Cllr Isobel Ballsdon writes:
Reading Borough Council (RBC) debated the local budget last night. Sadly there was a tiny audience and the meeting was not filmed so very few will be privy to all that was said. Labour voted through a Council Tax increase of 1.99% whereas the Conservative Group would have frozen it.
Turning to education, I am sure that RBC's Labour administration decided in advance to avoid drawing attention to their abysmal 'leadership' of RBC's Education Department in a bid to stop the press shining a light on their performance. Not one of the Labour councillors responded to my speech, which I copy below:
Our duty tonight is to set the budget for the Council’s services. There needs to be recognition of how these services have been performing and what needs to be done now to ensure Reading Borough Council makes best use of tax payers’ money. As the Conservative Group’s Education spokesman I will focus on Reading’s schools. The Education budget is set against a back drop of worrying developments and a history of poor standards in some LEA controlled Reading schools. Tonight is not the time to celebrate the achievements of many schools, head teachers and pupils. We must focus on how best to spend the budget to deliver a good education to all. In mid-December the authority’s school expansion programme saw costs rise from £61 million to £70 million in just three months. That’s an increase of nearly 15%. Clearly there was an insufficient understanding or consideration of risks, not least the inevitable cost escalation that would result from the economic recovery this Conservative-led government has brought the country. This increase has forced savings to be made of £9 million, including a de-scoping of the current programme. Separately, turning to school standards, Ofsted published its report earlier this month focussing mainly on the town’s primary schools. Ofsted stated that:
- Too many schools are inadequate and this number is growing
- There is too much variability in the quality of support that schools receive from local authority officers
- Schools are not improving at a sufficiently rapid rate
- Not enough schools are good or outstanding and too many pupils attend schools that do not provide at least a good standard of education
- The local authority is not able to demonstrate enough of an impact on improving the effectiveness of schools and academies
Ofsted concluded that there is “an urgent need to tackle underperformance where it exists and to support and challenge schools to improve at a faster rate.” Rather than being open about its failings and what it is going to do about them, this administration presented the situation as one that is under control and where the actions needed are to “drive up performance further” heading its press release “Reading strives for Outstanding Schools”. The reality is that this is not about improving a good performance but rather fixing the basics for more than a quarter of primary school pupils and delivering these 3,500 children a decent education. And let’s not pretend that the Ofsted findings were in line with the administration’s own concerns as stated in their press release issued the same day as Ofsted’s report. The draft findings were shared with the administration well before Cllr Ennis ordered his peer review. At least his peer review was consistent with Ofsted’s findings that school improvement must improve. We have concerns about financial management following the cost escalation on the school expansion plan. We have concerns about the management of education as highlighted in the Ofsted report. How can Reading’s residents have any faith in this administration’s ability to deliver every child at least a good education in light of the matters I’ve highlighted this evening? Providing a good education enables the aspirations of our town’s children to be fulfilled. There is so much talk in the administration’s Corporate Plan of Narrowing the Gap between disadvantaged children and the advantaged, yet in its narrative I saw no mention of the need to pull the standard of education up where currently it is inadequate. It isn’t until page B49 that the preparation and delivery of a new Education Improvement Plan is listed, however the delivery date is 2017! Cllr Ennis should not forget that the Conservative-led government’s funding of Universal Free School Meals and Pupil Premium is helping schools “narrow the gap”. Late this afternoon I saw that the last agenda item, number 21, on the forthcoming ACE Committee meeting is an update on Education Progress. I ask that it is moved up the agenda as this must surely be a priority? The authority needs to turn around its failing schools, this needs to be done quickly as children have but one school education. I welcome the extra support and challenge that Ofsted is going to provide the council, though it should not have been necessary had the leadership been addressing the long-standing issues of failing to robustly challenge and support schools all along. The administration needs to demonstrate that it is maximising the use every pound of this budget to give every child the start they deserve.