Friday 29 March 2013

Brent restructuring steams ahead but will have to be done again in 2-3 years

The proposed structure
I went to yesterday's Brent General Purposes Committee on a high - not in anticipation of an exciting meeting but because I was buzzing with optimism from an event I had just attended at Chalkhill Primary School. The Sports Hall had been full of families, not just parents but grandparents, aunts and uncles and children ranging from babes in arms to secondary school students.  The occasion was the graduation ceremony for the 8 week FAST (Families and Schools Together) course that had taken place at the school. Among those working with families alongside school staff was the chair of the Chalkhill  Residents Association. A real community effort. The hall was buzzing with chatter and lively with children dressed up for the occasion playing amongst the tables or tucking into food and drink while some adults were in dazzling national costume.. Real pride was on display when each family went up on the stage to get their certificate to cheers from the audience.

FAST aims to provide a fun and relaxed space for families to experience a mixture of play and learning activities, hands on coaching and support for parents and carers. Each week families can win a resource hamper to help support children's learning in the home. The programme has high success rates in improving family relationships and links between home, school and the local community. The project is run by Save the Children and funded by Morrison's.

So it was with renewed faith in our local authority community schools that I went to speak to the General Purposes Committee about the restructuring of the senior management at the council and the children and families department.

I had three main concerns. The first was by combining adults' and children's social care with education and public health that the Council was creating a 'high risk' department. One risk was that these were areas where things could go badly wrong as we know from previous child protection cases as well as concerns over the treatment of vulnerable adults. The second risk was that these are areas under huge budgetary pressures and the eventual cost of public health is not yet known.

The second concern was that that education and children's social care were being separated. They had not worked well together when they had been separate departments and as a headteacher I had seen improvements in processes when they came under one director. I said it was essential that there were clear lines of responsibility in terms of child protection and safeguarding. The operational director would be dealing with complex cases on the ground but the strategic director would have overall responsibility.

The third concern was much broader and about the current fragmentation of the local school system with academisation and free schools. I said that Gladstone Park Primary's experience had given other heads the jitters and it was essential that there was strong leadership in education that championed the role of the local authority and demonstrated that the LA had the capacity to help schools improve. In that regard the reduction in the role of the School Improvement Service and the creation of the Brent Schools' Partnership introduced a note of uncertainty underlining the need for strong leadership.

I noted that when the post of Director of Children and Families last became vacant that it was ring-fenced to existing council staff. At the time this was criticised  LINK on the grounds that schools by statute have to advertise vacant head and deputy head posts nationally so as to have the widest possible field to select the best quality candidate. I argued, recognising that there might be HR issues involved, that this should also apply to these vital posts - Brent children and adults deserve the best.

Christine Gilbert, responded to some of these points in her presentation. She recognised that this would be a 'high risk' department but said that the safeguarding aspects should carry on much as they are now. She said that the strategic directors would have to have a good grasp of the operational issues. Gilbert told councillors that there would need to be another restructuring in two or three years as further cuts were made in funding. Muhammed Butt, chairing the meeting, said that the only constant was change.

Cllr Mary Arnold challenged my suggestion that there was a risk in the Brent Schools Partnership lacking an independent critical voice and said that the partnership was with the local authority which would retain core services and offer services that schools could buy into: it was a schools partnership with the local authority.

Cllr Jim Moher expressed support for my call for strong leader for education in the face of fragmentation. Cllr Pavey spoke enthusiastically about the excitement he felt about the opportunities offered by restructuring. It's probably fair to say that his enthusiasm didn't set the rest of the room on fire.

Paul Lorber for the Lib Dems wanted more information about the role of the Assistant Chief Executive and suggested that perhaps it would be better to employ a director for one of the other service units instead. He was told that the delayed appointment of the permanent Chief Executive would go ahead in May and that the new structure, after consultation, would  help the appointment. Lorber also asked if the new structure at office level with fewer departments would mean a reduction in the size of the Executive with their parallel responsibilities. That has happened in Hounslow but not elsewhere.

Christine Gilbert asked for suggestions on alternative names for the new departments which would sum up their functions concisely.  Mary Arnold suggested that Economic Growth and Employment might better reflect the developing role of Regeneration and Major Projects.

The recommendations in Christine Gilbert's report were accepted subject to consultation on some aspects.

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