Is a Fixed Spring Break a Step Closer?

For the last 18 months I have been trying, with the support of others to get Cornwall Council to look into the feasibility of setting a fixed Spring Break. As we all know this moves yearly due to moons and certain days in the religious calendar. A year ago I finally got Cornwall Council to start to talk to other local authorities and our own schools.

At today’s Children, School and Families Scrutiny Committee (CSF) there was a report with the findings of  recent letter and questionnaire sent to Cornish Schools asking if they felt the Spring Break should be fixed. 73 school replied and all but five said the Spring Break should be fixed. Granted not all schools replied, but out of those who did was an over all will to at least look into changing it.

I made a further recommendation to Cabinet:

The CSF Committee recommends that Cornwall Council’s Cabinet undertake a formal consultation on the proposal of moving to a Fixed Spring Break.

This was fully supported by the committee with the add-on from the Chairman of this consultation should be undertaken as quick as possible. Sometimes the wheels at Cornwall Council turn slowly, but at least they turn.

Getting Your Child into a School

For any parent (which I am) sending your child to school for the first time is a big event, not only for a child, but also for the parent. Any parent wants the best for their child and picking the right school is important. Luckily, in Cornwall we have good schools, and there are no major issues in any of our schools.
This is reflected in the first choice placements for children in our schools. For secondary school out of a total of 5125 applications 99.4% got their first preference. There were five appeals, two were upheld, with three refused. This result has placed Cornwall Council second in the ranking of Local Authorities in England for placements. 
For primary schools there were 4955 applications which 92.8% were offered their first choice preference. However, there have been 219 appeals submitted for admission. Of the 111 appeals which have been held, 32 have been upheld and 79 refused. Again this is a good result, but slightly down on last years figures of 96%.
Now for my worry, Academies. I highlighted a few concerns I have with Academies in a previous blog, but a bigger concern I have is with admissions to these Academies. In an Academy school the school’s governing body is the admissions authority and sets the admissions policy and over-subscription criteria. Academies, as independent schools, must agree their admissions policies with the Secretary of State – Are alarm bells ringing yet?
As more and more schools become Academies it will be necessary to maintain close communication between them and the Local Authority in order to maintain a sufficient supply of school places and a fair and equitable admissions scheme.  A new draft Admissions Code has recently been published by the government and is currently being consulted on; Cornwall Council will submit its response during August.
This is all fine and dandy, but what happen if an Academy becomes more ‘selective’ in pupil admission? I am not saying this will happen, but it could very easily, especially as the Local Authority no longer has direct control. For some parents an Academy might be interpreted as better school (which is not the case) and the demand for a place could be high. Will there be a temptation of taking those from a more fortunate background? 
If the Local Authority suspects this is happening then is can raise their concern with the Sec of State, Mr Gove (at time of writing). The LA might also be able to call in an Ofsted inspection. Is this really good enough? I think you know the answer to that.
Maybe the Government has thought of  stopping Academies being more selective in their admissions by raising the amount paid in the pupil premium. Pupil premium is the extra money a school gets for every child that is entitled to a free school meal. Currently it is £400, but is set to rise. Could this be the incentive a school needs to take in children for less fortunate backgrounds? It could be a big influence as Academies are in charge of their own budgets just like a business would be.
You can see why I have grave reservations with Academies.  

Academies and our Children

The scrutiny committee of Children, Education and Families covers a lot of areas and issues as the title suggests. One of the areas discussed at today’s meeting was School Academies. Like it or not, since the Academies Bill came into law a school can become one if it meets the standard and the Head and Governors agree (they do not need parents permission). This means once an Academy, it is out of the control of the Local Authority (LA), which is Cornwall Council.
Academy Schools are State Funded (directly) independent schools. If a school is an Academy it is outside the Local Authority and a separate legal entity. The school premises and land are transferred or leased to the Academy. All staff are directly employed by the Academy.
Where as Local Authority Maintained School receive their funding direct from the Local Authority (Council), follow the National Curriculum and are regularly inspected by Ofsted. There are four types of school under the LA. These are Community Schools, Foundation and Trust Schools, Voluntary-aided Schools and Voluntary-controlled Schools.
Putting aside if you think they are a good idea, or bad, I thought I would give you the numbers on how many schools are now Academies, the types of schools which have, and the number of children taken out of directly controlled education. Currently in Cornwall there are 31 Secondary Schools and 236 Primary School that were until recently under the control of the Local Authority.
On the 11th August there are now 30 less schools that receive their funding direct from the Government. This is further broken-down of 12 Secondary Schools, 14 Primary Schools and 2 Junior Schools. A further nine schools will become Academies by the end of 2011 and a further seven could become Academies in the first quarter of 2012. This of course does not include any further applications.
This means 19,098 or 28% of our children are currently in education in independent schools.
This leaves 221 schools under the LA. If these schools all stay, then this is a good number especially when funding is concerned. However, when a school becomes an Academy the LA loses the funding for this school, as it goes straight to the new Academy. The real danger is the more money taken out of the LA schools budget the less there is for the rest. As you see the LA money is shared amongst all the schools, but less money in the pot some schools could be unaffordable to run; this is especially true of the smaller schools that generally get more money per head than the larger schools.
Personally, I am quite worried about Academies because I fear a two-tiered education system, especially when an Academy will be allowed to set its own curriculum, admission policy and will not be subject to LA inspection. This last point is worrying, because you would have to go via the Sec of State for Education if you have any problem with the school that cannot be solved by the Head, or Governors.    

School Terms – A break though

Today at the Children’s Schools and Families OSC, Agenda item 10 (Click HERE) was a report on the subject of school term times. If you remember this was one of the issues that I had campaigned to be reviewed. To refresh yourselves click HERE. This is an issue that is long over due a review as I have pointed out in my earlier blog post.
From the report this undertaking is huge and costly. I argued that just because the issue is not easy, we should not shy away from it. My personal feeling is this does not have the higher political will to change. In an ideal world it would be, but as we all know this is not an ideal world. I also believe that this issue needs to be tackled on a national scale as that is where the real change can take place.
What did have unanimous support was for a more fixed time for the Easter Break, or what many others call the Spring Break. We all know that the Easter Break is never the same year after year. The two Chairman of the Association of Primary and Secondary Schools fully supported this, as they had long argued for this to be standardised. Even that is not as easy as just fixing dates are we will have to talk to out neighbours in Devon to make sure it’s workable for those close to the border. In the past different term dates have caused much confusion and complaints when these are not closely aligned.
Now the work will start by talking to the other Authorities to look into the details and implementation of this idea.  I am glad a more fixed date for the term and the spring break as this would be of greater benefit to our children and allow people to plan their lives better.

For me, this is just the start of the review and will still argue for changes that are more in keeping with the world we live in today.

School Academies – The Holy Grail?

I think one of the most important functions of a Local Authority (Cornwall Council)  is to educate its children to a high standard. I don’t think anyone could argue against that. The LA should always strive to make sure that happens. Today at County Hall the Children’s, Schools and Families Scrutiny Committee met. On the Agenda was the topic of Academies. Click HERE for the report.

Academies are the latest Government initiative on schools, and how they are run. In a nutshell, if a school passes the test to become one, it gets all its funding direct from central Government. To qualify a school must have an outstanding OFSTED report. It then can apply and if successful, it can then become an Academy. The school is then totally independent of the LA. It is in real terms a limited company, and is responsible for everything.

Now you could argue that this is great. The school can now get on with educating its children to how the Head and the Governors direct. At present it has to follow the National Curriculum, but this could change as the Government is looking at options of allowing the school to take on other education methods like the baccalaureate for one. Again, you could argue that the current curriculum is not perfect, but is anything?

It’s when you get down to the details that for me alarm bells start to ring. At present if you have a problem with any aspect of a school you contact the Council. It will normally respond with answers. If you are not happy with that, then you can contact your local Councillor who can take up your case. In an Academy you don’t complain to the Council or a Councillor, but a department in Whitehall. Yep, that’s London. Hardly a close and direct method. In fact, the whole safeguarding issue is a serious concern because the LA cannot intervene at any stage.

If a school offers a certain service it can normally buy it in with a corporate price as the LA will be able to purchase it Cornwall wide at a better price. Not if you are an Academy. You have to buy it in as an individual. So there is a real danger that to get a licence/service it will cost a lot more.

Let’s get on to the subject of staff pay and pensions. At present they are employed by the LA. The pensions are also paid into the corporate pot. Not if you are an Academy. The Academy is responsible for that as well. For example, if a TA works at an Academy for 10 years and wishes to switch to a LA school then the current accrued pension can’t be transferred. Unlike if you transferred between LA schools your pension is still in the LA pot.  As for pay, at present a head in a LA controlled school can within reason set pay. In an Academy school the Board of Governors and Head sets it completely. That could be higher or much lower than you would get in a LA school. Will that attract the right staff?

I could go on about the pitfalls because the more I read, the more concerned I became with some massive potential problems. When the Committee quizzed senior officers about the Academies. They did not have the answers. Why? Well, because a lot of the details have not been finalised by the Government and are still being ‘looked’ into. Now that really concerned me. Not as a Councillor, but as a parent.

If more schools decide to go down the Academy route this will mean more money goes out of the LA pot. The LA completely loses that funding. There is a real danger if more leave then those school left that don’t have the outstanding OFSTED report are going to have to fight for less money. If there is less money then how do we afford to fund the remaining schools? If that happens, then I can see schools closing and amalgamating because the LA just could not afford to run all the schools.

The LA can do nothing. Because it’s been passed by Government. It was passed by Government in 11 weeks. In Government time terms that is light-speed. I really am worried that we are going to get a two tier education system. Do parents have a say in this matter? This next paragraph is surely going to reassure you

However, whether or not a school becomes an Academy (if the application is approved) is ultimately decision for the school’s governing body. Aside from the formal TUPE consultation with staff transferring to the employment of the new Academy Trust, the Government’s initial guidance suggested that there was no statutory requirement to consult parents, pupils and other interested parties, although the governing body would wish to keep them informed. This was, however, amended during the progress of the Bill and the Act places a duty on governing bodies to ‘consult those persons whom they think appropriate before entering into funding arrangements with the Secretary of State. This guidance really assured me (I am being sarcastic) if my sons school decided to go down this route.

I am not saying there are no benefits to this new system, but for me and most of those who sit on this Committee there is a real worry that this system has not really been thought though fully and ‘rushed’. In Cornwall there is only one school who have become an Academy. I really hope is works out for them. I yet remain unconvinced if it will indeed work.

College Transport – 16/19 year olds

Now that the exam results are out; there will be the initial rush for places at College. The shear nature of Cornwall means that most students will have to travel, and for some, a lot of miles. Very few have their own cars, and for many they don’t have access to one. That means they have to use public transport. This can be a costly addition to that person, and/or their families. Cornwall Council has recognised this and has released details how people can apply for subsidised transport. Cornwall Council sets out the case below.

Local Authorities are under no obligation to provide transport for anyone beyond statutory school leaving age. Cornwall Council, like many other local authorities across England, operates a policy of subsidising travel to Further Education for students aged between 16-19 (21 for students with special educational needs) who attend the nearest establishment offering the course(s) the student wishes to study and live over 3 miles from the said establishment.

However students taking an A/AS level course would not automatically qualify for subsidised travel to an establishment which is not the nearest if their designated/nearest school does not offer a particular subject.

Please read these notes carefully. If, when you have read them you think that you qualify and would like Cornwall Council to arrange transport for you to attend a Cornish school sixth form or college, please fill in the application form and return it as soon as possible with payment to:
Transport Officer – Commissioning
Camel Building
County Hall
Telephone: 0300 1234 101
The following questions and answers provide further information on Cornwall Council’s current policy Click HERE

School Term Times

Today a bit of a break though happened at the Children’s Schools and Family Committee. Namely,  I got the current term times to be added to the forward plan (the future work). The proposal I made was as follows

To review the current dates and length of school terms with regard to the relevance and impact on local families, and to consider proposals to change the number, length and dates of term times for this Authority.

This was seconded by Cllr Tamsin Williams. All but one of the Committee voted in favour of this. Now, nothing is going to happen over night. In fact the term times might not change, but what will happen is that a full detailed investigation will take place on this issue. I am really pleased this has happened. Many parents have approached me on this matter. Even a few teachers have. What I am hoping for is a open debate talking to all parties that could be affected asking for their opinions. Once that has taken place a report will be written with the findings, and if required, a recommendation will be made to Council/Cabinet

I believe the last time this was discussed was over 40 years ago (it maybe even longer). The world and family life has moved on greatly. Its about time this was at least looked into.

Here are Cllr Steve Double views. Special thanks to him for helping in getting this through

Summer Holidays – Too long?

The School summer holidays are now upon us. Near 7 weeks of trying to entertain your children is never an easy task. I have been asking myself are summer holidays just too long? I mean the current term times were introduced some 40 years ago. What was good then might not be fit for today’s world.

Back 40 year’s ago family life was completely different. Generally only one parent worked. Today both parents work. Not always out of wanting to, but out of necessity. Today there are more single parent families than 40 year’s ago. Society has changed, and depending on your view point for the better or worse, but I am not getting into that today.

Most people are able to take 2 weeks in summer as holidays, so with both parents that’s a max of 4 weeks. If it’s a single parent they might only be able to have 2 weeks covered. The question is what do you do with those weeks are not covered? Grandparents are one option, but that only works if they are available. Friends can help, but you don’t like to ask that often as they may have their own childcare issues. You might have an older child who can look after the younger ones, but is that fair on that child to become a surrogate parent? If you have no family support then it might be childcare. That in itself is a very expensive option, as you might be paying the same or more than what you earn to pay for care. You ask yourself what’s the point in working if I am just covering the child care fees.

Maybe a sensible option is for Cornwall Council to take a look at term times. I know in other Authorities this has been done and they may have 6 terms instead of the standard 4. If Cornwall Council did (I am not saying they will or even thinking of looking at it) review term times what would be acceptable? 4 weeks in the summer with the other days spread around the other holidays, or have an extra half term somewhere? That does not solve the issue of most people only having 4 weeks holiday a year, but it might make it easier to arrange cover/support during those periods.

If we did look at other option then would this have an effect on the economy of Cornwall? Would Cornwall lose out from the Tourist trade if we changed this? It might not, but it would have to be taken into account. Another question is whether there is the will to change the term times. I raised this question of term times some 14 months ago. I got the feeling that this was not even on the distant radar to be discussed. Is one reason that the powers to be (Cllrs) don’t have children still of school age and therefore don’t see it as an issue?

So I ask you, do you think there should be any change? If so what would you like to see different? If you are a teacher what would you change? I know I would like to see some sort of change as I do feel the current system is out of date and does not reflect the modern working world or family make up.

So, let me know how you see this. If you do respond could you say if you have children at school age please.

UPDATE: Here are the thoughts to one of the professional bloggers out there on the same subject. click HERE for Teacher Talks

1 2 3