Is Lyndale School under threat just so Wirral Council can provide a further £2 million to a company that already has plenty?
Councillor Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services) at the Special Cabinet Meeting of 4th September 2014 to discuss Lyndale School L to R Cllr Stuart Whittingham, Cllr Tony Smith (Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services), Cllr Bernie Mooney and Lyndzay Roberts
Last Thursday morning I visited Lyndale School in Eastham. This was my first visit, although regular readers of this blog will know that I have written extensively on the topic and filmed many public meetings of Wirral Council on the many stages involving its potential closure in January 2016.
Regular readers of this blog will also know that despite promises made in February 2014 by senior officers at a call in that matters would be dealt with in a completely “open and transparent” way, that the recent 13 page letter received from Surjit Tour turned down a request for a meeting between myself and Wirral Council on this matter.
Thankfully the Lyndale School appears to be behaving in a far more “open and transparent” way than Wirral Council is!
I wanted to start this piece by describing my impressions of the school as some of my observations about a visit to Lyndale School raise further unanswered questions.
On the same plot of land as the Lyndale School is also Eastham Youth Centre. Clearly the current consultation is about the Lyndale School, however I know relatively little about this Youth Centre. Is this Youth Centre open, closed, working or threatened with closure itself? I don’t really know the answer to that question and would appreciate somebody better informed, or more closely connected to Eastham than I to leave a comment.
Moving to the Lyndale School itself, it looks from the outside like many other primary schools do on the Wirral. Unlike when I went to school in the 1980/1990s where there literally was an “open door” policy at primary schools, these days (as is common with all other schools on the Wirral now) you need to press a buzzer on an intercom system to be let in.
There is then a reception area on the right, which at the time of my visit had many stuffed toy animals on the counter. To the left is a visitors book for visitors to sign and visitors badges on which the names of visitors can be written. On the wall is also a photo of each member of staff who works there and their job title.
My personal view on the latter point, is that organisations that do such a thing, tend to be more open and transparent than those who try to hide behind a bewildering, faceless and largely unaccountable bureaucracy.
As we had both been walking up from Eastham Rake train station, someone we both knew, who lives in Eastham had been passing in their car and had kindly offered us both a lift to the Lyndale School. So we both arrived earlier than I expected, which gave me a chance to see people coming and going for a while and how things were going. Despite the pressures the Lyndale School is going through, staff were professional and the “open door” policy referred to at the call in I saw in action as one of the parents arrived while we were waiting. If a decision is made to close the Lyndale School, this is one of the matters that the parents of the children at Lyndale School have expressed concern about as they cannot see this in operation at the other schools suggested.
There is obviously a lot of trust that exists between the parents of children at Lyndale School and the staff there. Certainly there is (despite the stress the School is under because of the political issues) a lot of goodwill between the parents and staff at the school. That’s something that never appears on Wirral Council’s balance sheet as it’s something that can’t be quantified. This is part of the reason the parents of children at Lyndale School want the School to stay as it is, as they don’t see the same ethos at Lyndale School at either Stanley School or Elleray Park.
Echoing what I have heard Julia Hassall (Director of Children’s Services at Wirral Council) say many times, I will also make the following point. Some schools are closed down because they are “failing schools”. Lyndale School doesn’t fall into that category and that is not one of the reasons behind the consultations on its closure. I wish to make that as clear as I can (as has Julia Hassall at many public meetings). The view from the public can be to jump to the conclusion that schools are only threatened with closure because things at them are going pear-shaped. This is not the case at Lyndale School and I will also point out that no final decision on closure of Lyndale School has yet been made by Wirral Council’s Cabinet.
I have referred before in articles describing Lyndale School as a “hospital school” as personally I think it is probably a more accurate description of what goes on in Lyndale School. Think of the political fuss that would happen if say in the lead up to a General Election (and I’ll point out now that I know of no such plans) that there was a consultation on closing the children’s ward and the hospital school at Arrowe Park Hospital? Think of it purely from that perspective and you can perhaps see how emotional an issue it is for both the people directly involved and the wider community.
There are many new matters involving Lyndale School I could write about but instead I will explain what I was at Lyndale School for. There was a very interesting meeting of the Friends of Lyndale School Association held there which was a private meeting, so there is a limit about what I will write here about it.
However, I had better explain what and who the Friends of Lyndale School Association are. The Friends of Lyndale School Association are a small charity set up in March of this year and registered with the Charity Commission in June. Their charitable objects are:
To advance the education of pupils in the school in particular by:
developing effective relationships between the staff, parents and others associated with the school;
engaging in activities or providing facilities or equipment which support the school and advance the education of the pupils.
It’s hard to describe exactly what the Friends of Lyndale School Association is, but the closest easily understood comparison to it, is a parent-teacher association or PTA for the Lyndale School. As with all PTAs they raise money to be spent on their charitable objects and you can (if you wish) donate to them online on the webpage on Justgiving website for the Friends of Lyndale School Association.
If the Lyndale School closes, the Friends of Lyndale School Association have made it clear that any remaining funds would be donated to Claire House (which is a children’s hospice on the Wirral). The Wirral Globe are also printing interviews with the parents of Lyndale School (which if you wish to read the first three are on the Wirral Globe website starting here, continuing here and the most recent one is and I will at this stage (and I don’t often do this about someone else in the local media) thank Emma Rigby of the Wirral Globe for her reporting in the Wirral Globe of this story.
Yesterday evening there was supposed to be a meeting of all councillors at Wirral Council. However as most people probably know already a lot of public sector unions went on strike and that meeting was shifted to the evening of the 20th October 2014. One of the matters on the agenda is a minority report (no not the film Minority Report with Tom Cruise this refers to something different) but a minority report about the recent Lyndale School call in.
In fact there are five minority reports about various matters. There is one about the Lyndale School call in submitted by various councillors in the Conservative Group that you can read on Wirral Council’s website. The minority report procedure hasn’t been used for a long time and I think most people are unsure whether it’s an item that could trigger a debate or whether it would just be voted on. Had it not been for the strike yesterday, this would probably have already happened.
After the call in meeting on 2nd October 2014, the second consultation on closure of Lyndale School should’ve started as the Cabinet delegated this matter to Julia Hassall. She therefore probably knows more the timescales than I do. As far as I know (and Wirral Council’s constitution has been through a lot of changes in the past few years), a decision of a call in committee is still implemented by officers even if a minority report is submitted to the next Council meeting (which should’ve taken place yesterday evening but was I would guess put back a week because of the strike).
My concerns about the entire process in this matter over the last year and how this has all been done I’ve written about before. I am not going to repeat myself here. There are however concerns about corporate governance at Wirral Council about this matter that I haven’t expressed in public.
Personally I think it is a crying shame, that on an issue as sensitive as Lyndale School, that all political parties now represented on Wirral Council (whether Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem or Green) can’t come to an agreement (behind closed doors if need be) to pause this whole process and have a review.
Wirral Council claim that they can’t keep the Lyndale School open in 2015-16 due to a shortfall between what the Lyndale School predicts they will need and what Wirral Council is willing to give them. The shortfall will be
I have written on this blog before that Wirral Council could easily find this small amount of money if they wished and move it around from existing budgets if the political will was there. In fact papers that went the Wirral Schools Forum last week showed that through reductions in this year’s budget they found ~£2 million. So where’s this money going? It’ll be put in a reserve and used next year to go to Wirral Schools Services Limited who have a PFI Schools contract for various schools (and two city learning centres) with Wirral Council as part of a ~£12 million/year contribution.
Wirral School Services Limited’s account show that for 2014 they had £1.93 million in cash assets, which is £6.33 million in assets minus their £4.39 million in liabilities.
What’s amazing is that a Labour Council, who trumpets its “socialist values” in election leaflets, it is seemingly happy to make £2 million of cuts in year to the Wirral Council’s Schools Budget for this year (which obviously need Wirral Schools Forum approval and Cabinet approval) to help plug a financial gap in the 2015-16 Schools PFI contract, but when it comes to an amount ten times smaller than that to be found no report I’ve seen so far even lists finding the money to keep Lyndale School open in 2015-16 (from such as underspends in existing budgets) as an alternative option!?
Despite the words of Wirral Council in the past that they would put vulnerable people such as the pupils of Lyndale School first, it seems that the school is under threat whilst capitalist greed gobbles up the available funds. If Wirral Council so wished, it could either end or renegotiate the Schools PFI contract. The schools system should not be run to feed the profits of private companies!!! Nor should vulnerable children have such a low priority!!! These are two of my main frustrations with the current situation.
I will repeat again, if you wish to donate to the Friends of Lyndale School Association you can here. The Justgiving website takes a 5% cut of all donations and charges £18 a month to the Friends of Lyndale School Association. However the other 95% (minus £18/month) is paid directly to them.
I know I will continue to get criticism (and I really don’t mind comments on this blog attacking me) from some quarters for how I’m reporting the Lyndale School issue, there has been however nothing so far that convinces me that all the decisions taken by Wirral Council so far have either been taken in the right way or for the right reasons. If everything was done so far “by the book” and in an “open and transparent” way, I would not be as irked by how the matter has happened as I am.
On a personal note, I realise there has been a deterioration in relations between Wirral Council and those associated with the Lyndale School. If other special schools on the Wirral think they will escape whilst Wirral Council’s focus is on Lyndale School, they will need to have a drastic rethink and not bury their heads in the sand. I will repeat here what I said at Lyndale School on Thursday.
There is a current consultation that the government is running on the draft Schools and Early Years Finance (England) Regulations 2014. These are the regulations (a type of law) that Wirral Council has to conform to when setting schools’ budgets annually.
At the moment, because of a part of the law known as the “minimum funding guarantee”, for this 2014-15 year Wirral Council could not drop school budgets such as Lyndale Schools by more than 1.5% based on what their previous year’s budget allocation was.
However the draft regulations being consulted on, whereas they (in draft form) keep the minimum funding guarantee for mainstream schools, get rid of the current minimum funding guarantee for special schools. Personally and I’m going to get quite political now, I think it is morally wrong to protect mainstream funding for mainstream schools, but at the same time allow local councils to (if they so wish) to totally change the budget (and therefore nature) of special schools which can in extreme cases ultimately force them to close. Obviously the draft regulations may be altered post consultation, but you can respond to that consultation run by the Department of Education here. That consultation closes this Friday (17th October) at 5.00pm.
If the new regulations (following consultation) abolish the existing legal protections for special school budgets, it will be perfectly legal for local councils (such as Wirral Council) to come up with a schools funding formula for 2015-16 that leads not just to the potential closure of schools such as the Lyndale School but dramatically changes the funding allocated to other special schools as the new banding system was agreed earlier this year at a call in a controversial 8:7 vote.
Wirral Council has shifted money out of the agreed budget for special schools to cross subsidise other parts of the education system, such as PFI. This is of course entirely legal if officers get the necessary approvals from the Wirral Schools Forum and others. However in other local authorities, an underspend in the special education side of matters would not be used to plug financial holes and financial instability elsewhere. Other Schools Forums take the prudent approach that underspends on the special educational needs side are put in financial reserves earmarked for that area of education.
The spare capacity such as underspends of money that was agreed should be spent in the special schools system, has instead been used to cross subsidise other parts of Wirral Council’s Schools Budget. The money however always seems to flow out of the special schools system and never back to it. Had these political decisions not been made, there would be more than enough money to keep Lyndale School open (at least for the 2015-16 year and possibly beyond). However instead the influence of a large company such as Wirral Schools Services Limited with large financial reserves has been listened to, whilst the pleas of Lyndale School parents merely to continue with what they already have, have so far been met with a lack of political will to explore alternative options and a knee jerk reaction to blame the situation on the Coalition government, the Church of England and even the Lyndale School itself, without apparently getting across to the public the personal responsibility that politicians at Wirral Council must take for each decision they make.
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