Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Centre for Staff Development to close in 2013 amidst uncertainty over future provision

The Centre for Staff Development (Gwenneth Rickus Building) which houses Brent's School Improvement Service and is the local authority's base for in-service education, will be closed in the Summer of 2013.

The building in Brentfield Road, close to the Swaminarayan Temple , was formerly part of Sladebrook Secondary School, which closed in the 1980s to be replaced by the fee-paying Swaminarayan Hindu all-through school.The school suffered some bomb damage during air raids in the second world war but is of a very solid build, characteristic of the period - in sharp contrast to some of our newer buildings!

The building has been much improved and has is  an exemplar of energy saving innovations with very low energy costs. It will be sold off by Brent Council and there is a possibility, because of the shortage of school places in the south of the borough, that there may be an approach by a free school provider - either alone or in partnership with the council (see previous posting on the internal Labour debate about this LINK).

When I worked on children's consultation in Brent this was a building that was considered as the possible site for a new secondary school. Controversially, the Wembley Park site was chosen instead.  More recently a group called Ma'at has formulated a bid for a secondary free school to serve the south of Brent. This was partly the result of the lack of secondary schools in the area compared with north of the North Circular and also the views of some black parents and teachers that black children were being failed by the school system - although the organisers denied that this would be a school for only black children. See my previous post on the issue HERE

Although the new  Civic Centre is due to house most of Brent Council staff from Summer 2013 this is more complicated in the case of the School Improvement Service as it may well not exist in its present form by then.

This morning John Simpson, now an independent consultant, but a former Brent Chief Executive and Director of Education, gave a presentation to school governors at the CSD on 'The Future of Services to Schools in Brent'.

Against the background of local authority cuts, the Coalition's wish for reduced local government, and schools converting to academies as well as  the setting up of free schools, he argued that the Council could no longer carry on as before. He set out a model whereby the council would continue to provide core statutory services but others would be traded services.

Options for the core services were:
1. Minimum interpretation of what the Council should provide.
2. Intervention support - intervening in schools which are in difficulty and support them in overcoming them
3. Prevention support - preventing schools getting into difficulty which would involve monitoring and visits.

Options for the traded services were:
1. The council withdrawing from the market completely - schools would buy-in from elsewhere
2. The council establishing a local authority traded services company in collaboration with schools
3. Schools establish an independent public service mutual organisation with the local authority as a minority partner - cooperative working between schools.

John said that at recent headteacher consultations he had been surprised that many heads had favoured Option 2 rather than 3. In a contribution I suggested that the danger was that headteachers would become business managers whose main job was procurement, leading to a neglect of the main job which is the improvement of the quality of teaching and children's learning.  I also expressed a fear that the uncertainty would lead to a loss of some key staff (68 people are employed in SIS) and thus a deterioration in the quality of the service schools were being asked to buy into.  This has already happened in the case of some other council departments.

Another speaker thought that Option 2 gave more democratic accountability and would be less of a distraction to headteachers.

Further questions are raised about overhead costs, particularly in the case of Option 3 but also possible with Option 2. In the case of the Willesden Green Cultural Centre we have been told that as this is a high quality, state of the art building, rents would be high. As the Civic Centre is probably an even higher specification building, positioned next to the Arena and the Stadium, how much would an independent traded services mutual organisation  have to pay for office space and meeting rooms so that they could provide in-service education?

There was a concern that the changes would lead to fragmentation:  reduced in-service education and training, and increased isolation of schools because of the lack of affordability of buying-in when council revenue and government funding are being reduced. Paying for services that were formerly free and increased charges for those that were subsidised, amounted to a cut in real terms to school budgets.

Discussion afterwards also speculated on practical issues of whether teachers from the south of the borough would find it easy to travel to Wembley for courses starting at 9am (i.e. rush hour) and the lack of parking spaces at the Civic Centre.

These changes need to be very carefully considered. The briefing will be repeated on the evening of Thursday March 22nd at the CSD and I urge all Brent governors who didn't come today to attend. The wrong decisions could have a devastating impact on the future education of our children and their life chances.

The Schools Forum recommendation on the issue is likely by December 2012 so it is important that governing bodies discuss the issue this term or early next.

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