Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Great Academies Con

Lib Dems, and probably others in education, have been saying for an age that the idea of Academies was not a good one.  Splitting some state school provision off from the local authority in whose area it resides is divisive and costly.  Michael Gove and his Tory pals have tried to accelerate the programme of change by applying pressure in all kinds of ways.  Now the truth about the cost of the switch is out, in the government's own consultation paper.  I could write a length but Peter Downes has done it so much better than I could so I'm just going to suggest that people read his piece.
Meanwhile we have to wait to see whether Ian Ramsey school is going to get funding for a much needed rebuild or if teaching will have to continue in temporary classrooms ad infinitum.  What kind of message does that send about the importance of education, Mr Gove?
One ray of sunshine shone this week in school provision for Stockton.  The funding for the North Shore Academy has been announced along with the flexibility to use the lottery funding for the MyPlace youth facility to create a unified centre that will be both an excellent school and a great out of hours provision for the young people of the borough.  Now all we need is adequate transport to get the young people there and back safely and the funding to staff it for the hours that the young people need it.  Another lot of creative thinking and head scratching I think!!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Oh dear, I have been a bit lax about this blog recently, haven't I.  In an effort to make amends herewith a mega catch-up:
Last weekend was time off, visiting our daughter and her family to celebrate a birthday.  Young children are so enthusiastic about everything - it's a really relaxing way to spend the time.  There's no time to think about work!
Monday was taken up with meetings looking at ways to save money in the council's services.  How can we save money in the department dealing with the regeneration of the borough without delaying that regeneration? And that's just one of the questions asked during the course of the morning.  During the afternoon the question turned to the section dealing with emptying bins, collecting recycling, planting out flowers and cutting grass, putting up market stalls, and many more day to day jobs around the borough.  Does anyone want there to be less of any of those things?  Probably not.  Can we save money but still do the same amount of  work?  Not very easily!  Everyone has examples or urban legends of workmen who turn up somewhere and don't do any work, but I'm reasonably convinced that there aren't many genuine examples of that these days in this borough. Certainly not enough to save a million pounds!

Tuesday's meetings were about spending money for a change.  The Western Area Partnership has had a small amount of money to spend on helping people to get into employment or stay in employment in difficult times.  We've spent some over the last couple of years on helping people to access credit through the Credit Union & helping others to get back into training or education with courses in IT and first aid being particularly popular.  Now the last tranche is going to be spent on helping some of the young people who are struggling to get work.  Decisions were taken on how to find the right courses to attract the young people who aren't getting help any other way.  Working together with officers from different parts of the council and using the experience of the councillors from the world of work we hope we've got the right sort of combination. 
The second meeting was Parish Council Recreation Committee, deciding on the next stages in the refurbishment of our play areas.  Spending thousands of pounds on equipment and its installation means that the young people of the area are getting really modern play areas while a handful of local people keep their jobs while installing it.  Not a huge contribution to the local economy but every little helps.
Wednesday was my first opportunity to catch up on phone calls and emails from residents on all kinds of subjects.  Discussions on the problems of Housing Association tenants getting what they want from their landlord, signs to indicate where a private footpath starts and a public one ends, dangerous driving, inconsiderate parking, the Dog Control Area in Preston Park, Fairtrade and more took up most of the day.  It's a long time since I've spent almost an entire day on phoning and emailing like this!
So there we are, caught up!  And we've had a sunny day too.  What more could anyone ask?

Friday, July 15, 2011

This morning I went with my colleague, Cllr Alan Lewis, to meet the new Neighbourhood Policing Inspector at Thornaby.  It was a chance to air problems which people have brought up with us over the last few months and discuss possible solutions.  We were assured that crime is still very low in our ward and that we have neighbourhood policing is working well.  The most recent flurry of criminal activity has been metal thefts, including lead from bay windows so we were asked to remind people to be aware and keep eyes and ears open.  Many of the problems we discussed have no easy solution, as we all know.  Inconsiderate parking which causes problems for other road users or for pedestrians or cyclists but isn't actually illegal - we've probably all suffered at some time or another and many of us might have been guilty occasionally.  But there's probably no way of stopping it completely.  Nevertheless we did have some thoughts on ways to help people think before they park, so we'll see how it works out.

Later in the day came further updates on the closure of Southern Cross and the welcome news that so far as the council knows at the moment there should be no residents needing to be moved in the borough.  I can't help wondering, though, if the long-term fallout from this episode is going to be the closure of some of the older, more expensive to heat and light, homes and a "consolidation" of places.  On paper that's probably a good thing - increase the occupancy rate in a modern, energy-efficient, easy to clean building.  But for people who've had to make their home in a residential or nursing home the prospect of a move to a new one can be the last straw.  With all its imperfections it's home.  The staff are friends and genuinely care about the residents in most cases.  If ever care and sensitivity were needed this is it.  Let's hope that not too many people are hurt in the process of sorting out this awful mess.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Clouds with silver linings?

The past week's revelations over News International have gone from bad to worse and produced reactions varying from incredulity to revulsion and more.  So much has been said, so many column inches written and perhaps not surprisingly some of the most accusatory have been from those who were happy to court the favour of the moguls who could change the course of British parliamentary politics by what they wrote.  Some day someone with a more intimate knowledge of the workings of the press over recent decades will be able to analyse where the balance of influences tipped over.  But maybe, just maybe, now is the time when the British people and particularly the Parliamentary Politicians, will gather the collective willpower to be able to wrest the balance back to where it should be.  Back to having really strong investigative journalism that works within the law and doesn't seek to obstruct the police.  Back to having a variety of newspapers and their online equivalents which favour different parties and give different slants on the news.  Then we might be able to look back and say "These clouds did have a silver lining.  Some good has come out of the evil that's been going on".
Whilst the News International affair has taken up most of news bulletins for the past week and looks set fair to do so for a while longer, there's another more personal problem unfolding for many.  Southern Cross has finally had to admit defeat and cease trading.  It's business model was one which provoked more feelings of incredulity in many people, me included.  The idea of selling off care homes then leasing them back to operate them seemed strange to say the least.  The fact that landlords could then put the rent up seemed to take Southern Cross by surprise, but when you sell your assets to off shore companies with no interest in or commitment to care, what should you expect?
Now some of their landlords, those that are in the business of providing care, are going to take the homes back under their wings.  Those homes are guaranteed to stay open for now at least, but one does wonder for how long?  Or will those energy efficient new homes stay open and some of the older ones be closed?  There does seem to be a surfeit of places in care homes at present, though not always in the locations people want.  There's also a major question of how care can be provided in the future.  The government is looking at it, but it's something that everyone of every age should be having their say on because one way or another it's going to affect most of us in the future.  The Dilnot report has been published.  Most people agree with some but not all of it.  We all need to make those views known so that the government can make an informed decision about which way to go.  Maybe, just maybe, they can get it right and in years to come we can look back on the scares about Southern Cross and other homes providers and think "Some good came out of it.  Now we've got a sustainable system that's fair".

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Being a Governor

The highs and lows of being a primary school governor played out today in the space of an hour and a half.  I started the morning with a class of children doing a piece of writing.  Yesterday they went on their school trip to a local woodland area and spent what sounded like a very happy day exploring the woods,  searching for creepy crawlies (aka mini beasts), pond dipping and following a sculpture trail as well as eating their lunch in an old railway carriage.  This morning they spent time talking about what they'd done and then writing an account of the trip.  Concentrating hard on putting a space between words, getting full stops and capital letters in the correct places and trying to use a variety of vocabulary was easier for some than for others but by the time I was leaving they'd all got something down on paper - a few words for some, a couple of pages for others. 
The children really felt they'd achieved something as they proudly showed off their best sentences, or managed to spell a word they'd struggled with.  Their teacher was pleased with the efforts they were making and with the progress they'd made through the year.  I enjoyed observing and taking part in what they were doing.  It brought back memories of my own children at that age and it seems to me that the encouragement to use a variety of different language to describe similar things comes at a younger age than it did for them.
But then to the low point - going along to the staff room and hearing about the appalling marking of this year's writing SATs.  Hearing about the inconsistencies, the low marks, the heartbreak for the teaching staff who know that the children's writing is worth much more than it's been given, made me feel angry and helpless.  Angry because a whole group of children will get lower marks than their work deserves; angry because those lower marks will reflect badly on the school; angry because the marks will probably bring down an OFSTED inspection with all the unnecessary stress that brings, but helpless because nothing I or any other governor does will make it better.  The one crumb of comfort is that it's a national problem.  Schools everywhere are complaining about the marking this year.  So it's not just our school, but that doesn't help those lovely children who worked so hard nor those dedicated and now devastated staff who supported and educated those children. What a way to end the term.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Social Care

15 months ago I, along with many other Liberal Democrats round the country, stood on doorsteps answering questions about what we'd do if we became the government in May.  I confess that at the back of my mind was the thought "I wish!  We'll be lucky to be in a position to have some influence on what the new Tory government does".  How wrong could I be.
One of the questions that came up a lot was about funding for long term care of the elderly.  I kept saying that if elected we'd set up an independent comission to look into the best way - we'd listen to representatives from all parts of the "care industry" and then we'd make some decisions.  But I also said that I thought the decisions would be difficult ones because quality care isn't cheap and we have an increasingly aged population.  I felt that some of the answer would have to be that people worked for longer, now that medicine and good nutrition means that most will live longer than their parents did.  Some of it would have to be finding a way of saving over our working lives, whether through taxation or insurance or a combination of the two, and some people wouldn't like the answers that were reached.
This week we will be able to read the Dilnot report in full, though there have been hints over the past week.  The big challenge for the government now is whether the Conservative Chancellor can be brave enough to make the investments that will be needed while the long term changes are coming into force.  Can the Lib Dems in government, and especially Paul Burstow, do enough to ensure that what happens is what Dilnot recommends and not a half way house that does no-one any good.
I've seen at first hand the impact of cost cutting on care homes - staff hours cut, food quality reduced.  I listened to a care home owner on radio who had taken the local council to court after fees were frozen at an uneconomic level and his home was threatened with closure.  He won his case so the local authority now has to pay more, but of course that means that something else somewhere will get less.  These decisions can't be taken in a piecemeal fashion - they've got to be part of a bigger debate.  At the moment we have homes being paid not much more than £400 per week to care for people from the public purse and homes being paid more than £700 per week to care for people from their own purse.  That' s a vast range and we have to ask how much it costs to give people a decent standard of living, with nutritious food freshly cooked and served, a garden to sit out in the fine weather, and someone to talk to when they need it.  And having answered the questions about how much, the big one is "where does it come from?"
One thing's for certain.  By the time I'm that age I'll expect to have to fund a significant part of the cost myself, and that means some careful investment of savings over the next few years.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

A bit of good news

Hidden amongst all the doom and gloom on the economy recently have been the stats on new apprenticeships.  Those who know me well know that I'm a strong advocate for the value of education and training post 16 which does not lead to a university degree.  Don't get me wrong - university degrees are good things generally, but so are other kinds of qualification.  It doesn't take a degree to maintain a vehicle in good running order, repair its bodywork or make sure that its engine is functioning well.  A degree doesn't help one to lay bricks in the correct way to ensure that a house built today is still standing in 50 years time.  Those and many other skills are learned through a combination of "on the job training" and training centre or college study.  Apprenticeships are the backbone of the skilled workforce we need in Britain.  An engineer or an architect can design the most beautiful, imaginative, innovative structure in the world, but it's those who've gone through an apprenticeship, learned "their trade", who will make it a reality.  In the words of the old song "You can't have one without the other".
So the news that more than 10,200 new apprenticeships have been started in the North East up to April this year following the coalition government's commitment to improving training for young people was very welcome indeed.  As is the fact that the local press has helped that in the Tees Valley by running its own publicity campaign to encourage companies to give young people a chance.
So yes, times are tough.  Yes, lots of people are losing jobs and others are finding it hard to get their first one.  But in the middle of it all is a bit of good news and we should celebrate the fact that in our region thousands of young people are getting the training they need to be able to earn a decent living and contribute to the economy of our region.