Sunday, November 18, 2012

And so the white smoke did rise from the ICC...

The West Midlands elected its first Police and Crime Commissioner and it has got a good one. Bob's got a great deal of experience dealing with the police, but he's also a decent, down to earth person and there was nobody else on the list who - despite my party allegiance - came anywhere close to being up to his standards.

He's got a tough job ahead of him, though - he's now the Head of Blame for crime in the West Midlands. Never mind that the biggest chunk of his budget comes from the Home Office - the police precept that we pay with our council tax only makes up 14% of the total spent on policing in the West Midlands and would have had to rise in total by over 40% last year to cover the cuts imposed by central government. From now on, though, the government will have a defence to criticism - they will point to your Police & Crime Commissioner as the person to hold to account.

The election itself saw a record low turnout, which the Prime Minister blamed on the public 
the turnout was always going to be low, when you're electing a new post for the first time
Oddly, the people of London weren't used to voting for a mayor in 2000, but 34% of them turned out. In Stoke in 2002, 24% of the electorate made it to the polls for their inaugural mayoral election and  28% of the people of Bristol turned out this Thursday to vote for their first mayor. A national turnout of 15% indicates something is seriously wrong with the policy that has led us to this. Even Conor Burns, Conservative MP in Bournemouth, was moved to tweet that he now regrets voting for the bill - although this may not be unrelated to the fact that a Bournemouth Tory councillor failed to win the post there in what seems to have been a particularly ill-tempered campaign with mudslinging aplenty. (FullFact have a series of graphs detailing turnouts here)

Every election brings a handful of ballot papers spoilt with insults to the candidates or the process, but only a handful (the candidates and the agents get to see all of them). I've never seen so many ballot papers spoilt with such clear opposition to this policy - people brought pre-prepared stickers detailing their objections or just scrawled across the paper comments opposing the politicisation of the police, the cost or even just noting that they couldn't decide because they didn't have enough information about the candidates.

This election has been an unmitigated policy disaster - a normal day at the office for this government. From the timing of the election - the cold, dark days of November do not encourage voters to trudge up dark alleyways to find polling stations, to the decision not to fund the same mailout to electors provided for all parliamentary and European elections, to the expensive error that meant emergency legislation had to be pushed through parliament to allow ballot papers in Wales to be printed in both English and Welsh, to a complete failure to explain why these posts were even necessary and even to the point that they were not made to fit in with the normal election timetable in May, just speaks of the appalling mismanagement of the implementation of a policy that the public showed absolutely no appetite for. £125 million has been poured down this drain.

I'm not sure we can draw an awful lot of firm conclusions from such a low turnout and so many additional parties in the form of independents. Indeed, in the Midlands, Cath Hannon fought an excellent campaign, even running neck and neck in Sutton Coldfield with the Tory candidate, Matt Bennett, a great achievement given the challenge of running any sort of campaign across 28 parliamentary constituencies, something that stretched even the organised parties. The Liberal Democrats, with just two candidates in the region (the other being in Gloucestershire) did see their vote slump - putting Ayoub Khan down in sixth place out of seven. Until the Birmingham vote came in, he was in serious danger of losing his deposit and he lost the Yardley vote by a crushing margin, took a beating in Solihull (both currently Liberal Democrat parliamentary seats with a solid base of Liberal Democrat councillors) and in Coventry, more people actually preferred to spoil their ballot papers than vote Liberal Democrats. The uncharitable would suggest that voting Lib Dem is actually a waste of a ballot paper in any case.

It is always possible that these posts may prove to be rampantly successful. I doubt it very much. I hope that Labour will commit to scrapping them at the first opportunity and replacing them with an effective system of local governance of the police. Ironically, the model of governance deemed unsuitable for policing has been accepted as perfectly adequate for the regional bodies designed to drive economic development and growth - the Local Enterprise Partnerships.

I wish Bob every success - he'll be a fine PCC for the West Midlands. I also hope he will be the last.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lest we forget....

Just two pictures from today's Remembrance Day ceremony in Birmingham, coinciding with the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

As always, it is touching to see the young and the old, the still serving and the retired, all gathered together to remember the sacrifices that are still being made today. For me, this isn't about approving of war, but about honouring those who have served this country - conscripts and volunteers alike - and have suffered for that service.
Even after decades away from a parade ground, the old soldiers still slip easily back into the rhythm - their backs stiffening as the parade NCO starts to issue a command and their shoes still hitting the paving in time. Amongst them, there are those currently in service and the young cadets who may yet join the armed forces.

It was also well attended by the public, with Broad Street blocked by the crowd, watching the ceremony. This year, we were blessed with a fine, crystal clear day with not a cloud in the sky.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them. 

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Cottesbrook Junior School plans to close early on Fridays

You may have seen this story on the front page of the Birmingham Mail today - on BBC WM's Adrian Goldberg show this morning, the Drivetime show this afternoon and BBC Midlands Today this evening.

The school have refused to comment to the media and this has meant that there's a lot of disinformation flying around. I'll try to clear that up with some facts, but I should be clear that I'm supporting the majority view of the parents at this stage, but I will try to put the school's case as I remember it. 

The school is proposing to change their opening hours every Friday to close at 1pm, rather than the usual 3:20pm, starting as usual at 8:50. This is being consulted upon by the governing body with a view to the new hours starting in January. The school proposes to run a number of free after school clubs on the Friday afternoon to help those parents who are unable to collect their children at this time and they have suggested criteria for accessing this facility. 

The reason is that the school believe that this will make it easier to deliver PPA time for their staff. This is a legal requirement to allow teachers to carry out planning, preparation and assessment work and has been part of the education landscape for a few years now. It isn't, despite the shorthand used by some parts of the media, a chance for teachers to "catch up on paperwork" as if they are lazing around in the staff room. It is vital to the provision of good education. Schools provide that time away from the classroom through a number of methods - some employ a floating teacher to cover classes in turn, others use supply staff and some bring in external companies to deliver PE or other activities. 

Last night, there was a very well-attended meeting of parents, with about 100 people present. I attended, after a number of constituents had approached me with their concerns about it and I was struck by the dedication of those parents to the education of their children - their knowledge and their passion was impressive. There was only one parent there who spoke up in favour of the proposal - the vast majority of them were utterly opposed to the idea. 

A minor issue raised was the inconvenience of picking up their children at 1pm and working that time around jobs and collecting children from other schools, including Cottesbrook Infants across the road. For most parents, the main concern was that their pupils would be losing teaching hours. Over the course of a month, this comes close to a whole school day lost.When schools are focussed on attendance, this seems to send the wrong message to pupils and parents about the value of school time. 

The school claim that other schools adjudged excellent by OFSTED operate similar hours. One example cited was Ninestiles Academy, which does close at 2:15 on alternate Fridays, but the lost hours are made up across the remainder of the week - not something part of this proposal. In any case, merely saying that other excellent schools do this does not establish that this change actually brings excellence - I'd like some evidence to support this. 

Additionally, the school says that this means that the classes will have their usual class teacher with them for all the teaching week, rather than only part of it, citing the variable quality and sheer cost (over £60k) of supply teachers as an issue. The cost is a fair comment, but other schools do manage to deliver PPA time without this change. Further, they will still not have their class teacher - or any teacher - with them on Friday afternoons, whether they are at home or in school. 

I also have concerns about the after school clubs on Friday afternoons. They will be prioritised for those pupils whose parents are either in work or education, alongside pupils with special educational needs. What worries me is that pupils with unemployed parents could be excluded from these clubs and that also sends the wrong message about the value of people. 

This is all possible because last year, Michael Gove, in his infinite wisdom, gave schools the power to change the length of the school day, removed legal minima on the number of hours to be taught each week and also removed the regulations about consultation. The school governing body can take the decision and do not need to even consult the local authority. Gove did not remove the statutory requirement for schools top open for 380 half day sessions per year - usually delivered across the 190 days that most schools are open and at first sight, this scheme appears to reduce that number of sessions down to 357 this year and 342 in subsequent years. Some parents are certainly concerned that this may actually be unlawful as proposed - that's a key question that the school need to answer.

I can't stress enough - I absolutely support the aim of this school to deliver first-class education to their pupils, but I do not believe that this is the right route and nor do the parents to whom I have spoken, people who just want the best for their children. 

What do you think? Are the parents wrong? Am I wrong? Does this work elsewhere?

Cottesbrook Infants (where I am a governor) has no plans to consider changing their hours to match. 

I don't usually cross-post to both the John4AG blog and this one - this story may have wider reach than just the local audience, hence the duplication.