Friday, 20 February 2015

Education must be a priority

When I speak to local parents, one of the most pressing concerns I hear is whether their child is getting the best education possible. To do this we have to ensure that our children are receiving the high-quality teaching they deserve in a stable environment.

Yesterday, the three Medway constituencies welcomed our Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt, who met with concerned parents, teachers and young people from across the three seats

The common message heard throughout is that our Medway Tory Council has failed our young people. 

The Tories have now held office now for over a decade and looking over that period we have slipped to close to the bottom of the OFSTED league-table for KS2 and almost 50% of schools are rated 'inadequate' or 'requires improvement'. 2/3rds of our GCSE pupils attending non-Grammar schools are also being let down with results on average 12-14% below the national average. If an administration is to be judged on its ambitions for Education then surely after a decade-and-more of rule this must be seen as a poor score. 

When compared with other Authorities including those that saw through the 'London Challenge' in the early 2000s or Coventry today; we have a major challenge locally on how we deal with this challenge. This challenge simply can not be met by those we have in charge at the moment and will require tough short and medium term solutions. 

That’s why I’m backing Labour’s plan for an education system that equips young people with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the future. Our Portfolio Holder, Adam Price, has also set down our positive plan at the Full Medway Council in January. We want better leadership; qualified teachers in our classroom; and an Education Department in Gun Wharf - staffed permanently -that has the resources and single-minded determination to prepare schools for OFSTED. 

Labour’s vision for education in this country is very different from that of the Tories who will cut the education budget as part of their risky plans to take our public service back to the 1930s, when children left school at 14 and before the NHS existed. 

When Medway Primary Schools are already 150/150th can we afford cuts to our schools?

Unlike the Tories, Labour will not only protect the education budget but actually increase it so it rises with inflation, ensuring that we invest in our young people who will drive our future economic success.

Parents are clear that they want smaller classes for their children and teachers are clear that smaller classes are better for learning. Yet this government’s education record is one of failure.

They scrapped Labour’s policy to cap infant class sizes at 30 pupils, resulting in a 400% increase in Medway of those in infant classes over 30. In part this is because of incompetence but also because of a lack of planning over the last five years; the government has belatedly given the Council resources but at what cost, and after how long?

That’s why Labour will end the wasteful Tory policy of opening Free Schools in areas where there is no need for them. Instead we will use that money to fund more school places so we can cap class sizes for five, six and seven year-olds so they are no bigger than 30 pupils.

Labour will take tough action on the scandal of 1.6 million children educated in under-performing schools. It’s time to put an end to this chronic under-achievement and make sure that every child, regardless of where they live, is able to enjoy a high-quality education.

So Labour will issue a new Standards Challenge setting a tough target to raise performances with every school accountable to new Director of Standards.  We’ll also ensure all children in state schools are taught by qualified teachers so local parents will know that their children are getting a high-quality education.

People in Medway and across the country will be presented with two very different visions for Britain at the election. The Tory vision focuses on helping a few at the top through tax cuts for the wealthiest, paid for by reducing public spending to levels not seen since the 1930s.

But a Labour government will invest in our education system so our children and young people can build the long-term economic success our country needs. 

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

GCSE Results - Mixed messages

After a month of mixed headlines on the Council's performance on education it was not without a sense of irony that the Portfolio holder for Education tweeted me on my supposed lack of response to the KS4 results.

The Council did not waste any-time in triumphantly claiming that Medway's results were above the national average. Such is the paucity of good news that a decline in performance is now applauded as being a significant success. The hubris of Tory portfolio holders of course was to be expected.

It has to be said that our Secondary Schools in Medway are in a significantly better state when compared with our Primary Schools. Given we are 150/150 in England on OFSTED this is something that is welcome of course; but it would be a fool who seemingly rests on this as being a marker of success.

Our OFSTED results are on the whole good for Secondary Schools. The schools are providing - in large measure - a good environment for our children. This is to be celebrated.

The concern is however that even with well performing OFSTEDs that some schools are not seeing this through to KS4 outcomes.  The Council announcement last week is vague on detail. 

It has to be said that our Medway Grammar Schools continue to perform with excellence and this is something that must continue. Schools that are working for the community do not need interference from politicians. Under Labour from 1997-2010 our Grammar Schools went from success to success; this must continue.

However, the outcomes for those not attending our Grammar Schools (over 2/3rds of the 3,000 cohort taking GCSEs) reflect concern.

Breakdown of GCSE results have shown

  •  Eleven out of seventeen secondary schools saw static or worsening performance. Across Medway over 2,000 pupils are in Secondary schools where results outcomes for 5+ GCSE at A*-C were static or declining in 2014/15 vs 2013/14.  
  • Over 2/3rds of GCSE (KS4) entries were in Non-Grammar schools whose average results 5+ GCSE at A*-C were 12% below the national average  and 14% below the Local Authority average. Only 44.8% of pupils in these schools received 5+ GCSE at A*-C level.
  •  2/3rds of GCSE (KS4) entries were in schools with an average Free-School Meal level of almost 20% vs 5% in Grammar Schools.
  • Year-on-Year results highlight larger decline in outcomes in non-Grammar schools with a 3.5% deeper decline in results vs 0.8% for Grammar schools. 

Whilst my thoughts on Primary Schools are well documented I do have concerns about the results of our non-Grammar secondary school pupils. Medway Council has rejected - wrongly - the need for a single Education directorate and a new Director of School Standards appointed to oversee Primary and Secondary School education. Focus needs to be given to ensure teachers in classrooms are qualified to the highest level of standards and that where we do see significant variance in results year-on-year that schools have leaders in place to maintain quality of standards.   

In reality, our well performing Grammar schools are masking an underlying weakness in non-Grammar schools at KS4. Focus needs to be placed on schools which have seen significant negative variance to ensure plans are in place to mitigate changes to the GCSE assessment process. In addition all elected representatives need to be sensitive to fact that non-grammar schools, which have a higher level of Free School meals per pupil, need to remain the absolute focus. 

Improvements to schools at the mid-bottom end of the KS4 table could see the Authority rise significantly on the overall average score that we have now. It should therefore be in the interests of all for this to happen.

The Council press statement on Secondary school outcomes was complacent. For two thirds of pupils not attending Grammar Schools to see – on average - significantly worse outcomes at KS4 compared to the UK average; and this worsening relatively year-on-year; should warrant significant debate in the Council.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Curry Favour

A very enjoyable meal last night with our newly selected Labour candidate for Tonbridge and Malling, Claire Leigh. 

Once again; as is Labour tradition; a curry in West Malling and organised by our excellent branch chair Doug Vangen. Doug is a real star and can relied upon to organise and manage candidates and has a long political memory of the area.

Claire is a real gem and has some excellent experience of working in the International Development sector both with a number of charities, but also as an advisor to Number 10 during the last government. She is a relentlessly positive person and is supported by a strong executive and team who will be fighting hard to win in May. She would be well suited to any constituency but is seeking to represent an area her family have a strong local history. She is a real local candidate. 

The Tonbridge and Malling campaign has begun in earnest; we have some very strong candidates across the borough putting their names forward. I predict we will add to our current number on the Council and ensure there is proper voice for working people.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Alley Clearance - Time to act.

One of the biggest complaints I get on the doorstep as ward councillor and when canvassing in the urban wards in Medway is that of fly-tipping. Specifically the fly-tipping of rubbish in rear alleyways that have long since been gated or unused.

Many terraced streets in Chatham used to have rear alleyways for rubbish collection in the long distant past. Many of these alleys became unused in the 1950s/60s and with increases in crime in the 1990s they became gated. Since then many of the alleys have been used as a dumping ground for every-day items. When cleaning an alley on Thorold Road I also found a number of sharp objects long since discarded; kitchen knives and the like.

The Council is aware that this is a problem but is reluctant to accept responsibility. The Council cites that the alleys behind homes are an ownership conundrum due to historical quirks on housing boundaries. Therefore to clear the alleys requires community consent and participation. Understandably many residents who didn’t cause the mess are reluctant to clear it; and many others are elderly or simply not able to carry heavy items.

The Council has an enforcement team that is tasked with prosecution but in my mind the time taken to chase and enforce adds burden to the taxpayer. I do not believe many Councils have the finance to mount significant number of prosecutions. The argument that clearance only encourages further fly-tipping is a chicken-egg argument; if we took that argument to the extreme we would not pick litter for fear it encourages people to drop it.

It is ironic that to clear a fly tip off Council land the removal operator has to be licensed and trained to handle. Yet Councils are happy for volunteers to clear sites that happen to be on private property in alleyways. Anyway; life has quirks.

This is an important issue; I have in the Luton part of my ward significant numbers of alleys blocked with detritus and seemingly no reasonable solution. The problem has therefore remained and is protracted. The rubbish becomes not only an eyesore but a haven for vermin. The general ambience of the area deteriorates as a result. 

In other Council areas they have teamed up with a local sub-contractor to charge residents £220 per tonne to remove the waste

This is an idea I believe many councillors would support, and where we can employ a local firm to undertake the work, it seems to be a no-brainer. Many councillors have ward improvement budgets and I could think of few better schemes to improve the lives of many in urban areas. 

I will be pursuing this over future weeks.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Christmas Jumpers

With Christmas approaching we are just completing our second ward canvass for Lordswood and Capstone ward for next year’s local elections.

It is important to remember at Christmas – amongst all the parties, black-tie work do’s, Christmas lunches and catch up drinks – of the year that has been and reflecting.

It is also the season for Christmas jumpers. Nope, not the unhappy and tired Tories jumping to UKIP; but the woollies with snowmen (as worn proudly by the Rochester & Strood PPC).  

We have a truly fantastic, young and dynamic team in the Labour movement and one with a bright future. Even though our sartorial appeal may need some Cameron-like airbrushing…

Watling candidate Ben Pranczke perfecting the art of canvassing...