Stroke of the pen means the Local Authority goes to bed Requiring Improvement but wakes up Good.

Further to my previous blog post Administration in crisis the ‘debate’ and vote was taken again at Thursday’s (23rd April) meeting of the full council, on the Corporate Performance Management – 2015/6 (basically the targets that the council sets itself for the forthcoming year).

Southend Council, like many other local authorities aspires to have 100% of its children going to schools that Ofsted deem to be Good or Outstanding (indeed that is the stated ambition of the ‘Southend Challenge’). However, we have to be practical. Therefore we set targets for the forthcoming year.

The council, under the previous Administration, set three targets – one each for primary, secondary and special schools for 2014/15 they were as follows:

2014/15 target
% Children in good or outstanding primary schools 75.5
% Children in good or outstanding secondary schools 82.7
% Children in good or outstanding special schools 94.7

This Administration decided that they wanted to set one target – amalgamated for all schools. I have no problem with this, although it can mask problems in one sector of our schools much more easily than if you have separate targets. The important thing is that the targets are amalgamated correctly.

Now, fortunately for the residents of Southend, I have the ability to add up and divide, an ability that appears to have escaped both the current portfolio holder for education and the Leader of the Council (we all know about ‘Woodley Maths’ and how it costs us money).

Looking at the table above, and appropriately weighting the figures (by taking into account the number of children at each type of school), to set the new target for 2015/16 at the same level as the three targets for 2014/5, it should be set at 79%. The most recent Monthly Performance Report shows that our schools are currently achieving 77%.

So what does this Administration decide to set their target at for 2015/6? Ah, well this is where it gets interesting. An extract from their report shows:

2014/15 target 2015/16 target
% Children in good or outstanding schools N/a 75

So they have set it at 75%. What is rather more sinister is they have compared it to ‘n/a’ for last year. Whilst, strictly speaking, there wasn’t a target for all schools last year (there were three, as above), in the spirit of showing whether targets were going up, down or staying the same, this is rather naughty (as I could do the maths on the back of the preverbal fag packet).

Here is a different way of looking at it:

2014/15 target 2015/16 target
% Children in good or outstanding primary schools 75.5 75
% Children in good or outstanding secondary schools 82.7 75
% Children in good or outstanding special schools 94.7 75

Gives rather a different perspective, don’t you think?

The difference between 79% and 75% might not sound like much, but in fact it is setting a target that says we, as your elected representatives are prepared to accept 1,154 less children going to a Good or Outstanding school, whilst still giving the current Administration a pat on the back.

Put another way, when we walked into the council chamber the council was not hitting its target. When we left it was exceeding its target. All the town’s teachers and kids were at home… so I’m not sure much could have changed other than reducing the target!

 

I challenged the current Administration on these targets, both at the People’s Scrutiny Committee (a couple of weeks ago) and at the council meeting on Thursday. Instead of accepting that they had made a mistake (something better Administrations than them were prepared to do when it happened), we all do occasionally, I was berated by the deputy portfolio holder who decided to tell me that because he’d got his MBE for education he knew what he was talking about.

I was content for him to answer on behalf of the Administration purely because the Leader had appointed him as the deputy portfolio holder and Cllr Anne Jones was absent again – I have not had a chance to put these matters to her at either scrutiny or full council, something I find most unsatisfactory, informed that my language was too emotive (this new target is pathetic – you don’t set yourself a target BELOW what you are already achieving- if you want to improve education for the children of this town).

Here is why it is a pathetic target:

2015/16 target Latest figures (Feb-15)
% Children in good or outstanding primary schools 75 76.9
% Children in good or outstanding secondary schools 75 77
% Children in good or outstanding special schools 75 91.7

I was also informed by the one Labour member who didn’t have a clue what she was talking about that if we rejected the paper these targets were set in, we’d have more crime and less affordable homes – what a load of rubbish, I don’t think criminals start working and builders down tools because the council hasn’t set its targets for another six weeks.

Politics was being played here. The watering down of this target was buried in the council’s overall Corporate Performance Management paper for 2015/16. I was accused of slagging off the town’s teachers (errum, I think not, I was just saying the council was setting itself too low a target!) and that targets didn’t matter, and I was putting too much stress on schools (this is a council target not a school one).

If you set a target too low, you make it easy for those working for the council to claim that the job is done. How can the councillors and Chief Executive crack the whip on the education department, when those officers can (quite rightly) turn round and say ‘well we are exceeding the targets you set us’… The simple answer is they can’t.

 

What was most galling of all was seeing members such as

Julian Ware-Lane (who bangs on and on about how education in this town is not good enough);

Ron Woodley (at least when a ‘child’ was in charge of education he did a better job than he is!); and

James Moyies (who seems to forget he is an opposition member and should be more worried about holding this Administration to account, than trying to keep on the good side of Ron Woodley to ensure he gets a Cabinet post in May – bye bye Martin/Mike!)

and others who had so viciously attacked me, time and time again, for education standards in Southend (at a time when they were improving rapidly) vote in favour of reducing the target.

Fortunately I demanded a named vote so we have it recorded in the annals of history which councillors voted for a pathetically low target, that we are already exceeding and failed our children, just to keep a bit of face for the current Administration.

 

Talking to several members after the meeting, it was disappointing that they all said they agreed with me and that the target was too low, but they couldn’t let the Administration lose the vote. It was noteworthy that at no time did the Leader of the Council accept or propose a minor amendment to the paper to increase the target, which would then have allowed it to go through unopposed. I even hear that, privately, council officers admit they set the target too low – well that’s alright then is it?!

If you think the Nigel Holdcroft and the Conservative Cabinet used to have a tight grip on what was happening in the council, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Ron Woodley and his band of merry men are prepared to do anything to not lose face.

I have never been more angry and disappointed in my political life and I was embarrassed to be a member of your council that night as, collectively, we failed you.

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About jamescourtenay

Local Southend resident, since before I can remember. I am hoping to represent the residents of Blenheim Park Ward after the May 2011 Local Elections. Straight Talking? - Yes. Approachable? - Yes. Accountable? - Yes. See my blog to find out how!
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One Response to Stroke of the pen means the Local Authority goes to bed Requiring Improvement but wakes up Good.

  1. Rob Brown says:

    Without hearing the other side of the debate I am minded to agree with you that the target sounds too low. Although amalgamating the target is a good thing (and does not preclude separating the figures for further scrutiny as well!). I am interested whether the council has evaluated the impact of setting what you call ‘realistic’ targets. It would surprise me if councillors worked any more (or less) hard because this specific target. Is this a useful lever to be pulling and arguing over?

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