Tuesday 21 June 2011

Brent officers and councillors warn against fragmentation of education service

Gareth Daniel, Brent Council's Chief Executive warned against fragmentation of the education service when he spoke at the Brent Governors' Conference today. In a reference to academies and free school he said that it was crucial to keep Brent's 'family of schools' together and that it was important for schools to keep sight of the 'bigger picture'. He emphasised the importance of partnership work and said 'we must remember what unites us'.  He stressed the vital  role of the local authority when things go wrong in individual schools He said that his attitude was one of general pragmatism and 'to be blunt we have to follow the money' rather than take an ideological stance. However he said that local politicians were not comfortable with free schools and that he was not comfortable with them himself.

Krutika Pau, Director of Children and Families,  urged governors to keep their eyes on the long-term and reflect on the permanent damage that would be caused by a fragmented school system. She said that we must face current difficulties in a rational and principled way.

Cllr Mary Arnold, lead member for Children and Families also stressed the importance of the 'family of schools' and the responsibility to the wider community of terms of special educational needs provision, looked after children and child protection. Links between schools and through the local authority were important in terms of collective provision and so that the most vulnerable could be reached.  She also drew attention to the recently revealed errors in the funding of academies with excessive amounts being diverted from the local authority. 'Top slicing' had cost Brent £1m.

All three also addressed the shortage of primary places and said that they were lobbying with other London local authorities for additional funding to provide places. Gareth Daniel warned that some local authorities would not be able to meet their statutory responsibilities.  Krutika Pau said that the shortage of places kept her awake at night and drew attention to the current consultation (see my BLOG). She cited a 10% increased in reception applications for next year and said she wanted 'excellent provision rather than just a range of bulge classes'. 

The context of government cuts and their impact on the council was a central theme with Children and Families accounting for  £14m of Brent's total of £42m cuts. .Krutika Pau outlined steps that had been taken in terms of amalgamation of departments, reducing management layers and reducing the ratio of managers to workers, On the services that schools buy-in she said that the services would be refined next year and that they would employ a 'full cost recovery method' next year. (I interpret this as meaning that there will be an increase in costs to schools). She warned that in terms of budgets, schools would experience in the near future what that authority has had to endure this year: 'schools will have to make every penny count'.   Gareth Daniel said support services had to provide 'value for money' but those provided by Brent would not necessarily be the cheapest. He said in a free market for such services schools 'wouldn't pay peanuts for monkeys'. He said the authority would be more selective in what it did but would do it well. Supporting a call for schools to be more open to other activities taking place there out of hours he said governors should make schools 'work for their living'.

Outlining the context Krutika said all this was happening while more than one third of Brent children were from low income families, over one quarter were on free school meals, three quarters were in social housing and one fifth in single income households. Social care referrals had increased by 25% and there had been in increase in the number of children with disabilities and the number requiring a special needs assessment.

After muted welcoming applause Sarah Teather gave a subdued speech in which she said the Coalition had two main objectives: raise standards and narrow the attainment gap.  She said they wanted more autonomy for schools but only with accountability but didn't specify how this fitted into academies and free school policy.  Se said that the government would provide guidance on the use of the pupil premium but that schools would be left to make their own decisions. Judgement on the effectiveness of the school's use of the money would be based on outcomes rather than requesting details of what it is spent on.

In a controversial part of the speech she talked about proposals to pare down the number of people on a government body. She said that a smaller body would be more dynamic and effective and that there were too many 'clingers on' who did not contribute. Such governing bodies 'would not be hindered' by having too many voices represented. In answer to a question she said that there would still be space for local authority representation but schools will be allowed to say that they do not want an LA representative but someone with different skills.  She doubted whether the quality of school improvement advisors across the country  justified their inclusion remarking that although some were good other local authority School Improvement Services were poor. She said that there had been an issue in Brent of school governing bodies not being strong enough  to challenge headteachers effectively. She said that the National College of School Leadership  was look at training chairs of governing bodies and giving them the skills to challenge. A key role of governing bodies was to focus on the progress of the most vulnerable children.

Teather was challenged on the early years by Cllr Helga Gladbaum who mentioned that Brent had been unable to open three of the 20 planned Children's Centres because of cuts. Sarah Teather replied that she would champion the early years in her ministerial role. In answer to a question on Coalition expenditure in Libya at a time of financial retrenchment Teather justified military intervention on humanitarian grounds.  Criticised for the Coalition's stance on Pupil Referral Units and challenged to visit Brent units,  she said that there across the country they 'are a very mixed bag - some are appalling'. The Coalition planned to make schools accountable for what happens to pupils after they are excluded.

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