Day 197 – Save Lower Schools

November 13, 2009

A long long time ago, when our group of parents, grandparents, teachers and governors decided to get together to fight the seemingly inevitable decision to change our school system, we named ourselves after the most obvious casualty – hence Save Middle Schools.

Today we are sorely tempted to rename the campaign Save Lower Schools as the long-term casualties will be our excellent lower schools who will be underfunded, overcrowded and struggling for decades to metamorphose into primary schools under this proposal.

In recent days we have highlighted the financial nightmare that has been recommended by the final report. Only £27.2M of funding is allocated for the lower-primary switch, cobbled together from every available source – future government funding, sales of land, proceeds from housing developments, “top-slicing” of schools budgets (that’s robbing Peter to pay Paul to you and me).

If any one of these is lower than expected, or if any overspend occurs, then there really is no more money, as Michael Headley – the Finance portfolio holder – told the Executive on Wednesday evening.

What is worse than this is that the £27.2M will only pay for the shell of classrooms – it doesn’t cover any extra toilets, circulation space, corridors, chairs, tables, resources, extra staff space, enlarged halls, specialist space for the different requirements of Years 5 and 6, etc etc.

In a decade when Government spending will have to be reduced dramatically in order to curb public debt, and education budgets post-2011 have already been targeted, this really will be a catastrophe.

Unfortunately, portacabins will be the result – and many of those are still around on school sites from the last time we changed school structure in the 1970s !

Lower School governing bodies almost without reservation recommended that they support the School Organisation Review during the consultation process – but they didn’t have this information at that time.

SMS wonders how many governors realise what the future holds? How many would support this recommendation now? How many governing bodies of Trust or Foundation schools would now consider legal action against the authority for not revealing this important financial information as part of the consultation process.

The only hope we have is that sufficient councillors will listen to the arguments than having blind faith in the future on Monday night. You can help by contacting councillors and letting them know how you feel, and by being present at the Council Meeting – 6:30 on Monday 16th November in the Harpur Suite at the Corn Exchange.


Day 196 – An Executive Decision

November 12, 2009

Yesterday the Executive voted for the School Organisation Review’s recommendation that Bedford Borough change from three-tier to two-tier. Those who voted for the change were Dave Hodgson, Charles Royden, David Sawyer, Nicky Attenborough and Will Hunt (although he only voted for this to go to Full Council and may change his mind once it is voted on there). Barry Huckle was absent, but we presume he would also have voted for change. Councillors in favour of retention were Michael Headley, Sue Oliver and Nick Charsley.

This was despite the obvious financial holes in transforming ~50 lower schools to primary schools, which covers 60 square metres of space per classroom but nothing else. There is no money for equipment to fill them, no extra toilets, no corridors or circulation space, no extra staff space, no extra specialist facilities, nothing beyond the classroom shells.

To finance this, the plan assumes £7.5M of future government funding under the Primary Capital Programme, and £15.7M from capital receipts of land sales. It requires “top-slicing” of schools’ budgets. So 0.3% of 2010’s budget, and 0.6% from 2011 onwards…in addition to the massive reduction in education spend already announced from 2011 onwards.

This of course means there would be no money left over for other routine maintenance of school buildings for at least five years.

And what if the building projects over-run or over-spend I hear you ask?

Funnily enough, nobody can answer this one…more “top-slicing”?…more council borrowing?…an increase in council tax?…areduction in other services?

Maybe we should ask John Goldsmith, one of the authors of the report, who has been quoted in the Times & Citizen today on the matter:

JG said “Other authorities when they have made this change have used temporary buildings, but we have been clear from the outset that we want to have permanent buildings in place”.

We would all want that John…but how are you going to achieve it with this level of funding?

Lower school governing bodies did not have the detailed financial proposals when they voted on whether to support the change to two-tier last summer. I’m sure there are some governors who would like to have the opportunity to vote again.

You don’t even have to be a supporter of three-tier education to see that this could set early education back years in Bedford.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to help us persuade councillors to use their vote wisely on Monday evening.


Day 195 – More Education Cuts

November 11, 2009

Yesterday the Government announced a cut of £340M by cutting 133,000 training places as part of their reduction in the further education budget.

See the full story here.

This is the same Government that is desperately trying to tell us that further major cuts will not be inevitable, that the economy will recover quickly as we spend our way out of recession, and that they would like a fourth term in office (pretty please).

Of course, after the next election (whoever wins) the real cuts are likely to be revealed, and the overly bureaucratic and costly BSF programme under real threat.

So a quick quiz question for all those in favour of change – by how much would the BSF budget have to be reduced in order for the whole two-tier project to be shelved?

Would it be unviable with only £200M? How about £100M? What about if it all disappeared? A bit like the Primary funding which is almost completely illusory according to Appendix 3 of the report.

Moreover, BSF funding is so uncertain that even other authorities in the middle of change (Suffolk) have stopped the process until there is more financial assurance.

Of course, there is more than one visionary in this Borough who would still want to change even if no money were available at all…(which of course it very nearly isn’t in the Primary sector)…

The real problem with this, however, is that change costs a vast amount of public money, time and effort, and while that is being spent attention is being diverted from teaching and learning. Which is precisely why other authorities have suffered a major dip in results during and for around 4-6 years after change, the dip being indicative of a loss of focus and morale.

The only way you can help stop this is to contact the councillors and let them know that you think.

You only have until Monday evening to help save the education of a generation of children.


Day 194 – Unmanageable Risk

November 10, 2009

Change is inevitable in life. Everyone within SMS accepts that educational progress should be a priority in Bedford Borough and that change is inevitably a part of that.

However, any change carries risk, and when that risk becomes unmanaged or even unmanageable, then alarm bells start ringing. There are so many flaws in the primary funding plans, that even with BSF funding, we are risking a whole generation of children’s education. Our primary schools will become overcrowded institutions, lacking specialist facilities for Year 5 and 6 pupils and coping with portacabins owing to funding shortfalls.

Other authorities have believed they hold the secret to changing without disruption, and they have learned the hard way that this is just a fantasy. Milton Keynes have only just recovered, 5 years after change, to the same level as we are – and their change involved only 1 year group (middle schools aged 8-12 became junior schools aged 7-11), did not involve closing schools and only involved one new school building. In fact, in many parts of MK they still effectively have 3-tier (infant, junior and secondary)

Suspicions also arise where clear success criteria are not laid out in advance of change. The inevitable massive disruption must be worth the end result in order to justify change, but these success criteria appear to be entirely missing from the report. So how are we to judge success? And more importantly, how are we to judge failure, if the financial house of cards comes tumbling down and we are left in the middle of a chaotic change, just like Suffolk are at the moment.

Risk should be worth the reward. When the rewards are uncertain and the risks very great, then that is the time to explore the alternative – an enhancement and evolution of our current three-tier system with specific focus on the bits that aren’t working as well as they ought – across the lower, middle and upper schools.

If you want to stop this damaging change, then please help by contacting the councillors to let them know how you feel and attending the Full Council Vote on Monday 16th November at 6:30 in the Harpur Suite (Corn Exchange).


Day 192 – A Holy Report

November 8, 2009

Yes, full of holes, is the 200+ page report.

If you look at Appendix 4, it indicates that improvement is more or less guaranteed after change to two-tier…mmm, let’s look at that conclusion more closely…

Appendix 4: “Thus four of the five authorities showed some improvement in GCSE performance following change, although that in Warwickshire was small and has subsequently been lost.”

What the DCSF data actually show is that in four out of the five authorities cited in the Council Officers’ report GCSE performance fell during and after the change to 2-tier. Exactly the opposite of what they hide by only looking at the 2008 data.

During the change over to 2-tier MK GCSE results fell to 10% below the England average. 5 years of decline before MK recovered in 2008 by spending considerably more per pupil than in Bedford’s schools. And this was in an authority where only 1 year group was changed and no schools were closed…a much easier task than we have here in Bedford.

During the change over to 2-tier Merton GCSE results fell to 13% below the England average. 4 years of decline before Merton recovered in 2008.

Buckinghamshire changed between 1998-2000. From 1997 to 2008 GCSE passes have fallen 7.3% compared to the national average.

Only in Bradford has the GCSE pass rate improved compared to the national average, albeit from an incredibly low base, around 13% below the national average.

Warwickshire’s results stayed fairly stable, hovering around the national average, although results were only available for a limited period after change here.

So what this shows is that in only one authority, which was underperforming terribly, have results improved after a change to two-tier.

This change has been presented as inevitable because of our terrible underperformance at GCSE (wrong), because change will lead to improvement (unlikely), and because everybody wants the change (err…not true at all).

The only way for you to stop this is to contact the councillors, preferably by phone as emails can be ignored.


Day 190 – A Step-Change in Educational Standards

November 6, 2009

If councillors vote to support the conclusions of the 200+ page report, then they will succeed in creating a step-change in educational standards in Bedford Borough.

Unfortunately, they will be a step downwards, as every authority has shown during and immediately after the change. Results then take years to return to where they were pre-change, with no guarantee they will actually be higher.

In the meantime, a generation of children will received an impoverished educational experience, not just in terms of Mr.Gradgrind’s average GCSE results compared to those for whom grammar schools are available, but also with middle school teachers whose morale has fallen so much they are seeking to leave Bedford or the profession, with crowded and unsuitable primary accommodation, and with upper schools trying to build, accommodate new pupils and staff, and cope with the demands of compulsory post-16 education, all at the same time.

One of the most damaging aspects will be to our generally excellent lower schools – the section of the report which deals with this side of the funding is very dense, speaking in financial tongues and generally trying to hide the problems from its readership. Sir Humphrey always used to say that was the best way to get something past a Minister – hide it in the bottom of a red box!

Funding for the lower-primary change is very low and what is now clearer is that:

1. There is no funding for any new equipment for new primary classrooms, with furniture/ICT/equipment needing to be imported from existing middle schools presumably.
2. No funding for any externals – for example adapting playgrounds or sports fields.
3. No allowance for toilets, cloakrooms, corridors or practical/group spaces.

This last one is most important. Page 121 of the report says that 7560 square metres of space will be needed for 126 new classrooms – which is 60 square metres each.

This of course, has not considered room for anything else but the standard classroom space of 56-63 square metres. Guidelines for space requirements in schools are available here.

We have always said that funding was a huge problem – and now that the details are being examined, none of us are particularly surprised that the report was not published until only 12 days before the Full Council vote.

There are now only 10 days left – and the only people that can change this are the councillors. Contact them all and tell them what you think…and encourage everyone else to. The only way that this proposal will get voted down is by pressure from you.


Day 188 – The Public Have Spoken

November 3, 2009

The long-awaited consultation report has been published – all 201 pages and 6MB of it. The link to it is here.

And what does it say? Well of course it recommends a change to two-tier, as we knew all along it would. After all, we have just had the worst example of a non-consultation process that many of us have experienced.

What is interesting is that 57% of responses were in favour of three-tier overall, rising to 66% amongst parents/carers of current pupils. And this, remember, is despite the overwhelming and public display of support for two-tier by the lower and upper school Heads.

So it is clear that those parents who are experiencing the current system and who understand its value have voted overwhelmingly in favour of retention.

This could be a disastrous decision that causes chaos in Bedford’s education system, just like it has done in Northampton and Suffolk recently, both of which are now failing authorities. It could also cause financial meltdown in our schools as budgets are diverted to supporting an ill-planned and under-funded switch.

The Borough Education Officers have ignored the public. The councillors should be aware of the unpopularity of this decision. We urge everyone to contact all councillors urgently, especially their own plus the Executive and Roger Rigby (the Speaker who may have the casting vote in a Full Council debate). Let them know your strongly-held views as this decision can be changed by public protest.

Members of the Executive who make the first decision on Wed 11th are Dave Hodgson, Charles Royden, Barry Huckle, Michael Headley, David Sawyer, Nicky Attenborough, Nick Charsley, Sue Oliver and Will Hunt – their details may be found here.

Spread the word amongst your friends and family !

Can we do it? Yes we can !

Perhaps it is also worth mentioning now that the two online petitions stand at 1129 for three-tier and 161 (currently) for two-tier. Maybe that last figure will go up slightly now in response to this blog…but then our petition has closed, so we regard this as the final result (plus another 9000 or so written signatures, about 7000 of which made it into the report, the others being collected afterward July 24th).

Confirmation of the decision making process

The Executive will consider this on Wednesday 11th November at 6:30 in the Harpur Suite, Corn Exchange. Details are here. Members of the public may attend and ask questions of the Executive.

Should the Executive recommend a change to two-tier, then Full Council will consider this at a special meeting on Monday 16th November at 6:30 in the Harpur Suite, Corn Exchange. We would strongly urge you to attend this meeting. More details will be posted on this blog should they become relevant and when they are available.