Wirral Council: It’s time for some “openness and transparency” in the Lyndale School closure consultation!

Wirral Council: It’s time for some “openness and transparency” in the Lyndale School closure consultation!

Wirral Council: It’s time for some “openness and transparency” in the Lyndale School closure consultation!

                             

Labour councillors at a public meeting of Wirral Council's Coordinating Committee vote to consult on closing Lyndale School (27th February 2014)

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
reply-to: john.brace@gmail.com
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?

Thanks,

John Brace
——————————————————————————————————-
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.

If you click on any of the buttons below, you’ll be doing me a favour by sharing this with other people.

3 reasons why Wirral Council got budget projections on Lyndale School so very wrong

3 reasons why Wirral Council got budget projections on Lyndale School so very wrong

3 reasons why Wirral Council got budget projections on Lyndale School so very wrong

                         

Labour councillors at a public meeting of Wirral Council's Coordinating Committee vote to consult on closing Lyndale School (27th February 2014)

Labour councillors at a public meeting of Wirral Council’s Coordinating Committee vote to consult on closing Lyndale School (27th February 2014)

Reason 1: An assumption was made about the minimum funding guarantee

As covered in an earlier blog post, Wirral Council applied to the Education Funding Agency for permission that the minimum funding guarantee requirement that Lyndale School in 2014-15 (minimum funding requirement means it would receive at least 98.5% of the funding it got in 2013-14 when Lyndale School’s budget was £761,733) wouldn’t apply.

You can read Wirral’s application here in response to my Freedom of Information Act request to the Education Funding Agency.

The report to Cabinet uses a figure of a deficit of £72,000 for 2014-15 (see the fourth paragraph of 2.8) which is 9% of Lyndale School’s budget. However Wirral withdrew their application for an exemption from the minimum funding guarantee before the call in meeting.

As this blog post details at the end thanks to the minimum funding guarantee Lyndale now project a small surplus in 2014-15 and the cumulative deficit at the end of 2015 is only projected to be £18,000 rather than the £72,000 figure used in the January Cabinet report.

Reason 2: A prediction about Lyndale’s budget in an unspecified future year

In the same Cabinet report a deficit for Lyndale School’s budget is predicted in an unspecified future year of £160,000 (representing £10,000 for each of the sixteen spare places it has) (see the fourth paragraph of 2.8). This is added to the projected £72,000 deficit to make £232,000. Reason 1 goes into detail as to why the £72,000 figure is wrong.

However the £160,000 figure is wrong (in my opinion) too and here is why. As specified in Wirral Council’s application for an exemption from the minimum funding guarantee, the minimum funding guarantee is a condition of the Dedicated Schools Grant that Wirral Council receive each year from the government for education. The minimum funding guarantee is also a legal requirement.

The full wording of that condition of the 2014-15 schools grant for Wirral Council is only partially quoted in their application for an exemption from the minimum funding guarantee. However it can be found in this document Dedicated schools grant (Departmental guide for local authorities on the operation of the grant 2014-2015) (page 6) and is quoted here:-

Determination of the local funding formula and funding for high needs pupils

“11. The following conditions apply in relation to the determination of the local funding formula and the funding for high needs pupils:

…….

g. in deciding on top-up funding rates for the pupils it will place in special schools maintained by the Authority and Special Academies formerly maintained by the authority, the authority must ensure that the rates for each school are set no lower than at such a rate or rates that, if all the pupils in the school or Academy were placed by the authority, and the total number and type of places remained the same in the two financial years, the school or Academy’s budget would reduce by no more than 1.5% in cash between 2013 to 2014 and 2014-15;”

This reference to a £160,000 deficit can however be read as a reference to Lyndale School’s budget for 2015-16. The government is currently running a consultation on schools funding (which ends on 30th April 2014) called Fairer Schools Funding 2015-16. One of the consultation documents as part of the consultation has this to state on the minimum funding guarantee.

“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*”

“*Some funding is excluded from the calculation of the Minimum Funding Guarantee. Details of this are in 2014-15 Revenue Funding Arrangements: Operational Information for Local Authorities.

The latter document specifies a number of exclusions to the Minimum Funding Guarantee, which don’t apply to Lyndale School. Although the government has committed to a minimum funding guarantee for 2015/16 it hasn’t specified what level it will be at as this is dependant on a spending review that has yet to take place. However using Lyndale’s 2013-14 budget as a guide (£761,733), £160,000 represents a massive drop of 21%.

2015 is a General Election year, do you think the government would really set the minimum funding guarantee for 2015-16 low enough to cause the kind of huge deficit that would lead to many schools across the country closing in the months leading to a General Election? Personally I don’t think it would.

3. But what about “Place plus”?

The rationale behind the £160,000 mentioned in reason 2 was that for each place Wirral Council receives £10,000. Lyndale School at the time of writing the Cabinet report had sixteen empty places (16 * £10,000), therefore if the funding Wirral Council receives is based on pupils at Lyndale rather than places Lyndale would lose out due to the empty places.

As mentioned earlier, the minimum funding guarantee doesn’t make this an issue in 2014-15. The way the minimum funding guarantee is calculated for 2014-15 for a special school doesn’t take account of the numbers of pupils or empty places at a school. As the legislation on how to calculate the minimum funding guarantee for 2014-15 quite clearly states:

“references to the number of pupils exclude those funded by a sixth form grant and those in places which the local authority have reserved for children with special educational needs;”

As referred to at the end of reason 2, it’s a General Election year next year, will the government really change how the minimum funding guarantee for special schools is calculated for 2015-16 from a formula based on the total budget of the school to a pupil based formula causing some special schools to close in the lead up to the General Election? I haven’t got a crystal ball, but I doubt they would. Even if the funding formula changes to a more pupil based funding, the minimum funding guarantee for 2015-16 (at whatever level it is set at) should protect schools like Lyndale School from large changes to their budget.

So what do you think? Have I got something wrong? If there is no financial reason to close down Lyndale what’s the real reason? I’d be delighted to read your opinion and you can have your say (even anonymously) by leaving a comment.

If you click on any of the buttons below, you’ll be doing me a favour by sharing this article with other people.

Cabinet takes 38 seconds to consider Lyndale School call in minutes and 10 councillors fail to mention at least 4 factual errors in them

Cabinet takes 38 seconds to consider Lyndale School call in minutes and 10 councillors fail to mention at least 4 factual errors in them

Cabinet consider Lyndale School call in minutes in 38 seconds,10 councillors fail to mention at least 4 factual errors

                             

Councillor Phil Davies asked Surjit Tour for advice on what to do about the draft minutes on the call ins about consulting on closing Lyndale School and special educational needs funding at a Wirral Council Cabinet meeting of the 13th March 2014
Councillor Phil Davies asked Surjit Tour for advice on what to do about the draft minutes on the call ins about consulting on closing Lyndale School and special educational needs funding at a Wirral Council Cabinet meeting of the 13th March 2014

Please accept YouTube cookies to play this video. By accepting you will be accessing content from YouTube, a service provided by an external third party.

YouTube privacy policy

If you accept this notice, your choice will be saved and the page will refresh.

Wirral Council’s Cabinet considers the draft minutes of the call ins on consulting on closing Lyndale School and how special education needs funding is allocated starting at 9:10 in the video above and finishing at 9:48 (a total of thirty-eight seconds on a matter on which 6,440 people signed a petition

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;

I rarely refer to religion on this blog (which is about politics) as although we don’t have the kind of constitutional separation of church and state that a country like America does, religion rarely features in Wirral’s politics. I was raised up a Catholic but for many years was an organist (until sadly I broke my wrist in two places) at St. James’ church. The quote above is from the Anglican General Confession which I heard many times over the years. There also a bit in it that says “We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts” which some would say sums up why things went so pear-shaped at Wirral Council. However this blog post (much as it might be more interesting to write such a piece) isn’t going to be a fire and brimstone opinion piece or about whether making immoral decisions puts the immortal souls of politicians in jeopardy.

So moving on to things that Wirral Council has done which it ought not to have done and the things it should have done but didn’t. Yesterday’s Cabinet meeting had at agenda item 15 an item described on the agenda in this way:

Recommendations from Policy and Performance Coordinating Committee – 27 February 2014

The Cabinet is requested to consider recommendations from the Policy and Performance Coordinating Committee held on 27 February 2014, in respect of the following call-in notices:-

  • Cabinet 16 December 2013 (Minute 129) – Report Seeking Approval to Consult on the Closure of The Lyndale School
  • Cabinet 16 December 2013 (Minute 140) – Proposals for Changes to School Top Up Payments for Students with High Needs

Minutes to follow”

Now in the “bad old days”, when Wirral Council officers wanted politicians not to thoroughly scrutinise something it would be handed out on the night of the meeting itself and not included with the reports published on the Council’s website a week before the meeting or with the papers sent out to people on that committee.

I did see Cllr Tony Smith ask for (and receive) a copy of the draft minutes in the minutes before the Cabinet meeting started. Councillor Phil Davies said that the Cabinet had been given the draft minutes given to them “this evening” but would any councillor have had the time to read twenty-one pages of minutes before getting to agenda item 15?

“We have left undone those things which we ought to have done”

So why am I going on about all this? It’s unlawful to do things this way and yet politicians (and officers) seem to either in total blissful ignorance about this or do know and are deliberately keeping quiet.

The Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Meetings and Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2012 is a law that govern how Wirral Council’s Cabinet meeting is supposed to do things and regulation 6 and 7 are relevant to this particular situation. Oh and this law has been in effect since 10th September 2012. Decision-making body refers to Cabinet and local authority to Wirral Council. I’ve put in bold the particular bits that apply here.

Procedures prior to public meetings

6. (1) The decision-making body must give notice of the time and place of a public meeting by displaying it at the offices of the relevant local authority and publishing it on that authority’s website, if it has one—

(a) at least five clear days before the meeting; or
(b) where the meeting is convened at shorter notice, at the time that the meeting is convened.

(2) An item of business may only be considered at a public meeting—

(a) where a copy of the agenda or part of the agenda including the item has been available for inspection by the public as required by regulation 7 for at least five clear days before the meeting; or
(b) where the meeting is convened at shorter notice, a copy of the agenda including the item has been available for inspection by the public from the time that the meeting was convened.

7. (1) Subject to paragraph (2), a copy of the agenda and every report for a meeting must be made available for inspection by the public—

(a) at the offices of the relevant local authority; and
(b) on the relevant local authority’s website, if it has one.

(2) If the proper officer thinks fit, there may be excluded from the copy of any report provided pursuant to paragraph (1) the whole, or any part, of the report which relates only to matters during which, in the proper officer’s opinion, the meeting is likely to be a private meeting.

(3) Any document which is required by paragraph (1) to be available for inspection by the public must be available for such inspection for at least five clear days before the meeting except that—

(a) where the meeting is convened at shorter notice, a copy of the agenda and associated reports must be available for inspection when the meeting is convened; and
(b) where an item which would be available for inspection by the public is added to the agenda, copies of the revised agenda and any report relating to the item for consideration at the meeting, must be available for inspection by the public when the item is added to the agenda.
(4) Nothing in paragraph (3) requires a copy of the agenda, item or report to be available for inspection by the public until a copy is available to members of the decision-making body concerned.

(5) Where by virtue of paragraph (2) the whole or any part of a report for a public meeting is not available for inspection by the public—

(a) every copy of the whole report or of the part of the report, as the case may be, must be marked “not for publication”; and
(b) there must be stated on every copy of the whole or the part of the report—
(i) that it contains confidential information; or
(ii) by reference to the descriptions in Schedule 12A to the 1972 Act, the description of exempt information by virtue of which the decision-making body discharging the executive function are likely to exclude the public during the item to which the report relates.
(6) Except during any part of a meeting during which the public are excluded, the relevant local authority must make available for the use of members of the public present at the meeting a reasonable number of copies of the agenda and of the reports for the meeting.

(7) Subject to regulation 20, following a request made by a member of the public or on behalf of a newspaper and on payment being made of postage, copying or other necessary charge for transmission, a relevant local authority must supply to that person or newspaper—

(a) a copy of the agenda for a public meeting and a copy of each of the reports for consideration at the meeting;
(b) such further statements or particulars, as are necessary to indicate the nature of the items contained in the agenda; and
(c) if the proper officer thinks fit in the case of any item, a copy of any other document supplied to members of the executive in connection with the item.
(8) Paragraph (2) applies in relation to copies of reports provided pursuant to paragraph (6) or (7) as it applies in relation to copies of reports made available for inspection pursuant to paragraph (1).

In fact Cllr Phil Davies (the Chair of the Cabinet meeting) referred to the draft minutes during the Cabinet meeting itself as Cabinet agreed to note “the report”.

“And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;”

Moving onto the actual draft minutes of the meeting on the 27th February to consider the Lyndale School call in, there are many factual inaccuracies in these minutes, which if the above procedure had been followed, both politicians and the public would have had a chance to spot these in advance of the Cabinet meeting.

These draft minutes are now on Wirral Council’s website.

The first error starts even with the list of who was present. A Councillor “A McLaughlin” is incorrectly listed as present which should be “M McLaughlin”. Three years ago when Cllr Moira McLaughlin was Mayor, her daughter Anna McLaughlin was Mayoress but that’s the only A McLaughlin I am aware of.

Moving onto page 2 the draft minutes state in relation to the procedure for the call-in “This procedure had been agreed and adopted by the Committee for this purpose at its meeting on 24 June 2014. (Minute No. 4 refers.)”

As the observant among you will have noticed a meeting on the 24th June 2014 can’t have happened yet! This is wildly inaccurate. Firstly the meeting it’s referring to is the one on the 24th June 2013 which decided “That the procedure be agreed and adopted for managing the present call-in, in relation to the LGA Annual Conference and Exhibition.”, therefore the decision on 24th June 2013 was about a previous call in, not the ones about Lyndale School and how funding is allocated to schools.

Secondly when the call in meeting started on 5th February agenda item 3 was “Procedure for considering a decision that has been called in” which also stated on the agenda of that meeting “The procedure to be used when considering a decision that has been call in is attached. This procedure was agreed by the Committee at its meeting on 3 July 2013 (Minute No. 4 refers).”

On the 3rd July 2013 the Coordinating Committee did agree meeting procedure rules (which then went on to be part of Wirral Council’s constitution) about call ins.

However, moving on… dates and years do seem to be a particular problem. In the bit about the reasons for the call in it’s stated in the last bullet point

  • The resolution of the Council of February 14 2010 and the work done by the Local Authority following this have not been referred to, not even mentioned. This should have formed the context for the present decision.

There wasn’t a Council meeting on the 14th February 2010, this was in fact a Sunday. It should be February 14 2011 and refers to this resolution following a large petition signed by 1,874 people.

Three paragraphs later things are getting confused again, “Councillor Harney reminded the Cabinet that at its meeting on 14 February 2014 the Council had received a petition from the Lyndale School of 1874 signatures asking the Council to develop, as a matter of urgency, a consistent and coherent policy for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties.”

Firstly the date of 14 February 2014 should read 14 February 2011. It’s also written in a misleading way that could imply he was referring to a Cabinet meeting on the 14th February 2014 (when it wasn’t, he was referring to the Council meeting of the 14th February 2011). Although a Cabinet Member (Cllr Tony Smith) was present at the Coordinating Committee meeting to decide on the call ins, Cllr Tom Harney wasn’t reminding the Cabinet, he was reminding the Coordinating Committee.

Moving to Cllr Tony Smith’s explanation of the decision the draft minutes state “Councillor Tony Smith informed that under the Education Act 1996, the local education authority had a statutory duty to ensure that there were sufficient school places in its administrative area and with fair access to educational opportunity to promote the fulfilment of every child’s potential. To do this any future plans had to consider the educational benefits for children, value for money, and the ways schools could develop collaborative practice in the best interest of children.”

Now the way that is written it sounds like Cllr Tony Smith is stating (or at least its implied) that the Education Act 1996 means there’s a legal requirement under this act on Wirral Council to consider value for money. The only reference to value for money in the Education Act 1996 was to Section 23 which did originally refer to local Councils conducting value for money studies on grant maintained schools. However this provision was repealed in November 1999 and anyway Lyndale School is not a grant maintained school. Grant maintained schools was the term used between 1988 and 1998 for a school that had opted out of local government (which in Wirral’s case is Wirral Council) control and instead got their grant directly from central government.

Councillor Smith then goes on in the minutes to describe the “Place plus” system. This (for the financial year referred to) is determined by the The School and Early Years Finance (England) Regulations 2013. However what’s missing from the minutes and is a point that’s very important to mention in all this is the legal requirement on Wirral Council under regulation 19 in respect of the minimum funding guarantee. In a nutshell this legal requirement means that what Wirral Council give a school to spend on education in 2014-15 can’t be less than 98.5% of what they gave them to spend on education in 2013-14.

There is however a caveat in the regulations, part (4) of Regulation 19 states “(4) A local authority may make changes to the operation of this regulation and to the operation of Schedule 4 in determining and redetermining budget shares where authorised to do so by the Secretary of State under regulation 25 (Alternative arrangements).”

As far as I know Wirral Council have asked the Department for Education for an agreement that the the minimum funding guarantee requirements don’t apply to them, but I don’t know if they have received a response back yet (although the Schools Budget for 2014-15 makes the assumption this consent is given).

Over three weeks ago I made this Freedom of Information Act request to the Education Funding Agency for details of Wirral Council’s application to the Education Funding Agency for permission that the minimum funding guarantee doesn’t apply and the Education Funding Agency’s replies to Wirral Council. I expect a reply to my Freedom of Information Act request in the next week.

If you click on any of the buttons below, you’ll be doing me a favour by sharing this article with other people.

Privacy Preference Center

Necessary

Advertising

Analytics

Other