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Posted by: John Brace | 11th August 2014

Lyndale School Consultation branded “white-wash” & 1 officer is singled out for criticism for lack of impartiality

Lyndale School Consultation branded “white-wash” & 1 officer is singled out for criticism for lack of impartiality

                           

Phil Ward (Wirral Council's SEN Lead) at a later meeting of Wirral Schools Forum 2nd July 2014
Phil Ward (Wirral Council’s SEN Lead) at a later meeting of Wirral Schools Forum 2nd July 2014

Lyndale School has of course made the news again, as the “high level notes” of the six consultation meetings have been published in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The concept that these “high level notes” should actually be used as part of the decision-making process is an interesting one.

I was at one of the six consultation meetings so I looked at the “notes” for that one and compared it to my own notes, transcript of the first hour (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8) and an audio recording of what actually happened.

As Tom Harney (the Chair of governors at Lyndale School) himself said at that actual meeting in relation to another matter “it’s amazing the things that go on”. He was also one of the few speakers at that meeting to get applause. The comments made by Cllr Paul Hayes (a Conservative councillor who if I remember correctly was also present at that same meeting) about the consultation process as reported in their local paper were very critical of the way the consultation process and that meeting was handled.

As I’ve mentioned the Conservative and Lib Dem positions, I should mention that the only Labour councillor I recognised at the meeting (Cabinet Member for Childrens’ Services Cllr Tony Smith) arrived late. It is of course extremely difficult to describe what the Labour position is on Lyndale School other than being pro closure consultation, telling the public that they have an open mind and that no decision has been made yet. A decision is expected on the 4th September on the next stage. The point that Labour are keen to make is not for Labour to do things that would give the impression that they have made their mind up. This was again made at the July Council meeting by Councillor Tony Smith and Councillor Phil Davies.

So in the words of a Wirral Council officer Phil Ward what was the purpose of these notes about the meetings? Phil Ward said “They’re notes recording the high level points raised at the meetings and importantly we will be reporting them to Cabinet.”

I had a look through the notes for the one question I asked in the two-hour meeting (something is there but it bears little resemblance to what I asked). It wasn’t there in any form that resembles what I asked. Maybe it wasn’t classed as “high level” enough. Maybe I should instead have started by saying “This is a high level question I am asking so please put it in the notes”. Or maybe Wirral Council doesn’t like putting down tricky questions and answers and prefers to subtly rewrite the historical record to suit itself.

However this isn’t about me. This is about Lyndale School. Let’s have a look at the notes Wirral Council produced.

Here’s the first line of their notes “10th April 2014: 10am to 12pm”

Err no, seems Wirral Council can’t get the date and time of its own consultation right (which should worry you there right from the start if they can’t get the simple stuff right like the date and time!) It should read “16th June 2014: 5.30pm to 7.30pm”.

Turns out there were two different meetings at Acre Lane as part of the consultation. There were notes from both meetings. Apologies.

Moving on, it seems the “points” column according to the table used are not what the people had to say at the consultation. No the “points” column is reserved solely for points made by officers and the Cabinet Member Cllr Tony Smith.

The more difficult questions raised, the important concerns of parents about what’s going to happen, what appears in the points column? Nothing… almost as if Wirral Council is ashamed as to what was said to these questions to be known in public.

Even some of the answers that do make it are misleading. At least one of the officers is in fact tying themselves in knots and going into policy areas that strictly speaking in my opinion they shouldn’t. To the best of my knowledge all the officers at that meeting are in politically restricted posts. One of these legal restrictions from what I remember is that they are not allowed to “speak to the public at large or to a section of the public with the apparent intention of affecting public support for a political party”.

Now I will make this clear, I’m not referring to Julia Hassall, David Armstrong or Andrew Roberts. These people are senior professionals and although I’m sure people like me make doing their jobs more difficult, I will state now my personal opinion that all three have been extremely professional in my past dealings with them.

This is despite me doing what in any other sphere of life outside the political arena would be classed as behaviour that would lead to people falling out with each other. I have written things (robust criticism would be putting it very mildly) that disagree with their professional opinions and have pointed out what I perceive as flaws in arguments they have used. They know I do not however do this out of malice or anything personal.

That’s just the nature of politics as one of the rules is “don’t take things personally”. Other people’s opinion of them may be wildly different but like myself they are doing a job in a highly political environment, so criticism goes with the territory. They are public figures (as are politicians) and are rewarded with a high salary partly to reflect the problems that having to deal with the likes of the press can cause.

Now you can point out at this point the press is supposed to be impartial. I try to be even-handed (and believe me that’s very difficult at times) and to quote Cllr Jerry Williams recently “There’s no side to the gentleman, he does a very good job”. An editorial decision (and I’m pretty sure the Wirral Globe takes a similar policy stance too) was made a long time ago that we’re against the closure of Lyndale School, but obviously in the reporting of this matter to do it justice we have to report both sides of this issue.

There are people of course that are for the closure of Lyndale School. You are entitled to your opinion too (it just happens to be one that this publication disagrees with but that is the nature of politics)! However one of the extremely important roles of the press in society is to stand up for the viewpoints of people who can’t advocate for themselves. The children of Lyndale School are in that position.

The person to whom my criticism is about at that meeting is the Wirral Council officer Phil Ward. Now I’m not saying he said things downright stupid and overt like “vote Labour in May” I’m not. However throughout the whole meeting he appeared to champion a particular policy position/stance on this matter.

There is admittedly a fine line between explaining decisions that have already been made and talking about decisions that have yet to be made by politicians in the future. The former is entirely legitimate for officers to do. Taking policy positions (especially on a party political matter such as how education budgets are spent) is something that officers have to be very careful of.

Now officers can say in relation to future decisions “based on my professional advice or opinion I advise you to do X (or X, Y and Z are options I’d prefer you to do X). However the decision is up to you.” That is one thing, however they should not advocate support when speaking to the public during a consultation for a particular political decision that has yet to be decided or even worse give the impression that a decision has already been made when it hasn’t yet (even if they think they can guess how it will be made). If they go down this route, their impartiality will be called and can be called into question (and his was during the meeting).

No officer at Wirral Council I know of before in a politically restricted post has done what was done at that consultation meeting by Phil Ward in the way he did it. Believe me, during meetings politicians have put officers under extreme pressure to take sides. Most officers with some common sense (and there are a lot of them at Wirral Council) will politely decline to answer such questions. This is what should happen.

This was however what the audience at Acre Lane found so amazing. A consultation is supposed to be about listening to their views (and yes Wirral Council has a long way to go on getting better at involving the public in their decision-making). However chairing this meeting was an officer who was the equivalent of waving a red flag to a bull. Had he come to the meeting with the genuine attitude of “We’re here today to hear your views, the purpose of the consultation is to do that, we appreciate you being here and we’ll listen carefully to what you have to say.” then I think the audience would’ve applauded him. However the impression the audience got was that he was lecturing them and completely impervious to any other viewpoints.

Sadly this particular officer did somewhat get stuck in “broadcast” mode. However, this attitude leads to the audience getting the following impression and I quote from the notes “No one has fully answered any question. You are just white-washing it. You have already made your decision”.

The Wirral public are not stupid, nor are they children. They are able to read people’s body language and how they say something. How something is said and the person’s body language when saying it are a large part of its meaning. Sadly Phil Ward didn’t seem politically savvy enough that night to develop a positive relationship with the audience. Nor did he seem to appreciate the way power shifts. The senior officers are better attuned to these kind of things.

There was for example in that room that night, Emma Rigby from the Wirral Globe, myself and Leonora. For those who recognise us, they’d know that that amount of people from the press means you have to be very careful what you say. I hope to carry on in the next few days with publishing a transcript of the long meeting itself. In the meantime the below links should take you to what has been published so far.

Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: Tom Harney “it’s amazing the things that go on” (part 8)
Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: Funding, banding and need (part 7)
Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: Kingsway, funding and hydrotherapy pools (part 6)
Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: questions about the sensory garden, resources, Elleray Park and Stanley (Part 5)
Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: questions about Stanley, Elleray, Foxfield & the educational psychologist (Part 4)
Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: questions about banding, outdoor space and Stanley School (Part 3)
Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: David Armstrong explains why there’s a consultation and questions begin (Part 2)
Lyndale School Consultation Meeting: Julia Hassall explains why Wirral Council are consulting on closure (Part 1)

Audio of entire consultation meeting

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