Wirral Council published on the 14th May 2015 details of contracts, commissioned activity, purchase orders, framework agreements and any other legally enforceable agreement of between £5,000 and £10,000 on the data.gov.uk website here.
The first contract that caught my eye was one for £6,950 with Odgers Interim (which if you remember a previous blog post of mine is an organisation that provides agency staff). The title of the contract is “consultancy support of Windows 7 & ICT Services” and its description is “10 Days Consultancy in Support of Windows 7 & ICT services to Elected Members Total £6,950.00”. Elected Members means councillors.
Wirral Council also spent £5,000 with England’s Golf Coast Limited for “Annual Membership to England’s Golf Coast”, £6,812.30 with an organisation called Assist Managed Services for a week of cleaning up New Brighton in July 2014, £5,000 with a company called O’Neill PR based in Macclesfield for “Tourism PR at the Open Golf Championship 2014”, £5,854.45 for catering at a wedding on the 16th August 2014 to a Skelmersdale based catering company (although this will have been recharged to whoever paid for the wedding), £8,000 to AMION Consulting Limited for “Development of a vision for Wirral’s tourism strategy to sustain and grow the Borough’s visitor economy” described as for “developing a vision for Wirral’s Tourism businesses a 5 year strategy for the Borough’s visitor economy”, £9,847.80 to Huck Nets Limited for a piece of play equipment called a Birds Nest Tree at Diamond Farm, Saughall Massie, £7,498.48 to Wirral University Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust for a “Family Planning Course”, £7,597.13 for a “Viking Playship” from Hags-SMP Limited, £6,510.00 to H&G Healthcare Limited for 100 “flu vaccination vouchers” in October 2014, £6,533.99 to AECOM Limited for a “Wirral Docks Bridge Feasibility Study” and £9,570 to Exterion Media (UK) Ltd to “supply poster sites for the Wonders of Wirral Spring Campaign”.
Whereas I’m generally a fan of increased transparency involving Wirral Council, in the description field published on the data.gov.uk website about a payment for £9,275.74 to Autism Initiatives, Wirral Council have included the full name of the child or adult with autism. In the context of services provided by Autism Initiatives this would also be classed as “sensitive personal information”. Also in two payments to West Kirby Residential School (a special school) for school fees, Wirral Council have revealed the name of two children by the information published on the website. Again in the context this would be classed as “sensitive personal information”. Maybe Wirral Council needs to think again whether it is being too transparent in these sensitive areas?
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The current PFI contract was signed ten years ago, when Cllr Phil Davies was Cabinet Member for this area. It was originally supposed to run for 25 years in 2001 but was extended in 2004.
For many of these years, if I am getting this right, it was funded from general Council resources and not through the Schools Budget. This year £600,000 of costs for the PFI agreement are paid for by an £1.4 million underspend in money that it was agreed would be spent on special educational needs.
Next year, it’s been stated that Wirral Council want to reduce its contribution to the PFI agreement by £2 million, which led to some angry exchanges at a recent Wirral Schools Forum meeting about the consequences of this decision.
Basically it means that for 2015-16 (the year that there’s been the recent consultation on closing Lyndale) that £2 million of extra compensatory savings will have to be found because of a political decision. The actual funding from one year to the next that Wirral Council is receiving for education isn’t really changing that much so this £2 million issue has dare I say it ruffled some feathers.
I state political decision because (yes there was a U-turn on this last year so who knows really) statements already made are that Labour want to freeze Council Tax in 2015-16 at 2014-15 levels.
However, going back to Lyndale School (soon to be discussed at a special Cabinet meeting). This underspend on special educational needs (money already agreed that should be spent in this area) was shifted out of that budget to pay for the PFI costs. I have requested the actual contract between Wirral Council and Wirral School Services Limited, first by a freedom of information request (denied), now as part of the audit (I’m still waiting).
Based on what I do know, I can tell you this. Part of the PFI cost is funded by a fixed grant Wirral Council get of £5.5 million a year. There are facilities management support costs built into the contract that Wirral Council charge the schools for which total about £3.3 million a year. However this leaves a gap of £2.5 million.
Until this year (although strangely at the Lyndale call in officers stated that funding educational items from outside the schools budget would cause problems and as far as I remember somewhat glossed over the fact that they were already doing this to the tune of £millions for the PFI schools), Wirral Council have plugged this gap.
The problem is essentially due to a political decision not to raise Council Tax in 2015-16 and not carry on with this arrangement (diverting an underspend from special educational needs to plug the gap this year) that although the education money Wirral Council receive is hardly changing that from next year (when there’s a General Election on) the cuts to education can be blamed on the national coalition government despite this being a local decision that’s been made.
I’ve looked at what happened in another borough on Merseyside at their Schools Forum when there’s an underspend in special educational needs. The money didn’t get diverted in this way and was carried forward to the next year to be also spent in that budget area.
There’s no legal impediment in money between different budget headings in the schools budget being shifted around in this way, but as far as I can tell not one of the schools covered by the PFI agreement fall into the special schools category (please correct me if I’m wrong on this point). Therefore there is the moral question to be asked should money previously agreed to be spent on special educational needs be diverted to pay for PFI projects in this way?
Obviously if you’re a parent or member of staff at Lyndale School the answer to that would probably be no. Yes, I have somewhat simplified matters and there are complicated factors involved also in schools funding such as the minimum funding guarantee which for example for this year guarantees that the money schools receive from Wirral Council won’t drop by more than 1.5%.
Interestingly as Wirral Council wanted to bring in its “banding” for special educational needs this year, it asked the Education Funding Agency for permission to drop school budgets by more than the minimum funding guarantee (which is a legal requirement) allows. However this request was withdrawn.
There is also a little confusion as to what was agreed by the Wirral Schools Forum in its five bands for special educational needs. There’s £10,000 for each child, then bands depending on need that go up to £16,000 (band five). However band five was never an absolute limit and from what I remember there was flexibility to go above this in certain circumstances. In fact I doubt putting funding into bands would have ever been agreed by the Wirral Schools Forum without that uncapped band.
You see there is an uncapped band that applies to independent schools, non-maintained schools or schools located outside of Wirral. If Lyndale closed and some children were transferred to schools outside of Wirral there wouldn’t be a cap on their education funding. In fact it almost seems wrong to cap funding to Wirral’s special schools, but not outside of the Wirral.
To give an example of a special education school on the Wirral that falls into the independent category, below is a three page invoice to Wirral Council for one term which totals £535,098.00. These fees range from £10,213 a term to £23,361.00 (or over a year would be from ~£31k to £69k per a pupil). Just for comparison, the consultation on closing Lyndale is because ~£33k a child per a year is seen as high, but when you compare that to what children at West Kirby Residential School cost Wirral Council is actually lower.
44 children at West Kirby Residential School cost £535,098 a term (£12,161 a term). There are three terms in a year, so that works out at about £36,483 a child there compared to ~£33k at Lyndale.
The truth is Wirral Council officers have made an artificial comparison between Lyndale School and other special schools were the needs of children (and therefore staffing costs) were far, far less than at Lyndale School which made Lyndale School look expensive by comparison.
What do you think? Below is a heavily redacted invoice (unfortunately as its double-sided some of the redactions come through on the other side) that backs up my argument that Wirral Council does have the money currently to fund special schools at Lyndale levels (or even in the case of West Kirby Residential School above Lyndale levels).
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