I’ve been the Borough Councillor responsible for Children’s Services and Education here 2015-19 and feel it has been a great privilege. Sadly, though, I have had the role during years when life is becoming more difficult for an increasing number of our 27,000 children and young people.
Children’s social care does not have the public profile it deserves, except when there is a tragedy or a crisis. I would like to pay tribute here to our hardworking and courageous staff, and in particular to their goodwill and spirit, without which we could not function at all. Few people in this land are more dedicated and less recognized for their work.
To do justice to that work I must also say that there is a great deal to celebrate. Much service-improvement work has been done following our OfSTED Inspection, and we are also very proud to have National Social Worker of the Year, Louise Walker, as our Head of Social Work and Professional Standards.
This year’s Key Stage 2 SATs results put our primary schools once again amongst the country’s best. Of the 15 highest-scoring Local Authorities, 14 are in London and the other one is us at number 5: a fantastic confirmation of the collaboration between schools that we initiated.
Our foster-care recruitment campaign has also been very successful, and we continue to develop it, believing that our looked after children have the best possible home amongst our family of foster-carers.
Congratulations also to our health visitors and school nurses, whose work was inspected by the CQC and found to be so effective there were no recommendations for improvement.
We have also recently seen the merger of Redcar and Cleveland College with Stockton Riverside College, to ensure we continue to have a local college for local people with a wide-range of courses at all levels. We will continue to work closely with the new College on its journey, whilst acknowledging the difficult environment for Further Education nationally.
However, it must be acknowledged that the facts working against us are stark. The Children’s Commissioner has recently reported there are 2 million children (1 in 6) growing up in vulnerable families where there are serious risks in England, 1.6 million of them receiving no known support or help from the system. As she writes, “the economic and social costs are unsustainable”. Along with the National Children’s Bureau, the Children’s Commissioner, Barnardo’s, the NSPCC, and many other bodies, I call on the Government to take immediate action in the next Spending Review to support our most vulnerable children. I agree with the Conservative MP Tim Houghton, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children, who wrote,
“it is unconscionable that we are putting children’s safety at risk by allowing families to fall into crisis before we step in to help”.
As well as the crisis in children’s social care funding, we are also concerned about the education system our schools and academies struggle with. Our school leavers should have done well in their GCSEs in May as they are the first in the borough whose SATs results back in primary were greatly improved, as the collaboration between primary schools that our Education Service initiated started to bear fruit. But we must also acknowledge that this was by far the toughest exam year for Year 11 students in the last few decades, with newly reformed subjects and much more content to learn; nearly 50 per cent more exams to take; less time to study new courses that were only approved in mid-2016; and less familiarity with courses and marking schemes amongst teaching staff. Early indications in the figures suggest that some of our schools have improved their results, though we are all aware of the huge variation in the performance of secondary academies and schools across the borough.
We remain also very concerned about the very high number of pupil exclusions in some schools and academies, which now include some children who previously did well in primary school. As the report details, we have challenged every possible educationalist and official over this issue, including in Westminster. We are deeply worried about the effects these exclusions are having on the children themselves, but also the effects on their families and the future of the borough.
There needs to be some recognition of reality in Westminster. The growth of the academy and free schools programme has brought a new level of complexity, particularly when the performance of a Multi Academy Trust (MAT) is giving concern. Nationally, we have seen MATs being forced to hand back or voluntarily handing back poorly performing schools to local authorities. This is leaving them in limbo whilst a new sponsor is sought, with school leaders unable to make significant decisions during the hiatus, which can take months. In such cases the governing body should have the legal option of returning to our Local Authority family of schools, particularly if financial mismanagement in an academy has occurred. The interests of children must be at the forefront of decisions at all times, and Local Authority services should be invested in to provide support which is better than the poor value for money shown in some MATs.
As ever, one of the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of my role as Lead Member has been meeting many wonderful children and young people who never cease to amaze me with their resilience, aspirations and achievements. I have also helped to strengthen our partnerships with the charities, agencies, and groups which work alongside us, including in the recently launched Children and Young People’s Partnership Board and other strategic partnerships.
I wish all our children and young people and their families good fortune and fulfilment in the future.
Cllr Craig Hannaway