Intervention Ends For Children’s Services In Stoke-on-Trent

Central government has officially confirmed the end of intervention for children and young people’s services in Stoke-on-Trent.

In a letter to the leader of the city council, Councillor Mohammed Pervez, under secretary of state for children and families, Tim Loughton MP, says:

“There is clear commitment to and motivation for continual improvement in Stoke at officer level and I was also pleased to hear of the political support for the children’s services improvement agenda.”

“I hope that your officers will continue to work constructively and openly with my officials in the department on your developing plans and thinking around the school improvement agenda.

“On that understanding, I am writing formally to conclude the Department for Education’s intervention in Stoke-on-Trent children’s services.”

Commenting on the letter, cabinet member for children and young people’s services, Councillor Debra Gratton, said:

“This official recognition that we are now of out intervention is testament to the hard work and dedication of everyone working across the range of services offered by the department.

“We are all aware that there is still a lot of work to do and Sharon Menghini and her new senior management team will be driving the improvements forward to ensure the good ground we’ve gained will be consolidated and built upon.

“As we know, there are tough challenges ahead but we are perfectly placed to be able to meet those challenges head on, with excellent, focussed staff making every effort to ensure the best outcomes for the children and young people of Stoke-on-Trent.”

The contractor Serco was appointed to provide the senior management team to run the department from April 2007, following central government intervention which rated children’s services as inadequate.

SOT Central Parliamentary Candidates Speak to CSAG

Stoke-on-Trent Central parliamentary candidates attended an open Community Schools Action Group Meeting at Bentilee Neighbourhood Centre on the evening of April 28th.

CSAG chair MARGARET LOWE opened the meeting and introduced the candidates. Active CSAG campaigner WENDY BOOTH sent apologies for absence. BARRY STOCKLEY (CSAG) chaired the meeting. He outlined the background to the CSAG campaign. In 2007 there were surplus high school places. Mitchell High School and Berry Hill High School showed cooperation by volunteering to close on condition that there would be a new build school on the Mitchell site to accommodate pupils from both these schools. The city council then appointed SERCO which was a most disastrous decision for education. The SERCO proposal was to merge Michell with Edensor and Berry Hill with St. Peter’s. The proposals were rejected totally by parents at Mitchell, Berry Hill, St. Peter’s and many from Edensor. Reports from consultation meetings had been grossly distorted. At a meeting for Berry Hill and St. Peter’s a motion was proposed to reject the merger. Every parent and governor voted to reject the merger but this was not reported. Barry, together with Mark Fisher MP, had challenged Ged Rowney, SERCO director of children and young people’s services and Tracey Penrose, project manager for BSF, over this. Tracey said she must have overlooked this. Many councillors are supportive of the CSAG campaign for a school on the Mitchell site but those appointed to cabinet do an about turn. Mark Fisher always supported the campaign. Each candidate was then given 3 minutes to introduce themselves and express their views as follows:

GARY ELSBY (Independent) explained he had been a member of the Labour party but had walked out because of what had happened. He had produced 20,000 leaflets in the 2008 local election campaign, but then the persecution started for standing up for Mitchell High School and Dimensions swimming pool. He had been removed from the membership list. Council leader Ross Irving had made fun of CSAG and of Pat Smith, Mitchell chair of governors. He had been condescending. Gary said councillor Peter Kent-Baguley is right because he says if we keep up the pressure we will win.

SIMON DARBY (British National Party) introduced himself as the deputy leader of the British National Party and said some might think that means he is wicked but he is not a bad man, he is just a normal guy. He does not believe in the BSF social engineering agenda to create an academy with only two parent governors. Schools should not be run by private companies which profit at our expense. He declared himself fully on our side.

NORSHEEN BHATTI (Conservative Party) said Labour had not been consulting with parents and teachers, which is important for schools. She has visited Mitchell High and congratulates the school for winning an award for the most improved school. She was touched by the children and how much they loved their school. There was passion from the teachers. She said there should be social responsibility and parents and teachers should be given the power to set up their own schools. She also said she was there to listen and wants to put people’s views first.

MATT WRIGHT (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition) said what we are seeing is the systematic privatisation of the education system. Academies will be a disaster with worse travel to school. The sponsors choose the governing body and are in charge of ethos. It would not be good to have religious fanatics or companies in charge of schools. Tens of thousands of building workers are out of work. We need to rebuild or refurbish community schools. There should be no cuts to pay or conditions of staff and no compulsory redundancies. There should be no private finance initiatives because these result in the tax payer footing 300% of the building cost. He advocates a joint campaign of all schools under threat.

BRIAN WARD (City Independent) introduced himself as leader of the City Independent group on the council. City Independent councillors Rita Dale and John Davis had backed this campaign the whole time and talk about it every day. He said this is not an MP decision, the city council will make the decision. The protest should be directed to the council. He said Labour councillor Adrian Knapper had also backed the campaign at times. Brian said he had first heard of the fight to save the school at a meeting at Mitchell High. He is in cabinet now having previously been in opposition but nothing had been said at cabinet about this issue. Officers have been sent to check the sites and numbers to see if they are right. Brian said he bases his whole ethos on community issues. He said the public wants a school on Mitchell, not on ‘Springfield’ and to know why they should vote for one parliamentary candidate rather than another. He would have liked to ask Tristram Hunt the Labour candidate about the Labour government. Deals had been handed down from a Labour government which underfunds the council by £300 per child.

Margaret Lowe then read statements from the parliamentary candidates who were unable to be present:

PAUL BREEZE (Independent) said it was evident CSAG hearts are in the right place and we have passion. CSAG has a strong and logical case with evidence for the merger and site we want. Paul said he is fully independent and if elected will back CSAG 100%

ALBY WALKER (Independent) said there should be a new school on the Mitchell site and another on an appropriate site near Edensor. He opposed the Park Hall site and had organised the call in of this decision when he was a British National Party councillor. He is now an independent councillor.

JOHN REDFERN (Liberal Democrat) does not want to share a platform with the BNP. He is not happy with a new academy on Park Hall because of fears about safety and busy roads. He does not think it would improve education standards.

TRISTRAM HUNT (Labour Party) said it was already clear the only way forward is to have two local schools and he would fight tooth and nail for a school in the heart of the community. He had attended a previous CSAG meeting and visited Margaret Lowe at home. He is 100% behind us.

CAROL LOVATT (UKIP) had not responded at all.

The meeting was then opened for questions to the candidates.

MIKE COLEMAN (British National Party councillor and parliamentary candidate for SOT South) asked Brian Ward if he was in favour of Mitchell staying or going. Brian replied that it had never been discussed in cabinet and that the decision had been made previously by the mayor. Brian stated that he is supportive of a school on Mitchell.

PAT SMITH (Chair of governors at Mitchell) said she should put Gary Elsby right on his quotation. City Independent councillor Ian Mitchell was the one who was nasty and wanted a bulldozer through Mitchell High School. Ross Irving and Ian Mitchell had been invited to visit Mitchell High School four times, but each time the personal assistant had rang to cancel. It seems they dare not come anywhere near. In trying to speak to them she had just got insults. Stoke-on-Trent College, the intended academy sponsor, want a 1300 feeder school for the college. Pat said the experience with Stoke-on-Trent College is not wonderful. Nobody has spoken about the wonderful results for adults at Mitchell High. 1500 adults have learned in the community learning centre there, the learn direct there works because it is in the community. Mitchell and Berry Hill are happy to merge because they can form a natural community hub.

TERRY CROWE (Chair of governors at Berry Hill) said Ross Irving and his cabinet are trying to destroy education at the two schools. Terry said he had opposed the independent and Labour elected mayors and the Conservative council leader. This is not party political, it is a fight for the children out there. Terry asked Brian Ward to come off the fence because he has the power but has not faced up to his responsibility. He said Mike Coleman had brought up the issues in the council but they had tried to ridicule him. He asked Norsheen Bhatti if she would speak to Ross Irving and tell him to get off his backside and do something. He asked her if she was prepared to tell Ross he has got it wrong.

NORSHEEN BHATTI said if she were elected she would make representations everywhere.

TERRY CROWE asked Brian Ward to speak to Ross Irving.

BRIAN WARD said we must go though a process, we still have Mitchell High today and can not guess what happens after the election.

GRAHAM WALLACE (CSAG) asked Norsheen Bhatti why she said the Labour party had done this. Her Conservative party had been in charge of the council cabinet for 9 months now.

MICK STONE (CSAG) said to Brian Ward that he was sorry it appeared he was being given a hammering but his question was simply that as leader of the City Independents which have a majority of councillors, he should have influence, so what has he actually done since becoming leader of that group for this campaign? Mick put forward his theory that the area is seen as a hotbed of support or the extreme right and the establishment don’t like that. The area is seen as a poor working class area full of thickos on crack. So taking two lumps of the community and sending them in opposite directions was a ploy to water down support for the extreme right. But Mick thinks this could create the reaction they are trying to stop.

BRIAN WARD said there had been umpteen meetings with SERCO and the new chief executive of the council and there are issues so he did not want to give false promises. There was a desire to move the school because education was poor. Brian said he had backed Trentham who ran a good campaign. As he is not the ward councillor he does not know Mitchell High School. The independents have made more waves in the city than anyone.

GARY ELSBY said he had heard all sorts of stories about wanting the land, he didn’t accept the point about the far right, this area is underprivileged so why not build a school here?

SIMON DARBY said they are doing this in Burnley too, trying to mix muslim and white children. They are busing them around and they don’t like it. This government enforced bullying shouldn’t be happening. He said it is good to see support to fight this here, if we fight it he will back us.

NORSHEEN BHATTI said there is nothing British about the BNP.

SIMON DARBY said he was more British than Norsheen.

NORSHEEN BHATTI said if she were elected she would be supportive because children matter.

MATT WRIGHT said this would rip the heart out of the community and with the scale of public sector cuts to come we need unity in communities, not division.

ADRIAN KNAPPER (Labour councillor) said to Norsheen Bhatti that this is a council decision and if the two schools option were put to the council, Labour and the British National Party and others would support a school on the Mitchell site and another in Longton. He said the only thing in the way is the executive; Brian Ward, Ross Irving and Liberal Democrat support. Norsheen should go to Ross and get him to go ahead with what we want.

NORSHEEN BHATTI said the reality is the decisions have been made and the council’s hands are tied.

ADRIAN KNAPPER stated that schools minister Vernon Coaker would not block the two school option.

NORSHEEN BHATTI said it was not a decision made by the Conservatives but if elected as MP she would do as Adrian Knapper had asked.

BRIAN WARD pointed out that it is a cabinet decision, not a full council decision.

BARRY STOCKLEY suggested a vote of no confidence in the council leader.

JOHN DAVIS (City Independent councillor) said he is a governor at Mitchell High School. He had never seen so many lies and distortions of the facts than on this issue. The first time the proposal was discussed was over two years ago. The council have said for many years that this is a government decision and we are not allowed to build on the Mitchell site. At that time there was a Labour elected mayor and Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat elected mayor’s board. Mark Fisher had been brilliant and talked to the minister who said the site of the school is up to the city council. The current minister says we could have two schools. Another lie is that if we don’t agree it will affect funding and other schools. They have tried to set schools against each other. John called this ‘insultation’ not consultation and said the dictatorial decisions are ludicrous. But John said he believes in people power and we can beat them on the arguments. John asked the candidates if they would, like Mark Fisher, ignore the party whip and stand up for the community even against their own party.

BRIAN WARD said he would do better than that because he would save the school.

MATT WRIGHT said he would stand shoulder to shoulder.

NORSHEEN BHATTI said she would put people first.

SIMON DARBY said he would be 100% behind the fight.

GARY ELSBY said for 27 years he had stood by Mark Fisher’s side and Mark had asked him if he would take on the role of MP. He said Rob Flello MP was taking all the credit for saving Trentham High School and yet the community themselves had put up signs all over the area saying Trentham High School not for sale.

ANDY BENTLEY said when SERCO put forward their proposal the socialist party got 5000 names on a petition for no closures, no loss of jobs and new buildings if needed. His suggestion is every councillor should adopt a different strategy, instead of planning cuts they should plan what is needed as sufficient government funding and launch a campaign to force the government to give us the money. This has been done in Liverpool in the 1980s and they even got money out of Margaret Thatcher. Andy asked who would support such a strategy instead of money going to rich bankers.

BRIAN WARD said every child in the city gets £300 less than the average for the country and where have the MPs been to rectify this?

MATT WRIGHT agrees with Andy because the money needed is like crumbs from the table compared to the richest people in the country.

NORSHEEN BHATTI said Labour had said education, education, education so it is scandalous we get less than others, due to the city’s Labour MPs.

SIMON DARBY said bailing out the bankers, gamblers, was a disgrace and we are paying the price. He would abolish investment banks, have no front line cuts, pull out of the war in Afghanistan, having had an illegal war in Iraq, pull out of the EU and stop foreign aid. Common sense is needed and we should look after ourselves more.

GARY ELSBY said laws should be reintroduced to stop the banking fiasco. He had fought all his life for what he believes in. Labour have done some good things. He said national insurance should not be increased. We should demand no special favours but just the same as everyone else has, which should be easily fundable.

NICKY DAVIS (CSAG) said that by the year 2020 the current SERCO plan will mean we will be short of high school pupil places by about 500 for the Discovery school, wherever it is built, 350 for the new St. Peter’s and 300 for Sandon. What is the best plan to deal with these shortages?

GARY ELSBY said an extra high school can be built in Longton. Caps on immigration will come. We must plan properly for the children and if necessary build more schools. He said the answer is simple, they should give us the money.

SIMON DARBY said it is despicable because it involves private companies so it is about profit and he knows the way these people work with their ethos of selling off public assets. He suggested what is needed is an investigation into the private companies involved and who has directorships involved with these companies. Immigration is problematic.

NORSHEEN BHATTI admitted she does not know, to be honest. We don’t have the funding, education is in crisis and we need to take control.

MATT WRIGHT said we should kick private companies out of schools, increase capacity and employ more teachers. Immigration would not be an issue if public services could cope with demand.

BRIAN WARD said the Labour government has done more privatising than Thatcher.

DAWN KELLY (CSAG) said it gets on parents nerves that they are told pupil numbers are going down at Berry Hill High School but the only reason for that is because of the threat to the school. People are sending their children elsewhere but if a school were to be kept on the Mitchell site they would come back.

KEN said there had been underfunding for years and asked if we should blame the MPs or the council.

BARRY STOCKLEY said we are not underfunded in BSF capital funding, it is the way it is used that is the problem.

BRIAN WARD insisted there was underfunding.

TERRY CROWE had attended a meeting to make teachers and other staff redundant because Berry Hill was targeted for closure. Terry backed up Dawn Kelly’s point. He said as Brian Ward had made a statement he would keep a school on Mitchell if elected, then why not do it now?

BARRY STOCKLEY thanked the 5 parliamentary candidates who had attended.

The meeting finished with a video showing how Mitchell and Berry Hill pupils worked together.

Strategic Partnership Ended Before It’s Begun.

Pits n Pots can today confirm that Stoke-on-Trent City Council plans to switch up to 800 jobs to the proposed Central Business District in Hanley have been scrapped.

The City Council had proposed to switch the jobs to a private company. The preferred bidders were Balfour Beatty Workplace/BT Global Solutions and Serco who are still fighting for the contract.

The jobs would have included members of the Human Resources, CCTV maintenance, IT and Administration departments. They were informed that the proposed move had been scrapped in a memo yesterday.

Sources informed Pits n Pots yesterday that councillors had been told of the decision in a private briefing by Chief Executive John van de Laarschott yesterday morning. He informed the elected members present that the project would not realise the return necessary to make it viable and that he was recommending the Cabinet to drop the plans.

A number of councillors are said to be outraged at the waste of some £1.5 million of public money.

We will bring you audio reaction to this story later.

New Director of Children and Young People’s Services for Stoke-on-Trent

Sharon Menghini has been appointed as the new Director of Children and Young People’s Services at Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Sharon was appointed after a meeting of the city council’s Human Resources Committee on Thursday 18 February.

She will join the city council from her current role as Director of Children and Young People’s Services at Herefordshire County Council.

Sharon has worked as Director of Children’s Services at Herefordshire Council since April 2007. Her previous roles include Chief Education Officer at Newport City Council.

Sharon will take charge of the directorate after the city council was given the go ahead to bring children’s services back “in house” in 2009, after the contract with Serco expires.

Councillor Derek Capey, Vice Chair of the Committee said: “This was an exceptionally strong field, but it was vital we appoint the right candidate to continue to take the directorate forward, given the fact it will now once again be part of the city council.

“I have every confidence she will be able to bring strong leadership and positive ideas to the role.”

Councillor Ian Mitchell, cabinet member for children and young people’s services, said: “Bringing the directorate back in house will take forward the good work the Serco team has done over the last three years.

“Sharon brings a wealth of experience to this challenging role and I look forward to working with her as we move management of the department towards a new era and continue to make improvements which will touch the lives of young people and their families across the city.

“I would like to take this opportunity to thank Ged Rowney and his team for putting into place a robust system on which we can now build.”

Sharon added: “I am really pleased and excited that I am going to be working in Stoke-on-Trent. Serco have given the city a good platform to build on in Children and Young People’s Services and I’m looking forward to continuing that good work.”

The ongoing BSF fiasco ““ future pupil numbers

I’ve been too quiet for a little while now on BSF pupil numbers. I have been arguing this point with SERCO and the multitude of Children and Young People’s portfolio holders over the last two years, although I have not said much in the last 6 months because nobody with any influence in the council wants to see sense. But it is a good time to say something again now ahead of the visit by Ed Balls and Vernon Coaker in January.

The SERCO plans have suffered throughout from serious flaws, some of which have been eventually addressed, but there remains poor planned provision, with respect to both pupil numbers and geographical location, especially in the centre of the city and to some degree in the South of the city.

To recap the background, which many of you will be aware of, the council plans reorganisation giving a total of 14 high schools; James Brindley, St. Margaret Ward, Haywood, Brownhills, Holden Lane, Birches Head, St. Peter’s, 20:20, Thistley Hough, St. Thomas More, St. Joseph’s, Blurton, Trentham, Sandon. The current Longton High School has already ceased new intake, to be taken over by Sandon. The plan is for Berry Hill to close and merge with St. Peter’s onto the current site of the 6th form college and for Mitchell and Edensor to close to be replaced by 20:20. The mergers are geographically stupid. It makes far better sense to merge Mitchell and Berry Hill to a new school on the Mitchell site as is the wish of the local communities and as is being campaigned for by the Community_Schools_Action_Group. This would avoid a gaping hole in provision in the centre of the city. Planning permission to build 20:20 on Adderley Green has been seen off by the “ËœSpringfield’_Action_Group, the Community Schools Action Group, their representations and the council’s Development Management committee.

What I embark on now is an analysis of the provision of pupil places across the city. This is made difficult by the lack of openness of SERCO and the council and the continual movement and disappearances of information that does exist on the council’s web site. A particular outrage is the reluctance of SERCO to publish the BSF strategy for change part 2. They published part 1 but I wanted to see their up to date reasoning in part 2. Well if they are going to publish it, I don’t know when. I get the impression they are just proceeding with the outline business case that is supposed to come after part 2. However, I have put together a spreadsheet of pupil numbers which is as accurate as I can manage, given what I have available to me. You will need to refer to the link ““ Spreadsheet_of_Pupil_Numbers ““ to follow my analysis.

Sheet 1 shows the raw data and where I have sourced this from. Much of it is taken from the strategy for change part 1, but where there is more recent information available, I have used that. The information on planned pupil numbers for Trentham High has been changed since the strategy for change part 1, but then disappeared from the web site, but I do have the hard copy which was posted out stating that the capacity is 750, which I know anyway as I am a governor at Trentham High. The numbers highlighted in yellow in sheet 1 are SERCO’s own figures and show the high school population for the city decreasing from 13,113 in 2008 to 11,790 by 2014, then rising again to 14,642 by 2020. Also stated is the SERCO plan to provide 13,050 high school places, another stupidity that should be glaringly obvious to everyone. Do you not think that building schools for the FUTURE should be properly providing for 10 years from now? I do. You will notice also that the 13,050 high school places the council says it plans to provide is not in agreement with the total of 13,820 places I have referenced. In both cases I am using the council’s own figures, I can not help it that these do not agree. Perhaps there is a more consistent story in the strategy for change part 2, but how can I know as I am denied that information. I use the 13,820 for further calculations as at least it is closer to the 14,642 needed, despite not going far enough. If the 13,050 is indeed the plan, the situation will be worse than suggested by my analysis.

In sheet 2 I try to analyse provision in different areas of the city. To do this I make certain assumptions which may not be completely accurate but should at least provide a good estimate. I know the pupil numbers in the separate schools for the year 2008 and I know the total number of 11-16 year olds which is the age range I am analysing. But for the 3 schools with sixth forms I do not know individually how many 11-16 year olds there are, so the first assumption I make is to assign these in proportion to total pupil numbers. The second assumption I make is that pupil numbers will dip then increase in the same proportion, based on the year 2008 figures, everywhere across the city. I certainly know of one case for which this is inaccurate, Trentham, for which the 2008 figure is artificially low. We have 136 FIRST CHOICE applicants for 140 places in 2010 and look set to fill all places even when the annual intake rises to 150 from 2011. There may be other examples of figures which are rather too low or too high that I do not have knowledge of. So the best I can do in the absence of a complete set of individual projections is apply an equivalent algorithm to all schools.

I calculate the spare places in the planned schools for the year 2008 and for the year 2014 when high school pupil numbers reach their lowest point and for the year 2020. In these calculations I have followed the council’s planned mergers. Negative numbers result where the school can not accommodate the calculated number of pupils destined for it.

Then I imagine what I would have to do if I were in charge of applications to the schools and have to send pupils to alternative schools. These are listed in the sheet, obviously trying to select “Ëœnearby’ alternative schools, with the aim of solving the problem of any negative numbers. The adjusted figures are shown in the coloured columns. Working with the 2008 figures I fail to accommodate enough pupils in the 20:20 school and end up with 138 pupils, likely living in the Bentilee or Berryhill area, without a school place (orange column). There is some capacity elsewhere but how reasonable would it really be to send these pupils to Brownhills? It’s just as well other schools were still open in 2008. Looking ahead to 2014, I have initial problems with accommodating pupils at 20:20 and Sandon, but manage with alternative provision at Birches Head and schools in the South of the city (blue column), not that families involved would necessarily be happy with this. But looking at numbers rather than families, from the 2014 figures all is apparently well with the world. This lowest high school population year is presumably the blinkered SERCO focus, their idea of future not extending beyond 4 years. But looking ahead to the year 2020 reveals impending disaster. This is bound to be the case with the ridiculous policy of providing fewer pupil places than pupil numbers in the city, but is made much worse by the distribution of the pupil places that are provided. It can be seen from sheet 2 (pink column) that the new 20:20 and St. Peter’s fail to cater for the needs of the centre of the city with over 800 pupils without high school places and there is also some shortage of places, over 200, in the South of the city. These amount to the size of another school. The only available pupil places are in the far North of the city, well beyond any reasonable expectation of pupil travel.

My analysis uses the council’s own real data. Because these are high school data they do not depend on estimated birth rates, they depend on real live children who now exist and will need high school places in the future. If there is any reason why there could be any large exodus of young people from the centre and South of the city to ease the situation I would like to hear of it but I know of none. Certainly I do not believe, for our sake or anyone else’s, we should be seeking to dump our young people out of the city to Staffordshire for their education. I am aware I have used some assumptions in my calculations but these are fairly reasonable and I would be very happy to receive further facts and figures that could help refine them. But I would not be willing to settle for any unsubstantiated SERCO statement that their planned provision is adequate. If they think that, they should prove it by publishing their own detailed analysis and they should prove it for the future, for 2020, not just for 2014 to make their lives easier. Consider the lives of the young people of the city!

The best solution to the problem of under provision I have highlighted is to build the 14th school on the Mitchell site, to address the largest shortfall both in pupil numbers and geographical provision and cater for the needs of Bentilee, Berryhill, Townsend and the general Bucknall area. But further, I would suggest building a 15th school on a suitable site, possibly the Longton High School site, to better cater for pupil numbers in the Weston Coyney, Meir and Sandford Hill areas. This is no startling new suggestion that I am making. The 15 high school solution was the view of Mark Fisher, Rob Flello and Joan Walley 2 years ago when they worked with schools to suggest an alternative to the SERCO plans. Rob Flello MP has since then reiterated the argument for 15 schools

ROB FLELLO WANTS 15 HIGH SCHOOLS

and recently when the planning application to put 20:20 on Adderley Green was thrown out, Mark Fisher MP further reinforced the argument for 15 schools ““ see his video interview on:

http://www.pitsnpots.co.uk/news/2009/12/planning-application-parkhall-academy-refused

The council’s own Children and Young People’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee consistently presents sensible arguments for the right mergers of schools, the right number of schools and the right location of schools ““ see for example chair Cllr Mike Coleman’s video interview on:

http://www.pitsnpots.co.uk/news/2009/12/contamination-could-ko-springfield-academy-plans

but many of the scrutiny recommendations are ignored by the leader and his cabinet. If we really can not have 15 schools, the 14th should be sited at Mitchell and the rebuild/refurbishment plans for schools in the South of the city should be increased to accommodate the pupil numbers.

Apparent in the issues I have discussed is a distinct lack of openness and transparency and engagement with people, the things that government are always harping on about but just are not happening locally. Instead the council leader and cabinet are in my view treating interested citizens of the city with contempt. Why do they pay no attention to the needs and wishes of communities such as those served by Mitchell and Berry Hill High Schools? Why do they seemingly have no regard for the representations of the ward councillors for these areas. Why do they ignore their own scrutiny committee? What has happened to openness, transparency and democracy? Why is the BSF strategy for change part 2 not published and accessible to ordinary citizens? To me, something is very wrong.

Jim Knight when he was schools minister, under persuasion from Rob Flello, helped fix the Trentham High problem by strong advice to deputy mayor Mohammed Pervez. Let us hope that Vernon Coaker and Ed Balls, with Mark Fisher and Rob Flello, are just as successful with advice to Ross Irving. Let’s finally please get sufficient pupil places provided in schools in the right locations, to provide better future education for the young people of the city along the lines suggested by the local communities who will be directly affected.

…Oh – and a Happy New Year to Everyone.

Serco: Tip of the Iceberg!

By Pits’n’Pots Reporter.

Press Statement from The Labour Group on Stoke-on-Trent City Council

The eye-watering £2 million to cover the pension contributions quite rightly has outraged many, not least because only three months ago when the budget was approved it seems to have been “overlooked”.

It also highlights the great disparity between our more “elite” senior council officers, with their fantastic salaries, pensions and perks, and those working on the frontline fighting to deliver essential services will less and less resources. Some senior officers (some that even managed to overspend their budgets) earn more in a week than many of the taxpayers paying their wages.

Taken on it own this is a costly and serious setback, made worst set against the backdrop of the current economic climate, and the need to use our resources with great care and targeted at priority services.

However, this blunder needs to be put into a wider context, which for me leads to much more worrying and serious shortcomings within Stoke-on-Trent City Council, and it ability to deliver value for money, quality services.

There are two major concerns the whole council needs to address as quickly as possible.

Firstly, a budget set only a short time ago has quickly unravelled with overspending in all areas of the council. This has been put down to the pressures of the recession (as if it has just happened!!!). I can understand that this may be the case in some service areas. For example – It is difficult to predict children in care levels in advance, as some cases can be very specialised and very costly.

I am glad that councillors agree with my proposals to launch an immediate investigation at every scrutiny committee

Mike Barnes - Labour Group Leader

Mike Barnes - Labour Group Leader

to get to the bottom of the reason across the authority in every area, reporting back to a special meeting of the Scrutiny Management Committee towards the end of October. I suspect that some of the overspend will be down to the recession and its impact – but I also anticipate that some will come down to bad financial management and planning – but I am determined that this will be an honest and thorough exercise.

Secondly, the pension issue raises serious questions over the council’s ability to negotiate contracts in the best interests of the council and protecting the public purse.

I am not just talking about the Serco contract, but also another major contract, coming under increasing scrutiny, that of Kier and housing maintenance.

Ask any councillor – any officer who has work that needs to be done such as fencing, path repairs for example – if its on housing land we are tied to Kier – get a quote from Kier – then get other local quotes – the difference is sometimes massive – two or even three times more expensive with Kier.

I asked for a cork notice board to be put up in the Civic Centre last month – I was told only Kier could put it up and it would cost £50 (not including the board!) – Sorry if I broke the contract but I got a hammer and nails and put it up myself (all of five minutes – and no I didn’t charge!).

Put this all together across the whole council and it means we are forced to provide half the improvements and services we could have done if we were free to tender work to the local traders. I am sure we will all start to hear a bit more of this in the near future. It one of the shortcoming of contracting out work to the private sector – it limits your flexibility – and councils need flexibility.

Why am I worried – because right now – we are negotiating another contract with private providers for all our back office functions.

Once we are tied in – we are in – little manoeuvre if a recession happens – or some other emergency or disaster that means we should shift resources from one place to another to protect essential services – e.g. social care and education.

Councillors are not legal contract experts or financial whiz kids. They rely heavily on the advice of experts paid by the wheelbarrow full.

Ultimately, the buck has to stop somewhere – they get paid enough.

by Mike Barnes [Leader of The Labour Group on Stoke-on-Trent City Council]

Leader speaks out – The half term report!

Audio Interview Now Online!

By Tony Walley & Mike Rawlins.

On Friday Mike Rawlins and myself went to interview Council Leader Ross Irving, it is a little over 3 months since Ross was voted in to the position of Council Leader.  We wanted to ask him  how he thought things were going and what the future holds.

Council Leader Ross Irving being interviewed by Tony Walley

Council Leader Ross Irving being interviewed by Tony Walley

Since the council chamber reconvened after the summer recess, two very big stories have hit the news.

Earlier this week the news broke that Interim Chief Executive Chris Harman and his officers are to recommend that the responsibility for Children & Young Peoples Services, be taken back in house.

This would mean an end to Serco’s involvement in education and the care of the vulnerable children in our city.

In this special audio interview, council leader Ross Irving pays tribute to the work of Ged Rowney and his team reveals the councils plans to build on the success of the Serco team.

Ross also gives us his thoughts on the location of the new Parkhall Academy which will give hope to the Springfield Action Group, but will also bring despair the the campaigners fighting to save Mitchell High School.

[audio:http://www.pitsnpots.co.uk/audio/0909/ross-irving-180909-1.mp3]

In the second part of the audio interview, Ross describes the difficult task ahead to balance the books after the revelation that our council faces a budget deficit of some £17million. We also get his thoughts on possible council jobs cuts, outsourcing and the prospect of a near 5% rise in next years council tax.

Ross also give us his assessment as we enter into his first winter as council leader.

[audio:http://www.pitsnpots.co.uk/audio/0909/ross-irving-180909-2.mp3]

As usual, your thoughts and comments on Ross’s answers are welcome………..

As we were leaving the leaders office with Ross he told us how the office used to be the Treasury Department and showed us the safe where the money used to be kept.  This is now used as the stationery cupboard, so when they say the are looking at cost savings in the council you can rest assured that even the pens are kept locked away to help save money.

Council Leader Ross Irving, the keeper of the stationary!

Council Leader Ross Irving, the keeper of the stationery!

We thank Ross for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk with us.

Mind your language

Source: PKB Blog

Peter Kent-Baguley

Peter Kent-Baguley

Tight corners generate dodgy language. Not surprisingly, it’s seldom in short supply at the Town Hall. Add generous helpings of statistics and before you can say “service cuts” you’ve managed to convince most people they lack the ability to understand the situation let alone the solution.

Ask a question or two and before you know where you are you have the Council Leader and the Acting Chief Executive throwing around accusations of “blame”. Apparently asking questions in an attempt to finding the answers to the financial crisis at the centre of the City Council is unwelcome! Well, those two people need to realise that I will not be the only one asking searching questions about the Council’s financial mess, barely half way through the financial year! What is more, if the answers suggest shortcomings on the part of individual councillors and/or officers then those concerned had better be prepared for a little blame.

How on earth could the budget have fallen apart so badly so soon?

Was it devised on the basis of lies? Incompetence? Fantasy? We all have a right to know. SERCO, the private profit making company brought in to run our Children & Young People’s services were supposed to have got their departmental house in order. Efficiency and effectiveness were the hallmarks of the private sector we were assured. So how is it that there is a predicted overspend yet again in their department”¦to the tune of over £2m?

We are told there is a £750,000 shortfall in income from car parking. We are told that the recession has caused this. Really? How many fewer car parking occasions have there been this year so far compared with the same period last year? Does that number equate to a £750,000 shortfall? Or is there a £750,000 shortfall of somebody’s fantasy income? We need to know.

Why has it been discovered since the budget was approved earlier this year that there is a likely £2m (yes, two million pounds sterling) overspend on pensions? Have we suddenly found people who are about to retire, people we didn’t realise were going to retire? We need to know.

All this incompetence was wrapped up in the language of “these difficult financial times.” Of course the nation’s finances are stretched; they have been stretched by the greed of financiers, the first amongst the private sector to worship free enterprise without government regulation”¦until of course their world goes belly-up and suddenly government is their best friend, handing over billions (not millions, but billions) of the people’s money”¦so that they can get back to the way things were!

What did happen to common sense in politics?

SERCO ““ time to go!

By Nicky Davis

Source ““ Sentinel

It is reported that children and young people’s services could now be brought  back in house as a result of cash shortages.  I hope SERCO really are on their way out now!  Like Rob Flello says, “I won’t be sorry to see them go.”  He also says they set back BSF by several years.  Good old Mick Salih goes even further and says they failed miserably on BSF.  Well said Mick!

The Sentinel says there were “damning reports on the council’s treatment of vulnerable children in care and declining educational attainment levels”.

Chris Harman now wants to bring children’s services back under council control.  Well good for Chris, I agree with him in this case.  What is worrying though is this makes it crystal clear who is in charge of the council.  Chris Harman says they have  “made a recommendation TO the council cabinet that management of children and young people’s services comes back in-house from April”.  So Ross Irving and Ian Mitchell are just going along with Chris.  Well good, because I agree with children’s services being under council control.  But I don’t agree with the general point of the leader and cabinet just doing what officers tell them.  We should have the councillors we elected making the decisions.

Anyway, let’s hope we will be waving goodbye to SERCO from April.

Wol’s Weekend Wanderings

By Tony Walley.

Tony Walley

Tony Walley

Because of, or in spite of – SERCO?

This week has seen the publication of this years GCSE results.

First off let us celebrate the fantastic achievement of our city’s secondary schools. These results are probably the best for many many years if not the best of all time.

Mitchell High, Sandon High & James Brindley stand out for me in particular.

At Mitchell, Headteacher Paul Liddle and his fantastic team turned up results of a phenomenal nature. In 2008 the percentage of pupils who achieved 5 A* – C including English & Maths stood at 16%. This year the percentage has risen to an astonishing 44%.

The previous Headteacher at Mitchell was awarded an OBE for the schools results achieved under the old 5A* – C not accounting the core subjects of English and Maths. With this years fantastic performance Paul Liddle deserves a knighthood let alone an OBE.

I know that Mitchell has had assistance from the LA and I wonder if he would acknowledge the help he and his team were given by SERCO’s Ged Rowney and Ian Kendrick? Somehow I think he would.

Sandon High a school ‘in special measures’, showed the city that their difficulties were nothing to do with the quality of teaching in operation at the school.

In the last 8months or so their leadership was overseen by Executive Head Keith Hollins who steadied the ship and re-focused the staff. The school has a brand new headteacher who is motivated, energetic and has already have an impact at the school.

Sandon has achieved results of 44% and will surely not be in the ‘special measures’ category for much longer.

The LA have put a lot of support into Sandon and were very involved in the selection of the new headteacher and as someone who has been involved in this school [in a small way] I know that Mr Rowney and his team has assisted and supported the school.

James Brindley the school that is most in need of a re-build in the city is used to staring up from the bottom of the league tables at the other city schools.

This is very much no longer the case. A fantastic performance this year has seen results soar to 28% % A* – C including English and Maths, in comparison to last years 19%.

Whilst this is still some way short of the LA & National average it shows that it is definitely a school on the up.

Other results across the city are as impressive as the above.

Isn’t it time that we gave the officers at the civic centre and in particularly the Director and his deputy some credit for the turnaround of fortunes in the performance of our city’s secondary schools?

Is it a coincidence that since SERCO came to our city,  Children’s Services has dramatically improved and the latest news of the improvement in this years GCSE results must be in some way down to the leadership of this controversial organisation?

We have been quick to criticise Ged Rowney and his team, they have taken some abuse and at times a right good kicking. I myself have witnessed Ged Rowney being called a liar in open public meetings.

Is it not right that now when our city’s schools have improved on Serco’s watch, we can be big enough to say ‘well done’

I won’t hold my breath especially when I read some of the negativity that emanates from some of the contributors to this site……

Cuts in Adult Social Care

I am appalled at the prospect of seeing huge cuts that will impact upon some of the most vulnerable in our society.

Today news broke that our city’s purse strings holders are prepared to see services cut to cover a £1.6million deficit in the budget.

This cut will come predominately in Elderly Care & Adult Social Care.

Some 6000 care packages are now being reviewed to see whether further cuts can be made. I know of many individuals that rely on the care service. In other cases I am aware of, sometimes the only friendly face that an elderly person may see on a daily basis is that of a carer who comes into the home to provide hygiene and food services.

I can not believe that in this day and age that we are even considering making cuts in services that vulnerable residents in our great city fundamentally rely upon.

The four most important services that should never have ANY funding cuts are Adult Services, Children and Young Peoples Services, Housing and Regeneration. Cut away in other areas by all means, do what you need to do to balance the books. But for Christ sakes do not hit those people in our society who need taking care of the most.

As an example our ‘Communications’ or press department as we know it has £1million per year pumped into it and whilst I agree it is important to communicate with the public that is served by our City Council, no ones quality of life would be affected if this department was not there.

I am not suggesting that the great work done by Dan Barton and his team is worthless, far from it. The Communications Department provides services like translation etc which enhances the lives of some of our city’s residents. But the point I am making is that it is not as valuable service as Elderly Care, yet our city’s masters are looking to cut care packages. I have not heard of one suggestion of cutting the funding to a less critical service like Communications as an example, surely there is something dreadfully wrong here.

If we spend a single pound on training courses like ‘Common Purpose’ to enhance the performance of our councillors and officers then surely this is something that must be cut before a single penny is taken away from Adult Services and other critical Council Services. I am not saying this to have a go at the ‘Common Purpose’ providers but I say this as a reminder to those decision makers who value something like this before the care of the elderly and most vulnerable in our city.

In short, I don’t want to read articles in our local press The Sentinel, that inform me that essential services are to be cut in our city due to a budget shortfall – by god no!

I want to read that the decision makers, those top officers on their massive salaries, along with our most senior elected representatives have investigated all none critical services and departments in a bid to find the possible cuts needed to balance the books.

Note to the Interim Chief Executive, Council leader and Cabinet:

Do you really think the people in this city are that stupid as to put up with cuts to essential, critical & frontline services before the closure or cuts in funding to non essential, non critical, backroom services and departments?

I URGE YOU TO SERIOUSLY THINK AGAIN!!