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Saturday, 01 May 2021 10:40

Kent County Council Elections and Education

Comment on the loss at the election of Richard Whiting and Richard Long, past and recent Cabinet Members for Education to follow when a new appointment is made. 

One of Kent County Council’s major responsibilities is education, so I have surveyed the local political parties literature to find out their priorities before Thursday's Council election. Of particular interest to me are the catch-up arrangements for children disadvantaged by Covid, the failed Kent SEND department as described in the 2019 Ofsted Report, the shortage of non-selective places in various parts of the county, the flawed grammar school selection process penalising disadvantaged Kent children, and policy with regard to the fresh government academisation drive.

The Conservatives, in their eight-page leaflet consider that: ‘When development does happen, our infrastructure first policy means that schools, GP surgeries, open spaces and transport links are planned before housing’. Otherwise silence, although I have tried several times without response for more information such as a manifesto. In other words, and sadly, Kent Conservatives do not appear to think education important enough to ask voters to pass an opinion on their past record, nor on any plans for the future.

The Labour Party in its local leaflet only tells us that ‘Our children and young people deserve a edcution system that supports the next generation, clearly struggling with grammar and spelling. But there is a lengthy manifesto on its website, not mentioned on the leaflet, which contains a wide range of education ambitions, many suitably vague, but strongly featuring the national policy to scrap academies. The Liberal Democrats also have a  simple message: ‘Every Kent child should be able to go to a good school, pre-school or college’, leading with a highly pragmatic Kent related statement on their main website, focusing on issues such as Special Education, new school provision, Covid and disadvantage, and education finance.

It may well be that with 63 Conservative County Councillors; as against seven Liberal Democrats, five Labour; and five Independent Councillors, Conservatives feel there is little need to defend their record, or to put forward any plans for the future, and I doubt if this article or the different party promises will change anything. However, the following are amongst big issues affecting many Kent families that do need scrutiny and those families will have little idea from election material as to what is the ruling party’s position.

I can find no mention of education on the local Green Party websites, perhaps because they have no education spokesperson, but more likely because they don't wish to scare the voters.  For the Greens have a  radical and unrealistic national policy, last updated in 2017, more left-wing than Labour which may be why it is not promoted locally. It includes 100% inclusion, with all SEND children attending mixed ability mainstream classes in community comprehensive schools with classes of no more than 20 pupils, all state schools coming under Local Authority control which will employ all teachers, and any privileges of private schools stripped away. All these are accompanied by a wide range of special interest 'attractions' in an attempt to catch spare votes. 

Coronavirus
Covid presents enormous and unprecedented challenges to all and David Adams, previously KCC Interim Director of Education, has been put in charge of a programme to run for just over a year, called Reconnect for all children aged 2-19.  Every aspect of their lives has been affected from their learning and wellbeing to their friendships, and this is an 'ambitious KCC-led community programme that will help children and young people reconnect with their pre-Covid-19 lives'. The initial funding for the programme in Kent is £5.3 million from the government to go towards its Holiday Activities and Food Programme, for disadvantaged children and it is at present unclear where the much larger sum to extend it to all children as promised here will be coming from, although other start-up costs will be coming from Departmental budgets. Perhaps this important initiative was formulated too late to mention in the election literature.  

Labour considers that: ‘The pandemic will have had life changing impacts on young people and their education. We will work with children, teachers, school staff and parents to coproduce the response to the consequences of Covid-19 on their attainment and wellbeing’.

The Lib Dems view is that: The Covid pandemic has forced a rapid increase in virtual contact with some children educated out of school or requiring specialist support in addition to school provision. For some children this has proved highly beneficial, and we support KCC adapting working practices to build on this experience. The pandemic has also resulted in a further worsening of the educational standards of children from poorer backgrounds, who already do worse in Kent than in most other counties. After London, Kent lies in one of the most prosperous parts of the country, and this is not acceptable. Kent probably has one of the most extreme ranges in social background, from wealthy West Kent to the very long coastline containing towns with centres of extreme poverty and so county-wide solutions to these critical challenges will not be easy.

Special Education Needs and Disability
One of the biggest issues raised by the opposition is KCC’s shocking record on Special Needs, highlighted by the Ofsted 2019 Inspection of county provision. My article at the time records that: ‘Parents and carers who contributed to the inspection are overwhelmingly negative about their dealings with the local area. Some told inspectors that Kent did not care about their children. Many parents and carers are rightly upset, angry and concerned about the services and provision that their children receive’. The Report then details those concerns in a shocking story of failure to support Kent’s most vulnerable children. The KCC Assistant Director accountable for some of these failures has now been promoted to be Director of SEND, a new post expanding the education senior management of KCC following a redundancy!  Interestingly, the new Director of Education has a background with a considerable amount of SEND experience, so matters may be about to improve.

The Lib Dems record that KCC has been roundly criticised for its SEND provision, and particularly for its lack of consultation and continuing involvement with parents. We support the comments of the OFSTED Inspectorate, and the actions which KCC is now taking to improve performance. A particular concern is the lengthy wait for assessment for EHCPs’, so progress is taking place, even if we have to rely on the opposition to report this. The statement continues: KCC argues that too many children are being placed in Special Schools when more successful outcomes for the child could be achieved in supported mainstream schools. The statement rightly continues ‘however, this is only tenable if parents are confident that mainstream schools are able to support their children effectively. Much more needs to be done to ensure that mainstream schools do have the necessary resources and skills to meet their needs’. This is an essential condition and given Kent's strong record in the performance of SEN Units and Special Schools, not to be entered into before and unless mainstream schools are genuinely ready. For those of us with long memories, KCC officers came close to abolishing SEN Units as the first step towards 100% inclusion into mainstream schools, back in 2010

The Labour manifesto grandly claims that they ‘will deliver dramatic improvement in SEND provision, addressing the failures identified in the 2019 Ofsted report for children with additional health, care and educational needs and its poor reputation amongst parents/carers, as identified by OFSTED’. There is just one practical idea; to set up training bursaries to attract social workers and educational psychologists into the service.

The shortage of non-selective places in some areas.
Kent is faced with the impossible challenge of having the responsibility to find sufficient school places for children but being heavily reliant on others for funding new building. My recent article identifies the pressures as too many families see their children forced out of their home town to an unpopular school in a different town, either now or imminently. In particular, Gravesham, Swale and Tunbridge Wells each have specific problems but as children are offered accessible schools KCC is meeting its statutory duty.

The KCC position that ‘When development does happen, our infrastructure first policy means that schools, GP surgeries, open spaces and transport links are planned before housing’, clashes with the Liberal Democrat: Funding from Government for new school building has been so far reduced that in many areas KCC is dependent for new school places on developer funding. This means new schools are built where large new developments occur, and parents and pupils must travel greater distances to schools outside their local area. So, new schools are built in Ebbsfleet and Maidstone but, because there appears no solution at present in Gravesham, children will have to go to schools somewhere in the wider NW Kent area as confirmed by the Commissioning Plan for Education Provision in Kent. In Sittingbourne, there is technically no problem as children can cross to the Isle of Sheppey, although many Sheppey parents are desperate to find schools away from the island and there is a booming Home Education industry. In Tunbridge Wells where KCC lost a new school in 2018 through lack of a sponsor, there is just one secular N/S school and large numbers of children are forced elsewhere. Many of these go to less popular schools in Tonbridge where there are plenty of vacancies, but luckily in the same planning district so no statutory problem!  Others go to schools in Sussex. In such a climate, 'infrastructure first' has no chance. Labour doesn’t appear to have noticed there is a growing problem.

Grammar School Selection
This is a particular concern of mine after I warned last June and in several articles subsequently, that ‘ordinary’ and disadvantaged children would be discriminated against in the Kent grammar school selection process. Several of the issues are collected in a September article: ‘KCC Fails in its Commitment to do 'All That is Practical and Possible to Address all Forms of Disadvantage'. Chickens finally came home to roost with last month’s grammar school allocations which left 13 east and mid-Kent grammar schools with vacancies, the flagship Maidstone Grammar plunging from being 60 first choices oversubscribed in 2020 to having 14 vacancies this year. The Liberal Democrats look at various important issues hindering social mobility but don’t appear aware of the current scandal. Labour contents itself with a generalisation trying to offend no one: ‘Grammar schools should be open, accessible and inclusive. We believe the assessment process should be fair and a true assessment of ability’. 
 
Academisation.
In recent weeks the government has spelt out its policy of encouraging (not forcing) all schools to academise by joining larger Multi-Academy Groups. Kent currently has some 78% of its secondary schools, and 42% of primary schools having been academised or created as Free Schools. All new schools become Free Schools, which are also classified as academies. Too many of Kent’s schools have become academies after failing an Ofsted inspection, some 40 at a rough count. There is no sign that Kent Conservatives encourage the policy, although too many schools convert because of perceived poor levels of support by the county. Currently, Holmesdale and The North schools managed by Swale Academies Trust are in a complicated battle with KCC to academise, with last week’s highly critical Ofsted Report at Holmesdale (article to follow), not helping the murky picture.

Although Labour has supported academisation in the past, nationally there is now a strong commitment to ‘bring academies and free schools back under local democratic control and for no more academies to be created’, a policy echoed locally and I believe utterly unrealistic. Regular readers of the news on this website will have seen many examples of schools failed under KCC turned into successful academies, but also of academies and Multi-Academy Trusts failing their students, most recently here. Kent Labour encapsulates both of these extremes with:  Kent County Council as a local education authority should provide oversight with qualified educationalists and leadership’ but then, presumably in a tilt against the situation mentioned above, observes:  ‘The structure of the County Council will be fully reviewed with the aim of scaling back management (especially Senior management) and reinvesting the money saved in front line services’, hardly a recipe for managing a wholesale return to Local Authority control. Liberal Democrats wisely don’t mention the matter.

Other Matters and Conclusion
Although the opposition parties will not be able to influence KCC policy because of the huge Conservative majority, nevertheless, some of their policies are worthy of note. Both argue strongly in favour of rebuilding the Youth Service and Early Years Funding, which have been drastically punished financially at this critical time, and repairing whilst the Lib Dems promote investment in the financially strapped FE sector, all three surely critical to the education and welfare of our young people, but all damaged by government cuts. Labour considers that 'KCC must continue to provide free school meals to all children in need during term time and out of term time. We must not allow Kent children to go to bed hungry. Nutrition is vital to the physical and mental development of children'.
 
As noted above, few of the ideas proposed by opposition parties and reported on by this article are likely to see the light of day, because of the powerful Conservative majority on Kent Council. What saddens me most is that there are important principles amongst them, and the apparent lack of priority for education indicated by this analysis, with the exception of Reconnection, does not bode well for our children.  
Last modified on Friday, 21 May 2021 09:44

2 comments

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 05 May 2021 17:48 posted by Andrew Fisher

    On Radio Kent this morning you made clear your view that Education is not seen as a priority by candidates in the KCC elections. What do you see as the consequences of this? PETER: The Conservatives will win the election and can argue for the next four years that Kent residents are happy with their education policies as the subject did not come up on the doorsteps (but not true on my doorstep, with a candidate who was not aware of any of the issues and seemed taken aback to be asked about education)

  • Comment Link Monday, 03 May 2021 11:16 posted by Angela Reed

    So you are not impressed!

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