Category Archives: Education

Moving the Goalposts: Suffolk’s School Transport proposals

This week Suffolk’s cabinet decided to enter into formal consultation on  worrying changes to our current Suffolk Home to School Transport arrangements.

These changes are profound.  Most importantly,  the proposal is that  free travel will only be provided where a qualifying school student attends their nearest school. Currently it is available for qualifying students attending their catchment school, nearest school, or transport priority area. Between the schools organisation review and the the advent of free schools, these may be three different schools in some areas. ‘Not fair’, according to the administration who oversaw this chaos.

Such a decision  will impact specifically on rural families, and those from families with single parents, limited incomes and few travel choices. Additionally, the last shreds of subsidised travel for 16-18 year olds will no longer be provided.

If, after the consultation, the decision were made to adopt the proposal, it would be implemented for all students across Suffolk with effect from September 2019, without consideration for decisions made in good faith by families before this date.

The intention is to make savings. However the preconsultation has been unable  to identify any specific proposals or indeed the savings that might be intended to be made.

And why are these changes being made? Simply, Suffolk can’t afford  the transport we have provided up till now. Costs  – we are told sorrowfully- have gone up.  But gosh,  not our Council tax – which the leader is so proud of having not raised for seven, yes SEVEN, years.   No wonder the county  can’t afford to provide the transport that rural Suffolk students need!

To add insult to injury the proposals are being  cynically marketed as “unlocking capacity to benefit Suffolk residents, not just the small proportion of school children” because the abolition of school-specific bus services ‘may’ allow private companies to come forward to offer services! (Not that any have to date. That was another question I asked.)

So, having comprehensively annihilated scheduled rural bus services (because of the cost), Suffolk County council now complains that it has to rely on expensive closed buses and taxis to meet its statutory obligations to the students of this county – and expresses surprise that this provision is not open to the Suffolk residents it deprived of buses in the first place.

I think the expression is No shit, Sherlock.

 Why on earth, ( I asked the Cabinet)  having previously stopped funding various public and community bus services across the county on the grounds that they were ‘not financially viable’,  are you now contending that there will be a market solution to the school transport budget problem?

Because we are getting rid of the closed buses  that we replaced the cancelled scheduled services with“, was the Topsy Turveyland reply. You couldn’t make it up…

The young people of Suffolk are worth investment.  Instead of further penalising rural residents by moving the goalposts  once again, I call on Suffolk County Council to make proper provision for the  rural families of this county by once again subsidising  rural bus services, retaining current Home School travel provision, and  funding student travel right up to the new de facto statutory school age  of 18 out of our ever-increasing reserves.

You will be pleased to hear the LibDem, Green and Independent Group has ‘called in’ this Cabinet decision, which means it will now have to go to the Scrutiny Committee to be  investigated properly before it can be implemented.

Watch this space.

 

Disability and education in Suffolk – the costs and hidden costs

The first tranche of Suffolk’s  review of its special educational provision – the consultation  -finished last Sunday. I responded jointly as councillor and as parent as the form allowed.

We were told that the review was  focusing on the following three types of current specialist educational provision:
1) Specialist Support Centres (SSCs) (I am in favour, indeed I would like Suffolk to establish another one in the north west of the county); 2) Residential provision in Moderate Learning Disability (MLD) Special Schools (I felt this  needed  discussion with parents as best placed to define wants) and
3) 
Alternative Provision (AP). Alternative Provision was used in the consultation as a catch-all for  ‘any provision that provides education that is not a mainstream school or academy’. It includes all provision for young people with specialist health issues, for example autism, and epilepsy which is  often provided out of county at great expense (and now to age 25 because of recent legislation). AP was also used to include  PRUs (Pupil Referral Units): facilities offering a part time or full time education for pupils who exhibit challenging behaviour. Typically pupils spend 2 terms in a PRU before being reintegrated back into school.

We were told

Currently the county council is experiencing considerable pressures with the number of learners with additional needs (236 currently) needing to be educated in non – Suffolk settings, with learners requiring access to Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) and Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) provision accounting for 151 of the 236 learners

However, in the consultation, despite these remarks on the cost of out-of-county placements in general the AP question  focused entirely on PRUs (see below)!

The third question - on Alternative Provision (that is, ) only mentioned PRUs!)
The third question of three- on Alternative Provision – only mentioned Pupil Referral Units!)

Now, as regards PRUs, I would not throw the baby away with the bathwater and would definitely ensure that  excellent provision in Suffolk is not lost in any rationalisation we undertake, and I was happy to respond saying as much.

HOWEVER, I concentrated most of my response on the hidden question  of what Suffolk is doing, or rather not doing, for students – like my own child – who was fortunate enough eventually to be sent out of Suffolk because Suffolk SEND education so completely failed to provide an education for them (despite costly but unstructured, unquantified and unthought-out  ‘interventions’ ).

This is not because of my personal interest but because of my understanding of the cost involved on the one hand, and the reasons for the cost on the  other.

SEND covers a hugely wide range of conditions; individual schools  seem to provide pretty much what education they choose to these (clearly second-class) pupils and SCC, the statutory authority for education and social care, often has to pick up the costly pieces of their cherry-picking failure. Why should this be the case?

Looking at this SEND consultation it seems that there may be a tendency to view the cost of premises and salaries as where cost-savings and rationalisation could be made.  I therefore urged SCC to look at the often inappropriate delivery of SEND education itself.

For a start , why should (as ever) the needs of young people with social and behavioural problems be asked to conflict with those with health issues and cognitive deficits?

As  example, my own child with a physical disability  was educated away from her peers  in a unit along with those with anger issues and other behavioural problems. Why?  You tell me.  Seemingly for the same reason as her current education establishment  (a specialist college outside Suffolk dedicated to her medical  condition)  is conflated with PRUs  in the reply box for this consultation.

(And even then, PRUs who educate short-term those who can be reintegrated into mainstream school are given the whole of Box 3 in a 3 box consultation document supposedly dealing globally with educational provision for Special Educational Needs and Disability. The disabled once again become second-rate citizens?  You couldn’t make it up). It is neither fair or reasonable to either group.

So, redressing the balance and talking specifically about educating specifically disabled young people – Suffolk’s  continuing failure  in  the field of SEND teaching and  curriculum delivery is expensive and an essential part of our problem. It is an area that this consultation document seemed reluctant to address.

Let us not beat about the bush – I’ve heard stories of parents who treat SEND provision as if it were ‘childcare’ but I would contend that there is a lot of Suffolk SEND provision that is arguably little better than childcare: with ‘educators’  seeing little responsibility for the future of their students; setting challenges that do not challenge and awarding gold stars and pats on the head instead of a  robust and rigorously constructed syllabus looking realistically towards their future after education.

SEND education – if it is NOT to be childcare – should be looking at the longterm future of the pupil. If it is to be effective and cost-effective , it should explore possibilities of independence, expect  the possibility of paid employment, work for realistic integration with employers’ needs , not be dismissive and patronising of pupils’ potential,  skills, capacities. ( Here, the  education, employment and discrimination sections of this blog post (click for link) although epilepsy-specific, have universal relevence.   Suffolk produced a strategy document 2015-18  last October. But non-specific optimism  is no good without teeth and this was toothless. Just like Suffolk’s current  Inclusion and Equalities strategy which completely excludes having to contemplate the situation of all the disabled people in Suffolk  and their inability to find work because they have not received adequate or even appropriate training or education  (see link). Disabled people and their problems seem remarkably invisible to the policymakers of Suffolk).

Yet not educating, or mis-educating these young people  is at the short- and long-term expense of the taxpayer as well as the young person.  And failure to address the need  of provision in-county has greater ramifications now we have a statutory duty to provide to age 25. We have an absolute need to question and query and qualitatively analyse the outcome  of what is taught to young people with disabilities in the same way as we assess and monitor mainstream provision.

Will Suffolk now improve the SEND offer so that disabled young people can expect the same quality and monitoring of  education  as their able-bodied peers get by right?  Not, you might say, a very big ask.  And a damn sight cheaper ask then sending them out of county, like nineteenth century black sheep to the colonies.

We wait for the next stage of the consultation to see whether these issues have been taken on board.

Specialist Education Provision in Suffolk – help shape the future

Suffolk County Council are currently consulting widely and with a completely open mind about the future of specialist education provision in Suffolk.

Opposition councillors were naturally sceptical that this was cover for money-saving, but  very clear and open answers to our questions from  officers have reassured us that this is not a cost-cutting exercise (the money is ring-fenced) but about spending it to best advantage and with better outcomes.

At the moment, Suffolk has 256 young people sent out of county at the cost of £11m a year for educational provision that Suffolk has not been able or willing to provide in county; some of our PRUs ‘require improvement’ (one is in special measures) and are more expensive and produce worse outcomes than Norfolk’s (which are rated outstanding), and all the SSCs (specialist support centres)  are located in one quadrant of the county because historically they were only sited in schools that declared themselves willing to house them. This means there is no provision in the north and west of the county and some children are making two 75-minute journeys a day to reach them.

Suffolk is is now wanting your input to find the best way to address these issues and others.

From  11 January – 7 February 2016  people have the opportunity to give your views on a range of options Suffolk are looking at, and you can also suggest other ideas for Suffolk to consider. (We have been assured that nothing has been predetermined or decided. This is genuinely a consultation )

After this, 14 March – 24 April 2016 there will be a formal consultation on the proposed changes:  a 6 week formal consultation period where you can make representations to the Council – both expressions of support or objections to the proposals.

So, whether you are concerned or worried, or simply want to add your voice to the debate –  please respond and add your views! They will be valued  You can find the documents here

What happened in Suffolk December 2015

Happy New Year!
Lets hope that 2016 is a pleasant and prosperous one

I must apologise for a break in blog entries  – my elderly mother became  ill and was hospitalised in early December  – and this had an impact on the time I was able to spend blogging.
Below is the report I gave to Woodbridge town council in early December, but updated in some particulars to the beginning of 2016

Political balance on SCC  Following the resignation of  former deputy leader Cllr Lisa Chambers from Suffolk County Council  at the end of the November, the ruling Conservatives no longer had an overall majority. (This was compounded by the sad death of former St Edmondsbury Mayor, Tim Marks, Councillor for Haverhill Cangle  on 5 January.)

The current County Council balance is Conservatives 36, Other parties 37 (Labour 15, UKIP 9, Liberal Democrat 7, Independent 4, Green 2) plus 2 vacancies .

Woodbridge Thoroughfare TRO Enforcement  After years of complaints and problems about parking, pedestrian safety,  and  damage to the fabric and character of the Thoroughfare, the trial full enforcement  (of restrictions that have been law since 1995) will be going ahead in the New Year. The aims are:

  •   To Improve things for retailers and shoppers by producing a pleasant and attractive environment, while at the same time supporting the Thoroughfare’s residents;
  • To ensure the Thoroughfare  is safer and pleasanter  for the thousands of pedestrians who delight to shop and visit each week, ( whether families with children, older people, disabled people or the town’s many tourists)
  • To  prevent unauthorised traffic using the Thoroughfare;
  • To limit  the damage being done to the fabric  by heavy vehicles
  • To help the police by reducing the number of vehicles parking illegally in the Thoroughfare;
  • To collect  hard evidence of the requirements of all users of the Thoroughfare

Outcome: The scheme is planned to run for three months. It will provide solid information on traffic flow and footfall  patterns for the first time.  This will allow Woodbridge  to find a permanent solution that everyone in Woodbridge can agree .

New Ipswich Road Bus Stop. After months of delay the new Ipswich road bus stops were finally been put in –  above the Notcutts roundabout -so that people wanting to get to Framfield surgery and Clarkson Court will find it easier to use  the bus services. These are additional to, and do not replace, other bus stops.

County Councillor’s Surgeries  My surgeries at Woodbridge Library) have been held by tradition from  10-12 on the 3rd Saturday of every month.December’s will be the last at this time.

Devolution Cambridgeshire has now been included to the Norfolk/Suffolk bid- making an overarching East Anglia partnership

From January my surgeries will move to the new time of 9-11 am, same place. 

The first surgery dates for 2016 will be 16 January,  20 February and 19 March.

Community Transport for Suffolk- even fewer services?

SCC’s cabinet has forced through a new Community Transport model for Suffolk– despite huge reservations from opposition parties and after many of these reservations were confirmed by the county’s cross-party scrutiny committee last month.

Community transport is the term for services like ‘Dial a Ride ‘ that provide transport on demand to those people  no longer served by scheduled buses or trains.

And there are a lot of these isolated folk in Suffolk. The Conservative administration has increasingly replaced scheduled bus services in rural areas with community transport operating under various brands serving specific communities and specific user-groups. Their vehicles have been provided by the county and the services largely specified by county officers, but delivery  of demand responsive services has remained patchy, disparate and problematic.  Often people have had little idea of availability and there have been large areas of unmet need – particularly regarding young person’s travel , regular travel to employment, weekend and evening travel, and same day travel.

The new proposal sees seven contracts (one per district council) to ensure holistic district branding – so people could identify who to phone to book a journey. It would also allow for greater flexibility of provision . (However, people often travel from one district to another to visit the hospital or to shop in a major town).

The SCC-owned vehicles will  be sold to the providers, a move that supposedly will  allow a wider range of customers to be served.  The voiced rationale is, when the county owns vehicles, providers are not allowed to use them to provide profitable services if they  compete with commercial services., as that would involve the state subsidising one service to compete against another. It will also, obviously save the county a lot of money!

Suffolk County County – still in thrall to the ideology of impossible competition which has failed rural bus transport so comprehensively over the past thirty years  – declares that this will allow ‘competition’ for eg some forms of home-to-school transport that will use the assets more intensively. (Why? Why now? Home-to school transport services have become  steadily more expensive, and council-dependent ever since bus deregulation made  competition mandatory outside London, thirty years ago. I would suggest this might just be because competition was not the answer!).

The proposal was ‘called in’ by the Labour group for several separate reasons. The call-in was supported by the LibDems , who thought thought the most significant objections to the scheme were financial.

For a start, the intention was that the county no longer provide free vehicles – saving it some £570k (which these largely voluntary bodies would have to find) – but also SCC would HALVE the community subsidy from £1.4m to £700k over the next four years.  This enormous cut was supposed to be  supported by the voluntary bodies’ increased revenue from the new ‘freedom’ to provide services !  (You may notice the same tired old rhetoric).

In fact, the scrutiny committee believed it was more likely that , although the providers would survive using their new freedoms and their vehicles to provide the county with some  alternative sources of transport (for instance home to school services) others would definitely suffer.  Many services to people without other transport options would be unlikely to be supported by the  halving of the county contribution – and would therefore be cut.

And as the new contract is deliberately non-specific, the County could  claim any such losses are matters outside its control. Talk about jesting Pilate.

Scrutiny therefore referred the decision back to cabinet. And, in a very brief process which allowed no comment from other councillors Suffolk’s Conservative Cabinet dismissed the reasoning of the cross-party scrutiny committee and decided there would be no change to this worrying decision.

They looked at scrutiny and thought, “Nobody tells us what to do!” So much for democracy! So much for ‘holding to account.’