Wirral Council: It’s time for some “openness and transparency” in the Lyndale School closure consultation!
Labour councillors vote at a public meeting of Wirral Council’s Coordinating Committee vote to consult on closing Lyndale School (27th February 2014)
The consultation on closing Lyndale School closes in about a fortnight (the consultation ends on 25th June 2014).
One of the reasons that an officer gave at the call in meeting for closing Lyndale School is Wirral Council reducing its contribution towards PFI (private finance initiative) costs and expecting the schools budget to cover it. The reduction is £600,000 this year and a planned reduction of £2.3 million for 2015-16 (the budget for 2015-16 will be agreed in 2015). This year the £600,000 PFI shortfall in the schools budget is being met from an underspend in the SEN budget, which I wrote about previously “Wirral Council officers want to spend £600,000 of £1.4 million special educational needs underspend on PFI deal”.
Expecting the schools budget in 2015-16 to pay for a further £2.3 million of PFI costs will according to this report to the Schools Forum “require permanent savings to be identified within the overall Schools Budget”. The PFI payments Wirral Council make go to a company called Wirral Schools Services Limited. One of the issues brought up at the last Schools Forum meeting was whether there was flexibility in PFI contract or whether the whole contract could be renegotiated so that the payments would be lower. As part of the Wirral Council’s annual audit, any person has a right to “inspect the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating to them, and make copies of all or any part of the accounts and those other documents.”. Unfortunately the period when the public can do this will probably start after the Lyndale School consultation has finished.
I made two freedom of information act requests for copies of the invoices of the January 2014 PFI payment to Wirral School Services Limited of £1,092,160.12 and the February 2014 PFI payment to Wirral School Services Limited of £1,092,160.12. Both requests were turned down as Wirral Council claim they will be publishing these invoices in the next six months. I’ve submitted an internal review to both requests a week and half ago and Wirral Council have yet to respond.
On Saturday I wrote this email below requesting a copy of Wirral Council’s contract with Wirral School Services Limited. Five days later I am yet to receive a reply.
from: John Brace
to: David Armstrong
cc: “Sault, Tom W.”
date: 7 June 2014 09:32
subject: contract with Wirral Schools Services Limited
Dear David Armstrong,
I was talking with Tom yesterday and he reminded me that the period when the public can inspect (and receive copies) of contracts and invoices is coming up soon. I told him I was interested in the
Council’s contract with Wirral Schools Services Limited about the PFI matters.
He suggested I make an FOI request for it but I told him I hadn’t done so as I thought such a request would be turned down on grounds of commercial sensitivity (despite the fact that previous requests I’ve
made that fall within the Children and Young People’s Department have tended to be answered fully and quickly).
As you know there was quite a heated debate at the last Wirral Schools Forum about the Council reducing its funding for the PFI affordability gap. There is a current consultation on the closure of Lyndale School and clearly some sort of compensatory savings will have to be made to the schools budget to compensate for the Council’s contribution being reduced.
Providing the contract (which I’d quite happily publish) during the consultation on closure of Lyndale School would help with public understanding of officer’s assertions as to why savings need to be
made. I realise that I could wait until after the consultation is over and request it, but due to the reasons outlined and officers previous commitments at public meetings to be open and transparent during the consultation could the contract be provided electronically via email or if this is problematic copied and I’d be happy to pick up a copy at the Town Hall?
Here’s a quote from what Julia Hassall said on the 27th March 2014 at the call in meeting to councillors, officers and those present, which was reported on this blog “OK, by way of reassurance that we will have a very full and open and transparent consultation. “. In a Wirral Globe article of 17th March 2014 Julia Hasall is quoted as saying “There is a commitment to make sure that the 12 week consultation is a thorough, open and transparent process.”.
If I’m getting stonewalled and ignored over my requests for information that form part of the rationale for consulting on closing Lyndale School, then from my perspective Wirral Council isn’t being “open and transparent”.
There are some other points I will make about this consultation. In the consultation document it is written (in relation to financial years after 2014-15) “This budget deficit has the potential to increase in subsequent years by £120,000 per annum (every year), based on the numbers of children currently on the school roll.” and it also refers to a deficit this year of £19,000.
During the consultation, the headteacher Pat Stewart retired. Until the uncertainty over the future of Lyndale School is resolved I doubt they will be recruiting for a headteacher and the position will be vacant. Therefore due to Pat Stewart’s retirement, the figures used in the consultation are incorrect. According to the Times Educational Supplement from 2010 the average female special school headteacher was paid £59,000. As Lyndale School won’t have to pay her salary (as she’s retired) even if she is paid much less than the average as Lyndale is a small school this should lead to a surplus not a deficit this year.
I’ve no idea how this £120,000 per annum deficit figure is calculated. This report to Cabinet in January gives a different figure of £160,000 a year.
Personally I think it’s based on a lot of assumptions. As detailed in the government’s consultation on next year’s funding “We will retain the Minimum Funding Guarantee, which has been in place over many years and which dictates that for the vast majority of schools, funding per pupil cannot drop by more than 1.5% per year”. £120,000 (a drop of 15.75%) represents more than a 1.5% drop to Lyndale School’s budget, so Wirral Council must be assuming they will make a successful application to the Education Funding Agency for an exemption to the minimum funding guarantee for 2015-16 and that this will be approved.
This table which was presented to the Wirral School Forum meeting of the 13th November 2013 showed what effect moving to the “Place plus” system of funding would have had on Lyndale School’s budget for the 2014-15 financial year. Lyndale School’s budget allocation in fact increases from the previous year. In 2013-14 it is £761,733 and under place plus it’s £768,121.
So why have figures of £160,000 been used in a previous Cabinet report and £120,000 been used in the consultation document? I’ve no idea why and if you do, please leave a comment.
The final point I will make is that I look forward to reading the SEN Improvement Test, like many others I don’t understand fully how the proposal to close Lyndale School will meet the SEN Improvement Test.
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