Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Reading Labour Needs to Fix the Basics

Reading Borough Council (RBC) debated the local budget last night.  Sadly there was a tiny audience and the meeting was not filmed so very few will be privy to all that was said.  Labour voted through a Council Tax increase of 1.99% whereas the Conservative Group would have frozen it. 

Turning to education, I am sure that RBC's Labour administration decided in advance to avoid drawing attention to their abysmal 'leadership' of RBC's Education Department in a bid to stop the press shining a light on their performance.  Not one of the Labour councillors responded to my speech, which I copy below:
Our duty tonight is to set the budget for the Council’s services.  There needs to be recognition of how these services have been performing and what needs to be done now to ensure Reading Borough Council makes best use of tax payers’ money.  As the Conservative Group’s Education spokesman I will focus on Reading’s schools.

The Education budget is set against a back drop of worrying developments and a history of poor standards in some LEA controlled Reading schools.  Tonight is not the time to celebrate the achievements of many schools, head teachers and pupils.  We must focus on how best to spend the budget to deliver a good education to all.

In mid-December the authority’s school expansion programme saw costs rise from £61 million to £70 million in just three months.  That’s an increase of nearly 15%.  Clearly there was an insufficient understanding or consideration of risks, not least the inevitable cost escalation that would result from the economic recovery this Conservative-led government has brought the country.

This increase has forced savings to be made of £9 million, including a de-scoping of the current programme.

Separately, turning to school standards, Ofsted published its report earlier this month focussing mainly on the town’s primary schools.  Ofsted stated that:
  • Too many schools are inadequate and this number is growing 
  • There is too much variability in the quality of support that schools receive from local authority officers  
  • Schools are not improving at a sufficiently rapid rate 
  • Not enough schools are good or outstanding and too many pupils attend schools that do not provide at least a good standard of education 
  • The local authority is not able to demonstrate enough of an impact on improving the effectiveness of schools and academies
Ofsted concluded that there is “an urgent need to tackle underperformance where it exists and to support and challenge schools to improve at a faster rate.”

Rather than being open about its failings and what it is going to do about them, this administration presented the situation as one that is under control and where the actions needed are to “drive up performance further” heading its press release “Reading strives for Outstanding Schools”. 

The reality is that this is not about improving a good performance but rather fixing the basics for more than a quarter of primary school pupils and delivering these 3,500 children a decent education.

And let’s not pretend that the Ofsted findings were in line with the administration’s own concerns as stated in their press release issued the same day as Ofsted’s report.  The draft findings were shared with the administration well before Cllr Ennis ordered his peer review.  At least his peer review was consistent with Ofsted’s findings that school improvement must improve.

We have concerns about financial management following the cost escalation on the school expansion plan.  We have concerns about the management of education as highlighted in the Ofsted report. 

How can Reading’s residents have any faith in this administration’s ability to deliver every child at least a good education in light of the matters I’ve highlighted this evening?  Providing a good education enables the aspirations of our town’s children to be fulfilled.  There is so much talk in the administration’s Corporate Plan of Narrowing the Gap between disadvantaged children and the advantaged, yet in its narrative I saw no mention of the need to pull the standard of education up where currently it is inadequate.  It isn’t until page B49 that the preparation and delivery of a new Education Improvement Plan is listed, however the delivery date is 2017!

Cllr Ennis should not forget that the Conservative-led government’s funding of Universal Free School Meals and Pupil Premium is helping schools “narrow the gap”.

Late this afternoon I saw that the last agenda item, number 21, on the forthcoming ACE Committee meeting is an update on Education Progress.  I ask that it is moved up the agenda as this must surely be a priority? 

The authority needs to turn around its failing schools, this needs to be done quickly as children have but one school education.  I welcome the extra support and challenge that Ofsted is going to provide the council, though it should not have been necessary had the leadership been addressing the long-standing issues of failing to robustly challenge and support schools all along.

The administration needs to demonstrate that it is maximising the use every pound of this budget to give every child the start they deserve.
For further details about Ofsted's statement and letter see my previous post

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Ofsted's Action on Reading's Primary Schools

Last week Labour-run Reading Borough Council (RBC) was slammed by Ofsted for failing primary school children, with over a quarter of pupils not receiving a good education.  Sir Robin Bosher's (Ofsted's South East Regional Director) letter to RBC dated 19 January 2015 was published, together with this press release.

In his letter Sir Robin Bosher said  "there has been a sharp rise in the number of schools judged to be inadequate in Reading since October 2013."  "Two primary schools were judged to be inadequate in October 2014, bringing the total number of schools judged to be inadequate in the last year to six."

The Ofsted Director added that "...the council has failed to take action to prevent schools deteriorating to the point where they now require special measures...the authority has not provided sufficient challenge or support to schools to enable them to improve quickly enough."

As chairman of a local school’s governing body, I know that strong leadership by the head and senior staff team is fundamental to providing an outstanding education, together with plenty of rigour and challenge from the governing body.  Schools need to use their ability to remove inadequate teachers if the individuals cannot be supported to raise their performance within a short timescale. It is unfair on pupils to have their life-chances impeded by sub-standard teaching.  Schools need to have high aspirations for each child, no matter what the child's background.  Every pupil needs to be supported and inspired by their teachers to achieve to the best of their ability.

You can read GetReading's report here. 

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Tonight's Mapledurham Playing Fields Management Committee Meeting

At tonight's Mapledurham Playing Fields Management Committee, the minutes of the previous meeting (2 December 2014) were agreed.  Mapledurham Parish's representative asked for clarification on his appointment to the Management Committee to be added.  This will appear in the next minutes.  Here is a link to the full agenda papers including the minutes.

As you will see the Management Committee discussed:

  • The forthcoming consultation, which will include Mapledurham Playing Fields (MPF) as one of the possible permanent sites for The Heights primary school
  • Pavilion maintenance and replacement
  • Draft accounts and usage for the Pavilion and Playing Fields

One question which stood out at the meeting and was asked by Mapledurham Parish's representative (the rep), related to RBC's historic consultation to relocate Caversham Primary to MPF. The rep said the Playing Fields are a large area and that of course we don't know if the EFA is going to choose MPF, or indeed where exactly the EFA might consider putting the school.  He said many people believe that if the EFA does choose to put a school on MPF then it would be where the Pavilion is now.  The rep's concern therefore (if I heard him correctly) was the implications of this potential scenario to all the fund raising and the refurbishment of the Pavilion.

My response was not wishing to jump the gun or hopefully being accused of predetermining whatever the EFA decides, if the EFA were to submit a proposal for the school to go on part of MPF, I as the local councillor would fight very, very hard to ensure that we do not lose the facilities here and, quite the reverse that we get all we can possibly for the local community to improve the current facilities, however of course we don't know what the EFA is going to decide.

RBC officer Ben Stanesby stated that the Warren & District Residents Association has a very large amount of money in its control which is likely to have a huge influence on what would happen (should the EFA select MPF as the permanent site for The Heights).  With reference to the replacement/refurbishment of the Pavilion he stated that he didn't feel it appropriate to delay the procurement process as, even were the EFA to choose MPF, the procurement process would take about three months by which time the permanent site consultation results may be known.

A few questions were asked about the draft accounts, but apart from that I think I've probably captured the main points of interest.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Remit of Mapledurham Playing Fields Management Committee

To aid an informed debate about one of the sites about to be consulted upon as a possible permanent location for The Heights Primary Free School, I quote below Chris Brooks, Reading Borough Council's (RBC's) head of legal, statement on the remit of the Mapledurham Playing Fields Management Committee [the Management Committee] and the legal advice to which I (and my two fellow councillors elected to sit on it with me) have adhered.

Mr Brooks states that: 
"The Council’s appointees to the Management Committee are not appointed to represent the Council as Trustee, or to act as Trustee. They are appointed to act within the duties and powers of the Management Committee...
"The Council as trustee has authorised the Management Committee to exercise a general supervision over the day-to-day activities at the playing fields to ensure that this is consistent with the objectives of the Trust, which are the provision and maintenance of a recreation ground for the benefit of the inhabitants of the Parish of Mapledurham and the Borough of Reading without distinction of political, religious or other opinions."
At the Management Committee meeting on 2 December, a statement was tabled which the Committee were asked to approve.  It included the following paragraph:
“In exercising [its] responsibilities this Committee has rejected, and will continue to reject any proposals or discussions concerning the Mapledurham Playing Fields that do not uphold and maintain the specific objects of the said Trust; eg a school is not within these specific objects".
Mr Brooks, who was in attendance, explained that the paragraph was effectively asking the three Councillors to make a statement as a Trustee, which was not in the remit of the Management Committee.  

The outcome of the discussion at the Management Committee was subsequently and inaccurately described to User Groups and others as "the three Councillors do not agree in maintaining the charitable status of the Playing Fields and the pavilion."  User Groups alerted me to this and the following is an extract from Mr Brooks' response: 
"In conclusion, I vehemently disagree with your arguments, which I consider at best to be based on a misunderstanding on your part of the role of the Management Committee, the responsibilities of the Council as Trustee, and the public law expectations of the role of Councillors in a local authority’s decision-making process.   However, I would observe that your actions in moving the statement at the Management Committee on 2 December 2014, and writing subsequently to the users committee, could be seen as a deliberate act to compromise or emasculate the three Council appointees to the Management Committee in their roles as Councillors of the authority.

"I strongly suggest that you share this email with all of the users committee to ensure that they have my very clear factual position on the matters you have raised with them."
You can read the whole of Mr Brooks' email here

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Consultation Delayed Due to New Site

Reading Borough Council has just published the following press release:


From: Legge, David
Sent: 04 February 2015 13:15:03 (UTC) Dublin, Edinburgh, Lisbon, London
To: Ballsdon, Isobel (Councillor)
Subject: Public Consultation on Heights Primary School Delayed

Public Consultation on Heights Primary School Delayed

Reading Borough Council Press Release
A PUBLIC consultation process to help identify a permanent home for The Heights Primary has been delayed by at least three weeks, after the Education Funding Agency (EFA) advised Reading Borough Council of a fifth possible location for the school.
The Government’s EFA informed the Council that it is in preliminary discussions with the owners of Dysons Farm, which is located on the boundary of Reading Borough and South Oxfordshire.
The EFA has now indicated that they would like the new site to be added to the list of possible locations for public consultation. The other four sites identified by the EFA are:
• High Ridge, Upper Warren Avenue
• Mapledurham Playing Fields
• Albert Road Recreation Ground
• Shipnells Farm (better known as Bugs Bottom)

The EFA has asked Reading Borough Council to carry out a public consultation on its behalf. When complete, survey results will be passed to the EFA for consideration. It will then be up to the EFA to select a location for The Heights primary School, based on the public responses received.
That public consultation process was due to start at the beginning of this week (Feb 2), after the Council agreed how the consultation would be taken forward at a meeting of its Policy Committee last month.
The news from the EFA however means that the start of the consultation process will now be delayed until Monday February 23rd, at the earliest. It means a Public Meeting to discuss the EFA’s options for a permanent school site will now not take place until March, and that the Public Survey will be similarly delayed.
Reading Borough Council will be announcing a revised schedule for the public consultation – including the Public Meeting and subsequent Survey - as soon as it has more information from the EFA.


Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Free Schools: Benefits for Reading's Families

At tonight’s Reading Borough Council (RBC) meeting, the Greens’ Parliamentary Candidate for Reading East was electioneering by tabling a motion (the full text of which is here) asking for RBC officers to bring a report back on the impact of free schools in Reading taking his concerns into account.  He said that he and the Green Party would like to stop “the free school experiment”.

Below is my response:

“Before the arrival of Free Schools, parents dissatisfied with the education at their local school had limited options.  They could hope that a better school further away would offer their children places, or they could move home – if this was an affordable option, or they just had to make do.

However there is hardly any spare capacity in Reading’s schools, leaving very little chance for any family getting a place at a good school beyond their local catchment area.

Put simply I don’t think the local Greens have thought through the impact of their Party’s Education policy  in particular on disadvantaged families; nor those families within the part of Reading they represent who have campaigned to have the benefit of a Maiden Erlegh School education.

Yesterday’s Guardian had an interesting article in which Labour’s Tristram Hunt attacked the Green Party Leader.  Hunt said “Natalie Bennett speaks a language of low aspiration and defeatism.  Great schools can be the only hope for some children from disadvantaged backgrounds.” 

I agree with Hunt and am astounded that tonight’s motion fails entirely to mention, let alone focus on, the children & young people’s quality of and access to good schools.  Don’t Reading’s young deserve an education which will help them thrive and aspire?

Not only have Free Schools empowered parents by enabling them to set up schools where they are dissatisfied with standards, but also Free Schools have helped parents to set up schools where there are shortages of school places, or a lack of choice of provision. 

Without Free Schools, Reading would not have All Saints Junior School in Brownlow Road – a school set up by parents with the help of the CfBT Education Trust providing school places for children progressing up from the Infants School. 

Another example is The Heights Primary School – which has given families in the west of Caversham a realistic chance of a school place locally in Reading when for over 10 years families have had their children scattered around to schools elsewhere, for example out of borough, or across to the east of Caversham.

I am a firm believer that with schools one size does not fit all.  For some a secondary school will enable them to reach their full potential, whereas a grammar school might best suit others.  Hopefully The Avenue School Special School Academy will get the go ahead to open a new Free School which will be a linked Special School.  It will cater for yet more students and help keep Reading’s SEN students within the town, preparing them for life after education. 

Also thanks to the Free School programme students keen to progress into the IT or engineering industry can opt for a place at Reading’s University Technical College (UTC). 

Turning back to the Green’s motion before us, it is obvious they haven’t understood the massive benefits Free Schools and Academies have brought Reading’s families.  Nor have they understood the pressure Council officers are under to deliver the school expansion plan.  The Conservative Group will not be supporting their motion as the resolution is utterly pointless and would waste valuable officer time.  Delivering the school places needed, with the help of Government funded Free Schools, in time for the next academic year has got to be this council’s priority.”

RBC’s Labour administration agreed with me that the Green’s resolution was a waste of officer time and also agreed that Reading’s children & young people deserve at least a good education.  Their amendment, however showed that they are against enabling parents who are without a good local school from having the option to set up a free school in their statement "that funding for new schools will be prioritised in areas of acute need rather than waste money building free schools in areas with surplus need to suit the Coalition ideological and political experiment of free schools".

The Labour administration failed to acknowledge the many benefits families are getting as a result of the free school programme.  I think their ideology got in the way.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Consultation Given Go-ahead & Why Labour hasn't looked after Mapledurham Pavilion

Two petitions & twenty-two questions were put to Cllr Jo Lovelock, Leader of Reading Borough Council (RBC), at Monday night's Policy Committee.  The focus was on where the permanent site for The Heights primary school should or shouldn't go in the views of various local groups, as well as on details about the consultation RBC will carry out at the request of the Education Funding Agency (EFA).

You can read the petitions and questions here.

Some supplementary questions were put to Cllr Lovelock, the most memorable of which came from Andrew Rogers after he had asked the following question which in itself needs careful thought:
"Considering the current status of the proposed location of The Heights free school in Caversham, does the Council think it is appropriate to pledge £100,000 to extend and refurbish the Pavilion at Mapledurham Playing Fields?"
Cllr Lovelock's response was:
"This is a long-standing commitment by the Council.  The Pavilion is a valuable community facility and we are committed to its redevelopment or refurbishment.  This is why we will continue to make £100,000 capital funding available for this purpose.
"How and when this refurbishment takes place may indeed be impacted upon by any proposal by the EFA to locate the new free school on the Mapledurham Playing Fields."
Andrew Rogers' supplementary question was along the lines:
If the Pavilion is so important to RBC, why has it been left to fall into such a dilapidated condition?
Labour's Leader Cllr Lovelock replied that RBC's priorities are elsewhere.  She started saying that RBC is building new schools, then seemed to correct herself saying that RBC is expanding existing schools. [I think she realised her mistake as it is the Government, not RBC, which is building the town's new schools, eg UTC Reading, The Heights, Maiden Erlegh in Reading and the Hodsoll Road primary, as well as the completely new school building for Reading Girls].

Site Visit of Pavilion June 2013
It has been abundantly obvious for years & years that RBC's Labour administration has chosen to invest in facilities elsewhere over Mapledurham Pavilion, long before the migration to Reading and sharp rise in the birth rate came about.  I remember a Planning Committee site visit in June 2013 when I managed to get some Labour councillors including the then chair, Cllr Lovelock's husband Cllr Ruhemann (now deceased), to Caversham Heights to see the Pavilion.  They were visibly shocked by its dilapidated condition.

Apart from central government funding, local authorities get money from a variety of sources including Council Tax and something called Section 106 monies (s106).  This post I wrote in 2011 highlighted the Labour administration's poor record keeping of how RBC spent s106 monies.  Local Conservatives & I campaigned against Labour's lack of transparency.  In case you don't know, s106 monies are paid by a developer to help ameliorate the extra pressure put on services close to their development, eg on roads, schools, leisure and housing.  The money should be spent on upgrading facilities including increasing school capacity in accordance with a calculation set out in RBC's policies. However what Conservatives uncovered was that s106 monies had been used for developments miles away from where the impact of the developments was being felt, eg north of the river s106 monies had been used south of the river in west Reading.

In light of the above, you will not be surprised to know that Andrew Rogers' supplementary question to Cllr Lovelock made me laugh, as put on the spot she publicly had to admit what locals have known all along.  Labour has not prioritised Mapledurham Pavilion, but I know and appreciate just how crucial the hall and changing rooms are to our local community.