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Friday, December 9, 2011

A Done Deal?

I’m now totally confused over whether the Thurston School Organisational Review (SOR) is a review, or just a pretence that the council is listening. Whilst many of us were of the opinion anything we said during the school consultations wouldn’t change the councils direction, and the move to two tier schools would go ahead anyway, I hadn’t expected this to be the council’s official position.

I’m referring to Councillor Newman’s interview on Radio Suffolk where he said "the decision is not about whether we do it or not", so essentially the decision had already been made to move to two tier schools. Yet when I fill in the online SOR questionnaire it asks “Would you like to see a two-tier pattern of schools in the Thurston Area?”

Why ask this question if the decision is made?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Two Tier School with Two Tier Transport

This autumn my daughter started at a new school that is actually closer to my home than the catchment school for our village. Since most of the children from her middle school were also to move to that school I decided to apply for a free bus pass.

On 05/08/11 I received a letter from Passenger Transport informing me I was not entitled to a free bus pass for my daughter’s journey to school.  Strangely, the reason given for this was that the route is registered as a local bus service. I was sure the school bus was only for school children, and that the public were not allowed on it. Indeed I confirmed with the operator that the bus is not available for public use, nor are there any public buses stopping at the school during the hours of 9am or 4pm. About this time I also discovered that people living in the village, just 500m from my house had actually received free bus passes for exactly the same journey that my daughter needed to make.

I therefore decided to contact the council for an explanation, and this is where my pain really started. I’ve listed the sequence of events at the end of this blog entry, but in summary for three months it was impossible to speak to anyone in the back office to either:

a)      Explain why I was denied free bus transport based on Route TN162 being registered as a local bus service.
b)      To confirm free bus transport would be provided to me as it has for others in the village.

The front call desk became a barrier and I was unable to speak directly with the person making the decision, so was unable to get an answer, a form of what is known as the “authority limits tactic”. No one in the back office rang me as the front desk told me they would. In fact I ended up having my entire week’s holiday wasted by waiting in for them to call after they said they would.

I firmly believe I would never have heard anything back had it not been for two tier schools review. At one of the school consultations I was able to speak to a senior member of the council, and what a difference that made, indeed the person in charge of school buses rang me on the day I was told they would.

Apparently the school bus does count as public transport as available spaces are sold to pupils who aren’t entitled to free transport, they deem this “discretionary transport”, for which they charge £180 a term, much more than the local bus service. Unfortunately you can’t use the cheaper local bus service, as whether purposely or not, it doesn’t run at the times of the school bus.

The council did apologise, both for the huge delay in responding, but also because they gave me the wrong reply. I should have been told I didn’t qualify for a free bus pass due to yet another upper school being closer than either the catchment or the actual school my daughter attends. Essentially I was playing the post code lottery and was just a few metres over the boundary. The majority of children from my village don’t move to the catchment upper school, but instead go to my daughter’s school, so in this instance the children that pay for transport clearly subsidise the cost of transport of the children that the council is bound to support.

Interestingly, when I pushed them for the map of the route they were using to determine the distance to school, they said it was a significant amount of effort to pull that together as it exists on very old maps rather than on a computer. This seems bizarre in this day and age with mapping software, and makes you wonder how accurate the boundary is. Still, given what they have put me through I’m certainly going to request this.

Most worryingly is that my above first-hand experience of the contempt that Suffolk County Council hold for their constituents by not bothering to reply as they said they would, now makes me deeply concerned about their ability to successful deliver the change to two tier schools as part of the Thurston Partnership.

Ironically, unless the council change the catchment area for the new two tier Thurston school, I would end up paying for my daughter to attend the Thurston campus, but get free transport to the Beyton campus. I would therefore urge anyone eligible to attend Thurston Community College, but out of its catchment area, to write to the council and ask them to change the catchment area to include their village. The council have confirmed to me they will consider this, otherwise we will have a two tier school with two tier transport.

Here is the sequence of events:

16/08/11: I telephoned the free home to school transport department who informed me we would be contacted back within 2 working days.

19/08/11 (3 days): I was not contacted; so I phoned back and was then told it could be up to a week before I got a reply.

30/08/11 (11 days): I was yet again not contacted; I was told the turnaround time for a call back was now 10 working days, which had passed. The person I spoke to tried to put me through to the back office, but they did not answer. I called again later that day, but a different person refused to try and put me through. They did however make my case an ‘urgent’.

31/08/11 (12 days): Since the case was now classified as urgent I telephoned the following day, but yet again no progress had been made with my case.

02/09/11 (14 days): A producer from BBC Radio Suffolk contacted me after reading on Twitter about my frustration at not getting a reply of any sort. I was interviewed about the situation on the radio, just 5 days before my daughter was due to start her new school. Nobody from the Council was prepared to appear on the show, and a statement was given which just a repeat of what is on the council website, rather than providing an answer to my appeal.

12/09/11 (24 days): After the Council had still failed to contact me, I had to pay £180 for one term’s bus travel whilst others nearby were receiving it free. My wife telephoned on 12/09/11 to check on progress. This time the person she spoke to changed the reason for refusal. It was now due to Stowmarket High being my daughter’s closest school rather than Thurston Community College, and therefore free transport would not be provided. Clearly my appeal against the original denial for free transport was still not answered. My wife therefore insisted I get to speak with someone in the department so that I can understand these points.

20/09/11 (32 days):  Yet again nobody had contacted us. My wife therefore emailed customer services at Suffolk County Council to complain about the complete lack of response we have had from this department and to request a name of someone in charge to write to.

22/09/11 (34 days): An email was received back saying this information had been added to my file, but no contact name was provided. Rather pointless.

03/10/2011 (46 days): After further contact by email my wife was finally provided with a name and told someone would contact her.

14/11/2011 (88 days): It had now been 12 weeks since my first contact with Suffolk CC, and still no one had contacted me. I wrote a letter to the person whose name my wife was provided with and sent it via registered post.

15/11/2011 (89 days): My wife and I spoke to Linda Howe at the Thurston school consultation and told her of our experience. She said she would make sure we were contacted on 17/11. We were contacted and I’m very grateful to Linda for doing this as we finally got to speak to someone, even if we didn't get the outcome we wanted.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

School Organisation Review

Earlier this week I went to the School Organisation Review at my local primary school. For those unaware, this is a move to change from a three tier school hierarchy (primary, middle, upper) to a two tier system (primary, secondary) that currently exists across the majority of the country. The first part of the evening was a presentation by the Local Education Authority followed by a timed Q&A session where any person allowed to speak was restricted to only one question.

After the consultations in previous years on the same subject (which never went ahead as the money ran out), I was really pleased to see the session wasn’t fronted by politics. There was no sign of the Suffolk CC chairman, and teachers from the proposed two tier schools were present.

I thought the council presentation started off very professionally and was much better than the historic events. My initial elation was dampened however, when they went into figures showing two tier vs. three tier performance. For me it’s a red flag as any figures can be so easily manipulated one way or another. Sure enough the graph didn’t include all the counties in the UK using the two tier school system, but just included selected counties. Plus the three tier schools were taken as a whole rather than looking at the specific middle school that they said wasn’t performing well enough. Now, I’m not saying metrics wise one system is better than the other, but either way they didn’t do themselves justice by making the figures appear biased.

The head and deputy teachers from the primary and upper schools presented next. You could instantly see their desire, commitment and passion to push this through, and with the same enthusiasm applied to teaching it can only be a good thing. If I had to criticise the overall presentation (council plus schools), it was too positive. In my experience nothing is perfect, particularly when you have to shoehorn in a solution rather than building purpose built schools. Not one presenter talked of anything detrimental. To me any change should be a balance of positives vs. negatives and that’s what you base your decision upon. There weren’t any negative points presented, again they were not doing themselves any favours as the audience then feels they are not being given the whole picture, or feel it’s just being railroaded through and the consultation is meaningless. Presenting some of the benefits of the three tier system over two tier system would have provided a more balanced view.

Question time followed the presentation. If I got chosen to ask a question, I would only get the chance to ask one, so I decided to hold off until near the end. I was hoping that someone else might answer some of my questions, and I could then focus on one of mine that was unanswered. For me these were the areas that still remain an issue:
  •  The LEA’s opinion is that changing schools causes a drop in performance. I’ve seen exactly the opposite in my oldest child, renewed vigour, excitement and commitment to work each time she changes school. She even said this to me, I don't need statistics to tell me this. I’m deeply concerned that children who thrive on change will be left by the wayside to accommodate those better suited to two tier schooling and to hit government targets.
  • The size of the primary school hall to accommodate up to another 90 pupils. The proposed phased lunchtime would resolve accommodating lunch, but assemblies would be cramped. I was lucky enough to attend an assembly this week and saw children were spreading their legs out to reserve a little room prior to sitting down, so even with current numbers it must be an issue.
  • Traffic and parking is beyond dangerous at our local primary. It’s not an accident "waiting" to happen, as I’ve already seen a parent crossing the road with their child hit by a car reversing out of the way of another car. Luckily it hit the parent and they were able to get up off the road, but I hate to think about how bad it could have been. My question for the evening was to ask "what budget had been made available for road and car park improvements along with green alternatives". Whilst the LEA recognised a major issue, the answer was none, as the planners hadn’t even looked at it yet. I was somewhat stunned that the lives of children and parents were such an afterthought.
  • One person in the audience read out a whole host of shocking issues and complications that had occurred in other schools during the building transition to two tier. Another former two tier teacher said the current hall couldn’t support the activities normally provided at the two tier primaries that she had taught at. I therefore have great apprehension we will end up with a long term building site or a building unfit for purpose.

OK so I’ve highlighted my worries and I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I left it there and didn’t highlight some positives. For me they were:
  • The two tier system would allow 7 terms for pupils to decide on their GCSEs, rather than the one term in the three tier system. I’m finding it somewhat rushed with my daughter only having one term. If the change to two tier didn’t take place, I’d be keen for the middle school to start this process off prior to the move to upper.
  • The location for the extra primary school class rooms seemed suitable and adequate, if separated from the main school.
  • The LEA were willing to consider changing the catchment area for the secondary school. This is long issue to discuss in itself so I won’t go into it on this post.

So apart from the above, what else would help? Firstly an open day at a nearby two tier primary and secondary school so that parents can look at each and see what they are like for themselves. Currently we only have other people’s words and views. I’d also like the consultation to include a vote. Parents should decide what happens to the schools that educate their children. There’s no denying that the overall majority of people present at the meeting had deep concerns over moving to two tier, but we can’t take that as the broad opinion of parents in general. I’d like to see a vote and the decision adhered to, rather than a few people before or against dictating to the rest what should happen. After all we are a democracy!

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