Thursday, August 30, 2007

What would you have done?

"What would you have done about the schools issue?" ... it's a question that numerous people have asked me over the last few weeks.

Of course, I'm not in charge of Education any more - the Liberals and Nationalists are, and the decisions of the last few weeks have been theirs (and no one elses!) based on evidence given to them by officers. I've not seen everything that's been given to them as they haven't included other parties in the decision-making process ... even though we offered to be so involved.

But, all that said, given how many people have asked I will try and outline here - and in accompanying links - how we may have approached what faced the Council post May 3rd, if the election result had been different. And I'll also lay out some of the history to this whole saga.

To some considerable extent, I have already touched on most of this debate ... if you go to my post of August 16th here ... you'll be able to see most of my argument, but please do 'follow back' on the links that are within that post to read the whole debate.

I also posted links to two articles (one by me, one by the new Administration) on August 21st giving the pros and cons of the proposals - that post can be found here.


HISTORY
  • Previous Labour Administrations have closed schools in Edinburgh. We are not automatically opposed to the 'principle' of rationalising the school estate when there is substantial, and long-term, over-capacity in the system.
  • We undertook those closures against a backdrop of significant amalgamations and new-buildings, more on that here and here.
  • We did try to have as inclusive a process of consultation on these issues as possible, and certainly always heard Deputation requests ... but recognising that we didn't always succeed in getting every single aspect of consultation right, we set up a Cross Party Working Group (CPWG) as far back as October 2005 - see item 2 on the Council minute here - to try and keep as much consensus on a way forward as possible.
  • Unfortunately, in October 2006, one of the political parties on the Council abandoned the CPWG. Added to this, there were considerable difficulties in the work it was considering being leaked to the press, so we decided to disband the group - see item 8 on the Council minute here. PLEASE do read the wording of this decision.
  • From that moment (10th October 2006) all political work on this process ceased.
  • There has subsequently NEVER been a political list for the 'next-round of closures' - such claims are simply a lie.
POST MAY 3rd
  • we lost the election :-(
  • mind you, we did get more 1st preference votes than any other Party and formed the second biggest group on the Council :-))
  • but, the Liberals (17 Cllrs) and Nationalists (12 Cllrs) formed a coalition with 29 members, thus THEY KNEW they would have to depend on the casting vote of the Lord Provost to push through anything controversial which all the other opposition Parties - Labour (15 Cllrs), Tories (11 Cllrs), Greens (3 Cllrs) - would not support.
  • I tried on two occasions (see here and here) in June 2007 to get the new Administration to reform the CPWG, and had hoped they would accept that the time was right to do just that. We made it clear we wanted to play a part in any new process of school rationalisation - maybe naively, I actually believed they would be sensible enough to want to tap into the experience of Councillors who had been through all of this on several occasions in the last few decades.
  • Those approaches were rejected out of hand and NO cross-party discussion occurred on this during June, July and August.

POST MID-AUGUST

  • in mid-August, the new Administration announced it plans to consult on the closure of 22 schools and 4 community centres
  • we had had no involvement whatsoever in deciding what was on that list, probably more importantly neither had any of the partners that COULD have been discussing this for over 2 months as part of the CPWG ... parents, teachers, churches and unions.
  • there are criteria for closing schools, and many of the criteria are simply NOT met by those establishments on the list ... I posted on this yesterday here.
  • there is no new building proposed, numerous schools annexes would be created, and no over-arching vision was put forward. The case was not made.
  • in addition, the SNP at a national level are committed to reducing the class sizes of P1/P2 & P3 to 18 pupils and increasing Nursery provision by a whopping 50% - none of this has been considered, meaning we could end up getting rid of over-capacity now only to have to re-introduce capacity to cope with these almost certain national changes in the very near future. It's mad!
  • and, the way that Deputation requests have been dealt with has been scandalous - there's almost no need to go on about it, but see here, here and here.

MONEY

  • the Administration, in public at least, have been clear that this is primarily about best use of the educational estate, and not about finance. Although, as I said above, I don't think they've made the case on educational benefit in any way, shape or form.
  • there has been a serious conflating of ongoing revenue pressures within the Council, with the school closure programme - the two are separate issues. I posted on the revenue pressures as far back as June - see here.
  • the Council has a near £1billion 'annual' revenue and capital budget, as well as fixed assets of over £2billion.
  • there is no need to swallow hook, line and sinker the proposed 'service rationalisations' and 'property rationalisations' (cuts and closures!) that officers put forward. Sadly, that appears to be what has happened here.
  • collective political choice needs to be exercised, and put simply, I don't think it has been in this process.
  • given the huge Council-wide budgets mentioned above, alternatives would have been feasible, but I'm not convinced that many (if any?) alternatives were collectively discussed.

WHAT IF?

  • what if we had been in charge?
  • well, I must STRESS, this is obviously all hypothetical :-(
  • we would have reformed the CPWG as quickly after the election as possible.
  • it would have met relatively frequently.
  • we would have got agreement (or as much agreement as feasible) around the criteria for school closures; those criteria do exist, but we 'could' have adjusted them after dialogue.
  • we would have published the criteria first.
  • we would not have blindly accepted any initial list presented to us by officers - many of the schools on the current list just DO NOT meet the current criteria. I still don't understand WHY they are on any public list at all?
  • I would have rigorously tested each school-closure proposal, that came from officers, against the agreed criteria before going into the public domain.
  • we would thus have had a well-considered programme, nowhere near the scale of the current proposals, based on clear criteria and we certainly would have agreed to any deputation requests.

WHAT HAVE WE GOT?

  • well, frankly - it's a dog's breakfast, with the timetable and process changing every time its opened to challenge - just one recent example being here.
  • the whole process has been discredited and it's now impossible to see any support forthcoming for these proposals as what's led to this point has been so seriously flawed.

A WAY FORWARD?

  • the Administration should now abandon this programme, instigate meaningful dialogue with all interested and concerned parties before bringing any such proposals back to the Council for decision.
  • if they did that, I'd publicly applaud them for listening, and our Group would join any CPWG that was subsequently formed and constructively use the years (if not decades) of individual experience we have to offer in this policy area.

Many apologies over the length of this post, but hope it has answered most - if not all - of the queries that have been put to me over the last few weeks.

PLEASE do follow the links from here, and previous posts, to access the full debate.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello Andrew
Can you explain how you would have created the £9m Children and Families budget cuts that you included in your administration's budget of Feb 2007?
I think the Council should be pressing the Scottish Executive for more ring-fenced funds for maintaining schools in areas of social deprivation (isn't there already an allocation for this within the Council budget? don't some teachers in SIP areas get additional salaries?) and specific funds for supporting children with additional needs.

My understanding is that funding for additional support comes out of the general per capita grant, that there is no national or local audit of additional support needs and that the Additional Support for Learning Act was brought in with no additional funds to deliver it. I was also curious about the comment that was made at Tuesday's Education committee (by Cllr Maclaren, I think) about the large number of children in private education in Edinburgh which results in the Scottish Executive retaining the per capita grant for each of those children. I'm fairly sure that children in private schools can access Council educational psychologists plus any other kind of special therapists if they have additional support needs. Who pays for that?
Tina Woolnough

John Wallace said...

"Can you explain how you would have created the £9m Children and Families budget cuts that you included in your administration's budget of Feb 2007?"

You know when you read something and think to yourself "Why didn't I ask that?"

It's just happened. Can't wait for the answer.

Andrew said...

Tina

Thanks for the questions; I'll try and take them in order:

1. That was £9m over 3-years remember, and I've actually explained the 'process' we would have followed to arrive at savings (very candidly and at some length) in this post. I can't list individual schools, as we're not in control of the 'process' (the current Administration are) that would lead to such. It's also worth remembering that the C&F annual revenue budget is well over £300million ... just to put all of this into some sort of perspective. Plenty of scope for the exercise of political choice.

2. I agree, we should be pressing for more such funding from the Executive - not certain it should necessarily be ring-fenced, but my mind is not closed to debate on that.

3. I don't think that's completely correct re- ASL support? My understanding was that the Act did allocate some new funds, but Local Government (colletively) argued it felt it wasn't enough. Don't think it was just an 'Edinburgh' debate, but Scotland-wide.

4. I think you're completely correct on the last point - Private Schools can access all those services; although I understand the demand isn't excessive as most children with those needs tend to be predominantly in the State Sector. Also worth remembering that Private School parents (not that I'm defending them here) do pay Council Tax and Central Government Tax and then DON'T access the Education Service that comes from those revenues - their choice of course!

Hope that's helpful ...

Andrew

Andrew said...

John - see above ...

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