Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Why we must keep the voice of children and parents at the heart of education

Last month the government published a ‘white paper’ called Education Excellence Everywhere.

For many the headline from this white paper was the announcement that all schools will be forced to become academies by 2020.

Now I know most people probably do not have the time to read white papers (government reports giving information or proposals on an issue), but as a politician I like to take an interest in them - and in this particular paper a very keen interest indeed.

Both the County Council and myself wholeheartedly support the government’s drive to improve education standards.

Recently there have been details published showing where as a country we have been falling behind international league tables. This is worrying for our future economy and has to be addressed.

Here in West Sussex we are working to address this and it is very much part of our stated ambition to give children the best start in life.

We also believe that choice in education – whether that is a free school, academy, local authority or private – is right for the child and parent. One size does not fit all and at its heart education has to be centred around the child.

But let’s be clear, education does not begin and end at the school gates. As parents we also play a part from the moment they are born.

This is why I have misgivings about the contents of the white paper and I have written to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan expressing these misgivings. You might think that odd coming from a Conservative councillor about a Conservative government, but I think in an open democracy it is right to exercise free speech and speak out on an issue of such importance which will affect so many.

As I said for many the headline was about academies. I am not against academies and would support a school and its community to promote its conversion where it can be shown that it would bring about a positive benefit to the children. We have many good academies in West Sussex and I welcome this choice for parents and children.

However, one of the main points in the white paper which I take issue with is the right to choose being taken away from so many. Parents, children, headteachers and governing bodies should be able to choose if they want to attend or become an academy. As I said before one size does not fit all.

The proposals in the white paper remove most of the local authority powers and responsibilities relating to education. The proposals put forward in the white paper mean that the County Council will be left with responsibilities such as school place planning and protecting vulnerable pupils. This includes children and young people with Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND).

Responsibilities but – in many cases - not the powers to fulfil our duties.

For example, while we will still have legal responsibility to make sure all children have a school place we will not have any powers to force academies or free schools to expand should they choose not to. This will make it incredibly difficult for us to carry out our school places planning role.

I also fear vulnerable children may find it more difficult to receive the support they need and get the best education they need without the current intervention powers.

When a school turns into an academy all ties with the local authority cease. So in the new world where does that leave the parent who is worried that a child is being bullied? Or a parent who has a concern about school performance?

Of course that parent can go direct to the school where the issue can be sorted out – but what happens if the issue is not resolved?

Firstly, parents will have to option to go to the Regional Schools Commissioner. If the issue is unresolved then there will be an Ombudsman to appeal to for help.

The County Council will have the role of advocacy – but the details are still vague.

So my concern is for the parent and child who could be shifted all over the place for a problem to be resolved.

I don’t understand why councillors are excluded in this as I have seen how they can be excellent champions in such cases.

For local schools we need local accountability and that is what is so badly missing in this government approach.

The white paper is about a fundamental change in the education system.

Don’t get me wrong – we need some changes and we do need to improve our youngster’s educational attainment. However, we need to ensure local accountability and the voice of the child and parent is an absolute priority. These are the points we will be raising and I hope parents and grandparents will support us in this.

I would be keen to hear your views.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The future is bright

For the last six years we have been on a journey of change.

We’ve needed to do things differently to adapt to the significant challenges that we as a county council, and all other local authorities, face.

I won’t pretend for one minute that it hasn’t been difficult but it has been the right thing to do. It has absolutely narrowed our focus to the things that matter most for our county and our residents.

One of the most significant of those challenges has been our contribution to reducing the country’s deficit.

This authority has made more than £162million savings over the last six years and, while further, substantial, savings still need to be found, we have certainly done our bit.

And we’ve done it at a time when pressures on our services have never been greater, and the expectations of our residents have never been higher. And we know those pressures will only continue to grow. And we know that people’s expectations will only increase. And we know that we will continue to meet both in the best way we can because that’s why we’re here, doing what we do day in and day out 24/7.

So while this is a blog that reflects on the challenges of the last few years, it’s also one that looks to the future. And I believe that our future’s a bright one.

There will be challenges, of course, but we will face them and we will overcome them as we have always done.

And we will continue to be a council that spends every penny of our residents’ hard earned council tax as if it were our own because delivering quality and value for money are so very important to us.

At times of significant financial pressures it’s easy for organisations to solely concentrate on balancing the books, shrink services, look inwards and live in the here and now.

That’s never been our style. When I look back over the last six years it’s with a sense of pride that we’ve faced the challenges we have and unrelentingly pushed ahead with an ambitious agenda that will improve West Sussex for us all. Because I honestly believe this county and the people that live and work in it deserve nothing less.

We have worked hard to reshape and transform our organisation and will continue to do so in order to focus on delivering quality services around our three key priority areas. You’ve heard me talk about them before but our work to make sure that children have the very best start in life, that we support and grow our local economy and that we support our elderly and ageing population to live independently in their later years – these are the three core things that unite us all.

And sitting alongside those three vital areas are our fundamental principles of always helping people to help themselves and always being there for people in an emergency.

They unite us all, no matter what political colour we might be.

We have redesigned our Children's Services and continue our work to improve how we can better support our growing elderly population in their own communities so they can age with confidence.

We have delivered our £30million Better Roads Programme, resurfacing over 2.27million square metres of roads across the county, and our Operation Watershed project has been celebrated nationally as one of the very best examples of local government helping its communities to protect themselves against flooding.

We are currently purchasing the Novartis site in Horsham to further develop and support West Sussex’s life science sector.

And we are working on an exciting project in Bognor Regis to create a hub to support the growth of the creative digital sector in the town by providing a shared workspace where small businesses and start-ups could work in a creative environment, network, socialise, display work and share facilities. We’re also working with partners in Mid Sussex on exciting redevelopment plans for Burgess Hill.

We continue to push forward with our 3SC Devolution Bid to Government which will forge a new and exciting partnership with Surrey County Council and East Sussex County Council for the benefit of all our residents. We’re already starting to see the benefits of closer collaboration with partners - indeed we will be sharing our Legal Services across the 3SC and Brighton & Hove City Council.

So despite the very difficult financial landscape we are innovating and constantly looking at ways to better serve our residents.

And I want to thank again our dedicated and loyal staff who come to work every single day with the sole aim of making a difference. They’re the ones delivering our services and our vision on the front line in our communities. They’re a credit to West Sussex and they have my genuine thanks for all they do.

On Friday, our Full Council will meet for the second time this year and, together with the appointing committee, I will take great pleasure in asking council Members to ratify our new Chief Executive and introducing him to staff and political colleagues in the chamber.



Nathan Elvery will join us from Croydon Council in June and will continue to build on the substantial transformation work that has been undertaken over the last few years.

He started his working life at Crawley Borough Council so it is good to see him coming back to work in West Sussex, this time at the County Council.

I really believe this is a watershed time in West Sussex County Council’s long and proud history. We’ve got a bright, and challenging future ahead of us and I look forward to working with Nathan, all our dedicated politicians and staff, to achieve our ambitions for this great county that I am lucky enough to call home.

Anyone interested in watching Friday's meeting can view it via our live webcast here.

Best wishes,
Louise

Friday, 1 April 2016

Helping those in need

For some, this blog may be difficult and perhaps that is an even more important reason to write it. For others what it says may not go far enough.

This blog is about Syrian refugees – very genuine refugees who are in camps sheltering away from the terrible strife that has descended on their country, leaving them without homes or employment.
We have all seen footage on the news and heard stories of those caught up in the conflict, some very harrowing.

Last year the Government agreed in response to the growing crisis, that it was going to re home 20,000 Syrian refugees and West Sussex agreed to be part of this initiative. We, alongside our partners in the district and borough councils and health service, volunteered support for one family – or four people – per month for the duration of the scheme which is currently five years.

Considerable work has been undertaken, together with our partners, for many months in preparation to resettle the families. We have been doing this work alongside all the other work we do. It is a humanitarian response to a terrible crisis and in a small way West Sussex County Council, with the help of partners across the county, is doing ‘its bit’.

As I write this blog the first two families have arrived in West Sussex and are embarking on their first few days of a new life here. We can only imagine the huge range of emotions they are feeling at this time. I would like to welcome them to the county and wish them well over the coming months as they settle in.

As I said at the beginning of this blog, some people will not be comfortable with our response to the Syrian crisis and others will challenge and say we can do more. For me it is really important that here in West Sussex we are doing what we can to demonstrate our open and humanitarian nature by taking families who are in the most need. Local authorities are here for our local residents whether that is arranging care for the most vulnerable, helping children get the best start in life and at school, roads or housing. This is the backbone of what we do. However, in exceptional times of need such as this, that is extended to others who are in very dire situations too.

It is important West Sussex plays its part and so I am proud families are here receiving support and help as they embark on their new lives.

Could I just mention that we are encouraging local landlords to come forward with offers of homes they may wish to rent to take more such families. Interested landlords please contact graham.tabbner@westsussex.gov.uk

Best wishes,
Louise