students and was not an upper limit.
“Kingsdale recruits disproportionately high numbers of disadvantaged students relative to the pocket of affluence in which it is situated.”
But Bergin suggested such an argument was “counterintuitive”, given the school recruited far beyond its immediate locality.
The school has also said that places for students with education, health and care plans (EHCPs) will be allocated in addition to, rather than as part of its PAN.
Lambeth heads said it should continue to allocate these places as part of the PAN to “help ensure that Kingsdale’s intake remains comprehensive in nature”.