Stoke-on-Trent Labour Group ““ The Shape of Things to Come?

You know me, I like to ponder on situations and then try to dissect them in public, as is my want you see?

I have to say that last week’s call to discuss the closure of the Willfield Fitness Centre at the Adult & Wellbeing Overview & Scrutiny meeting has left an nasty taste in my mouth.

I have been largely supportive of Council Leader Mohammed Pervez and his 34 strong Labour group but I hope that the actions of the Labour councillors on that particular committee and the Labour cabinet members in attendance, is not the shape of things to come.

Here we have a popular fitness centre, loved by the community, used by many from Bentilee and beyond, closed without out so much as a single comment from the Labour contingent on that committee.

Although the Labour members should not have been whipped on a scrutiny committee, by the actions of the said Labour members and the Labour cabinet members in attendance, They were absolutely told how they WILL vote.

I am in no doubt that Cllrs Sheila Pitt, Alison Wedgwood, and Matt Fry would have received a serious reprimand by the senior officers of the Labour group for, in the case of Alison and Sheila, sticking to their election pledges.

Labour whip Kath Banks had a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp during that meeting and could not have looked more disinterested in proceedings if she tried.

The way the meeting was chaired by the normally amiable Cllr Bagh Ali left me in no doubt who was running the meeting, the director Tony Oakman.

He was allowed to say what he wanted, for as long as he wanted with no interruption. Cllr Dave Conway was constantly disrupted in a clear attempt to throw him off course.

Talking of the officers, the old joke of how many does it take to change a light bulb was certainly relevant here. 8 officers were present and if you were to tot up their collective salaries you would unearth a value that would give the Staffordshire Hoard a run for it’s money.

So, Labour have demonstrated that they will side with the officers over their election promises in another glaring example of taking the Cabinet dollar.

Have we been here before I wonder?

It appears not to matter who the rulers are, Labour, Conservative Independent, Liberal Democrats, or a mixture of them all, it’s the same old scene.

But what has left me even more uneasy about the situation, is the fact that not more than a week prior to the call in, CEO John van de Laarschot launched his mandate for change which placed a heavy emphasis on the Health and Wellbeing of the citizens of Stoke-on-Trent.

It isn’t that long ago that the place attracted the unfortunate label of being a “Ëœsick city’. And yet we close a facility that is proven to be making a difference in exactly the sort of area of the city that needs the most help ““ way to go!

Our CEO gave an inspirational performance at that gig. I and a good few others were taken in by the message that together we can make a difference. My plea to John van de Laarschot for the future success of the Mandate for Change project and the rejuvenation of the City of Stoke-on-Trent is – “ËœGet your officers on task!’

Here was a golden opportunity to prove to all that the council was up to working with community groups to find a way of keeping popular facilities open for business.

We are in unprecedented times, an era where it is clear, and for my part accepted, that the council cannot continue to fund everything and that there has to be painful cuts.

The officers of the council rubbished the Willfield Community Group’s business plan and then dismissed it out of hand.

Why didn’t any officer of the council make contact with the group to offer assistance in getting the business case more in line with what the council need and expect?

Where was the dialogue?

Where was the help?

Where was the commitment needed to deliver a Mandate for Change?

So again I lay down the gauntlet to the council, in a no doubt futile attempt, to change and to demonstrate that our council are serious about empowering communities.

With £20million more cuts to come in the next financial year, if there is not a drastic change in the Council, it’s CEO, directors and officers what services and facilities will be left in our city?

Our Labour Group need to LEAD and not be LED. You have the opportunity to make a difference, you have the opportunity to step up to the plate ““ Take it!

The majority of the electorate voted you in the belief that you would deliver on your election promises and to work to make our city more inclusive and more progressive. It ain’t a great start guys!

Many months ago, a politician that I respect enormously told me that the decision not to allow the building of a new academy to be on the Mitchell High School site was all about academies setting the right example to the communities in which they serve.

I was told that the powers that be, politicians, officers and sponsors wanted the buildings to be in areas that were as affluent as possible in order to raise the aspirations of the young people of the area.

They are meant to inspire the young to be more like the well to do of the areas in which an academy school is placed.

To give the little poor kids the opportunity of mixing with kids from a “Ëœbetter’ background.

I remember thinking at the time ‘isn’t that social engineering’?

It got me to thinking is this the real reason the Willfield gym is to close?

Do those in the BSF department, fellow officers and our elected politicians, want rid of the gym and the kind of folk who use it so they are not a blot on the academy landscape?

Two Village Green Public Enquiries

On Tuesday 1st February 2011, the Registration of Town and Village Greens Panel of Stoke-on-Trent City Council met, for the first time since July 2007, to consider two village green applications, one at Hulme Road, Park Hall and the other at Anchor Road, Adderley Green.

An application for village green status had been submitted in both cases following council plans to site the Discovery Academy there. Not only did the communities not want a school sited in these locations, they also realized that open green space they had perhaps taken for granted for ongoing community use could be built upon and they wanted to protect it. Margaret Lowe for the Community Schools Action Group applied for Village Green Status for the Park Hall land and Ian Jenkin for the Adderley Green Residents Association applied for Village Green status for the Adderley Green land.

Both applicants attended to observe proceedings at the meeting, although they could not attend the first hour during which panel members were being briefed. Paul Hackney, the legal officer, recommended public enquiries on the basis that the council was the land owner and the decision maker and there were other legal complexities. All panel members supported the recommendation and confirmed with Margaret Lowe and Ian Jenkin that they did too. Ian asked about the financial implications, since an application for Penkhull had been withdrawn for fear of cost liability. However the committee stated that costs would be borne by the council and would be £10,000 for both applications, not each as reported in the Sentinel.

Margaret told the Sentinel afterwards that if a member of the public had objected to village green status the objection would have been thrown out and a decision made there and then, saving costs. But as the council had objected this was their way of being ‘open and transparent’, but also trying to get the public on their side by stating the use of public money.

Ian told the Sentinel that as the council are owners of the land, objectors to the application and have to make a decision on it, there was only really one decision they could have made. However he was pleased about this.

Paul Hackney and the panel chair Joy Garner will appoint an independent inspector. We could hear more about this in May. Following the public enquiry the inspector will make a recommendation to the council that they may be expected to adopt, although they do not have to. If village green status is obtained there would be total removal of any possible development, securing the open space for the community.

Planning go-ahead for ‘Discovery’ city academy

The news has been welcomed by the cabinet member for children and young people’s services, Councillor Debra Gratton.

“This gives the green light for the new Discovery Academy to be built and closes another chapter in the BSF story in the city. This new academy will provide first class facilities replacing two high schools and will also act as a hub for community use by people wanting to access the facilities available out of school hours. With the start of development at REACH at Trent Vale, parents, pupils and staff are now starting to see a real difference in the educational landscape in the city.”

Work on the new school, which will replace Mitchell and Edensor High Schools, will begin on site at the in Lauder Place North, Bentilee in September this year and the first pupils are set to move into the new buildings in September 2013.

Rob Flello Seeks Clarification on Stoke-on-Trent BSF Funding

Stoke-on-Trent South MP Rob Flello quizzed Prime Minister David Cameron on whether Stoke-on-Trent will receive enough Building Schools for the Future funding to complete the construction of the planned secondary schools.

Mr Flello took the opportunity during yesterday’s [Wednesday] Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.

The Prime Minister will be aware that by 7 July the Education Secretary would have already understood the financial situation and the “state of the books”, as the Prime Minister is so keen to keep stating, so why on 7 July, in this House, did the Education Secretary say:

“One announcement that I was able to make on Monday was that Stoke-on-Trent, as a local authority that has reached financial close, will see all the schools under Building Schools for the Future rebuilt”

Is there some confusion between the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary?

The Prime Minister was in no mood to reassure the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South.

We were left a complete mess in terms of Building Schools for the Future. Here was a programme that took up three years and hundreds of millions of pounds before a single brick was laid. The cost of building those schools was twice what it should have been, so we have scrapped that programme and made available £15 billion for the next four years. That means that school building will be higher under this Government than it was under the Labour Government starting in 1997.

The recent announcement by Michael Gove that those school building schemes spared, are now facing cuts in funding of 40%, despite their being given the green light when he reduced Labour’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme in July.

This will effect some 600 and will realise potential savings of £6bn. The announcement now throws the building of the so called “sample schools” specifically given the thumbs up by the Department for Education back in August.

Just how this latest announcement will impact on Stoke-on-Trent remains unclear.

It may well throw the future of the Discovery Academy into doubt.

The controversial school was to be sited on the Willfield Community Centre location.

The Community Schools Action Group, who are campaigning for a school to be retained on the Mitchell High School site, will be watching developments very closely indeed.
Joan Walley MP for Stoke-on-Trent North has also raised the issue about BSF funding in Parliament today.

She called for an urgent debate on the issue and was met with a noncommittal response.

Byles: Blame EU for BSF bureaucracy

The bureaucracy inherent in Building Schools for the Future (BSF) projects is a result of compliance with European Union (EU) rules rather than wasteful management of resources here in the UK, the man charged with delivering the programme has claimed, writes Dean Carroll.

Education Secretary Michael Gove had criticised BSF for spending £250m on projects before a brick was even laid. But chief executive of Partnerships for Schools (PfS) Tim Byles told the Commons Education Committee the problems were created by the need to comply with EU aggregate procurement standards ““ demanding two designs were planned “through to fine detail” for each project before a local authority was able to choose a winning bid.

Explaining the shortfalls in the competitive dialogue process, Byles said: “There is inherent waste in that process because you have two designs if you have two sample schemes, as we do, which have been fully worked out and are then put in the bin. That cannot be sensible from a man-in-the-street view. It is absolutely determined by the procurement route that we must follow on competitive dialogue, as set out by the EU. We have been trying to push the boundaries of that several times in the past three years.”

The revelations shed new light on why the Conservative Party is so keen on free schools, which would be exempt from the EU constraints. Byles also admitted that his organisation was responsible for 11 of the 23 “miscoding” mistakes on the incorrect list of cancelled BSF projects released into the public domain by Gove.

“There were 12 that were not to do with our data,” added Byles, who earns a salary 50 per cent larger than the Prime Minister’s.

The PfS chief executive told the committee that academies had produced a “leap forward” in schools performance in many areas. “For example, at Bristol Brunel Academy, A-C GCSEs went from 17 to 34 per cent in the first year,” said Byles. “The Oxclose Community College refurbishment scheme in Sunderland went from 19 per cent to just over 60 per cent in two years. We have some encouraging signs, but not yet a universal picture.

“That’s why we tried to move away from the original one-size-fits-all approach. We tried to tune in to local priorities and local issues to make sure that the solutions we were coming forward with made sense to communities and to teachers and parents in schools.”

A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers report on BSF found that only 38 per cent of schools believed that their buildings had been completed on time while PfS put the figure at 90 per cent. When asked by the committee for his explanation of the discrepancy, Byles said: “Headteachers are less experienced at how procurement and capital works, so it’s not unusual for people to think ‘right, we could have got this done in a year’, whereas in fact we go through the pre-procurement and then the procurement phase.”

Discovery Academy – The Final Piece Of The Jigsaw?

The Building Schools for the Future [BSF]controversy has rumbled on and on in Stoke-on-Trent for some 6 years.

It should have been a good, good news story, a win win for every family in the 6 Towns.

But from the moment that the then Elected Mayor and Serco decided to stand in front of secondary pupils, their parents, their teachers and their headteachers and tell them what they were getting instead of asking them what they want, it all went belly-up!

The Elected Mayors Board and Serco described this process as ‘Consultation’ – Oh how the communities laughed.

Citizens and schools staff united and turned into community action groups and gave birth to Hands off Haywood and the Trentham Action Group and the battle lines were duly drawn.

Just like the old Max Boyce sketch, ‘I Was There’! I witnessed the on-going fight that the Head of Heywood had with the leaders of Serco.

I watched with interest the walks to London, Bike Rides to Europe, the sit in in an EMB meeting – yes the Trentham lot were a feisty bunch.

Eventually those two action groups won the day for their communities and the BSF process seemed back on track – or did it?

The last ‘Academy’ site to be finalised was that of the Discovery Academy.

The lead school going into the Academy was to be Edensor High School largely down to the fact that the Head at the time, broke from the ranks of a very united group of ALL the secondary heads in the city and reached an agreement with Serco to move his staff a few miles to the other side of Longton to a new build that would eventually be known as the Discovery Academy.

The council then started looking for suitable sites to house this project. The original ‘preferred’ site was the old Gasometer, this was doomed to failure due to the costs of decommissioning the structre and stabilising the ground.

The site of the old Willfield High was always on the scene but there seemed a reluctance to recognise it as viable option.

Berryhill Fields and Mossfield Road were also contenders.

The Longton High School site was proposed by Rob Flello MP, some suggested that this was politically motivated as it was on the run up to the General Election.

But of the blue, the council announced that their preferred site was now Springfield. ‘Where is Springfield?’ – the residents of Adderley Green asked. ‘Just look out of your kitchen windows!’ – the council replied. The battles lines were drawn once again.

The Springfield Action Group were formed and they took on the council with a little help from PnP’s Nicky Davis who had been an integral part of TAG.

They lobbied, protested, held meetings and lobbied some more and eventually managed to convince a planning meeting that the land was to contaminated to build on and would pose a health risk.

All the time that the BSF proposals were being discussed, objected to, welcomed by some and hated by others, Mitchell High School fought for survival.

They wanted to be merged with Berryhill and a school for both communities built on the current Mitchell site. The school results were phenomenal, one of the most improved in the country. Their arguments however fell on deaf ears.

The Community Schools Action Group have fought a hard campaign, but it’s message has always struggled to be heard.

Finally last week, the decision was made to build the Discovery Academy on the land currently occupied by the Willfield Community Centre.

The decision did not shock me at all. It was a case of damage limitation in my opinion and if I’m honest, I was shocked that this conclusion was not reached a lot sooner.

Yes, it means that Edensor pupils will have further to travel, but many at that end of the City have always believed that the current Edensor catchment area will opt for alternative schools anyway.

Mitchell High have failed in their bid to get a school on their existing site, but have managed to get the new school location closer to their community.

The decision is probably in part due to finance as the City Council own the land that Willfield stands on.

The focus now is that the swimming pool and the City Learning Centre located on the Longton High site is retained and maintained for community use.

Let’s hope that this can be done without the need for yet another Community Action Group.

In the audio interviews below you will hear the relief, tinged with some sympathy from the Springfield Action Group and the disappointment of the Community Schools Action Group.

Academies – Let’s Move The Debate On Says Stoke-on-Trent Central MP Tristram Hunt

Stoke-on-Trent Central MP Tristram Hunt [Lab] is for the debate over Academy type schools to move from their governance to what is actually taught in them.

In a letter to the Guardian Newspaper, Tristram highlights his concerns over the teaching of Science in academies being significantly lower than in council controlled schools.

Stoke-on-Trent escaped the government cuts in the BSF programme and as a result 5 academy type schools will be built across the city. They are:

*James Brindley Science College will close and a new academy will be built on the same site.
*Brownhills Maths and Computing College will close and a new academy will be built on the same site.
*Blurton High School Business and Enterprise College will close and a new academy will be built on the same site.
*St. Peters High School and Berry Hill High School will close and a new academy will be built on a new site located at the current Sixth Form College, Fenton.
*Mitchell High School and Edensor Technology College will close and a new academy will be built at a site located in the east of the city.

Here is a copy of Tristram’s letter:

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (New academies will leave pupils struggling to succeed, say critics, 26 July) is right to be worried about the teaching of science in academy schools. The percentage of pupils taking GCSEs in physics, chemistry and the biological sciences in academies is markedly below schools in the maintained sector. And it is the same case in the humanities. Just 17% of pupils in academies take geography GCSE, compared to 27% in the maintained sector; 21% take history GCSE, compared to 31%; and 26% take a modern language, compared to 44%. New evidence from the Historical Association also indicates that academies are more likely to teach history at key stage 3 within a less focused integrated humanities programme. A worrying picture is emerging, with non-specialist teaching of history at key stage 3 being far more common in academies than in other types of school and less time being allocated to the subject.

Perhaps it is time the debate over academy schools moves on from questions of governance to what pupils are actually learning.

Tristram Hunt MP

Lab, Stoke-on-Trent Central

BSF Announcement What Does It Mean For Stoke-on-Trent

The Secretary Of State for Education Michael Gove MP this afternoon announced sweeping cuts to the BSF program.

In his statement to the house this evening Michael Gove confirmed what was widely expected, that any projects which are not at ‘Financial Close’ are suspended until after a review of the BSF program has been undertaken. Financial Close is the point where building has started or is due to start imminently.

There are roughly 1400 projects in the BSF program and Michael Gove said roughly half have been suspended while half will go ahead.

Michael Gove said the BSF program was mired down in red tape and bureaucracy. He gave examples of 9 meta stages each with sub stages, which councils had to complete before a BSF project could go ahead.

He said it was ‘no surprise’ that it could take up to 3 years before a builder was contracted or a brick was laid.

During his questions and responses after his statement, Michael Gove clearly had a list of all the schools affected by his cuts but refused to publish it and forced MPs to ask which schools in their constituencies were affected.

Rob Flello MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, asked about the schools in Stoke-on-Trent as they were in phase 1 of the BSF project. Michael Gove confirmed that projects in Stoke-on-Trent will go ahead.

  • 20:20 Discovery Academy Unaffected
  • Co-operative Academy at Brownhills Unaffected
  • Stoke on Trent 3 (Berry Hill/St Peters) Unaffected
  • Stoke on Trent 5 (Blurton) Unaffected
  • Stoke on Trent 6 (James Brindley) Unaffected
  • Birches Head Open (11/2007)
  • Sandon High Open (02/2008)
  • Abbey Hill Unaffected
  • Aynsley Special Unaffected
  • Edensor school Unaffected
  • Haywood Unaffected
  • Heathfield Special Unaffected
  • Holden Lane Unaffected
  • Kemball Special Unaffected
  • Longton school Unaffected
  • Middlehurst Special Unaffected
  • Mitchell school Unaffected
  • St Josephs (RC) Unaffected
  • St Margaret Ward (RC) Unaffected
  • St Thomas More (RC) Unaffected
  • Thistley Hough Unaffected
  • Trent Vale Unaffected
  • Trentham Unaffected

So after years of negotiation, call ins and waiting it looks Like Stoke-on-Trent has fallen lucky and is not affected by the cuts to the BSF program

Government Set To Announce BSF Cuts

Education Secretary Michael Gove is set to announce later today that up to 700 Building Schools for the Future projects will be cut, in a move that is said will save the Education Department around £1billion a year for the next 5 years

A Department for Education spokesman said, ‘Ministers have been clear that BSF has not delivered good value for money and that the programme is beset by delays and red tape.’

Stoke-on-Trent is using the BSF programme to rebuild the citys ageing high schools in what was the biggest national school building project since the Victorian era.

Stoke-on-Trent currently has 6 outline planning applications for academies approved:

  • A new BESD Trent Vale
  • Academy replacement for Brownhills
  • Academy replacement for Blurton High School
  • A new school to replace Thistley Hough
  • Academy to replace James Brindley High School
  • Extension to Haywood High

It is not clear what criteria is being used to decide which BSF projects are to be cut. We believe that Michael Gove will allow only 500 BSF schools to continue as these are at an ‘advanced stage’ and the government are keen to not fall foul of any break clauses in contracts which mean they would have to pay a percentage of the contract value to cancel.

In February, Stoke-on-Trent City Council signed an “overarching agreement” with Balfour Beatty and Thomas Vale/Wates, which confirms both sides’ financial commitment to the projects at BESD at Trent Vale and the Haywood refurbishment. Work is expected to start as early as November this year.

As these two contracts are now what is termed ‘financial close’ they may be safe from any cuts made today, but the rest of the Stoke-on-Trent High Schools could be left in limbo.

Rob Flello MP for Stoke-on-Trent South has been making representations in support of Stoke-on-Trent & the BSF program. On June 7 he asked Education Secretary Michael Gove, ‘May I urge the Secretary of State to look carefully at the situation in Stoke-on-Trent and to try to give us some certainty about ensuring that we get the much-needed and much-deserved BSF programme through?’

Michael Gove replied, ‘we have been, and are, looking very sympathetically at the case for specific additional spending in Stoke.’

Stoke-on-Trent Central MP Tristram Hunt also attacked the proposed cuts when speaking on the Today program on Radio 4, saying, ‘We have only this week a real fear that in Stoke on Trent Central £250m allocated for building schools for the future by good Labour government is under threat from Michael Gove and the department for education to fund these vanity projects for yummy mummies in West London and underemployed professionals to set up their Swedish schools.’

We will bring you more on this and the impact on Stoke-on-Trent once the announcement is made by Michael Gove.

Is Stoke-on-Trent College in a fit state to become an academy sponsor?

Stoke-on-Trent College is in dire financial straits. The Sentinel reports that the college finished last year £4.8 million in debt! The Skills Funding Agency has served the college with a financial notice to improve and is to monitor them regularly. The college plans a rapid restructuring to reduce its staffing budget by £4 million; 170 staff are at risk whilst only 60 have volunteered for redundancy. Jeff Kent of the University and College Union is quoted in the Sentinel as saying “the college has been appallingly financially managed in the past”.

Stoke-on-Trent College is the proposed sponsor for the contraversial academy school which the council cabinet wants to impose as a merger of Mitchell and Edensor high schools, on a currently unknown site since we so resoundingly defeated the planning application to use green space in Adderley Green.

The question is, how can this college, which is struggling to cope with its own problems, possibly be in a position to take on sponsoring an academy?

The merger of two schools so far apart is madness in any case. A merger of Mitchell and Berry Hill makes more sense.

Furthermore the Community Schools Action Group does not want an academy. A community schoool or a foundation school is favoured instead.

There are so many pointers now that this Stoke-on-Trent College sponsored academy is simply not feasible.

What do you think?