Saturday, 22 December 2012

Stoke-on-Trent City Council Meeting 20/12/12

I will refer to times on the webcast of this council meeting. There were only two petitions and no speakers present and I found myself to be the only public questioner who turned up. So I will concentrate this blog on my public questions, focusing more on one of them.

But first a few snippets from the rest of the meeting, of which much was routine:

  • The council (0:17:34) (Claire Gumbly) received Certificate of Commitment to Disaster Resilience from the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Campaign. I don't pretend to know much specifically about this but I mention it because I think planning for disasters and emergencies is a very important issue. Cllr Paul Shotton (0:18:29) said he thought Stoke-on-Trent was the first city in the UK to have committed to being a resilient city.

  • The council agreed to an interest free loan, described by Cllr Paul Shotton (0:49:08), to the United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust (UKHPBT) to repair and regenerate the Middleport pottery site. Following a request for clarification by Cllr Ann James (0:53:25), Council Leader Mohammed Pervez (0:53:59) admitted this was an unsecured loan. As far as I can see this will result in actual expenditure by the council, because even provided the loan is repaid, the council loses the interest on the money by providing it interest free. Whilst this regeneration is a good idea, the interest free loan seems to be overly generous in a climate of sparse resource. Still, council members were unanimously convinced (1:00:27).

First question on pupil number projections

Now to my public questions (questions 3 & 4), addressed to the cabinet member for education Cllr Alan Dutton. As well as my keen interest in education, the background to my first question arose from my incredulity dating back to Building Schools for the Future (BSF) on discovering the council were calculating there would be 14,642 high school pupils in the city by the year 2020 but were only planning to provide 13,500 places! I have failed ever since to understand their rationale (or would that be irrationale) for this and I have written blogs on this before. Furthermore following a FOI request I unearthed more recent projections which seem to be calculated quite differently and arrive at 14,112 pupils by 2020. Leaving aside the bizarre policy of providing insufficient school places, I wondered about the cause of the difference in the projections and whilst I might not get to the bottom of how the BSF projections were done, I would like to understand the current projections.

An analysis of the actual pupil numbers available shows an average loss of about 9% between annual births in the city and entry to reception class in city primary schools, but with considerable variation, including the largest loss, 16%, for the largest number of births and the smallest loss, 5%, for the smallest number of births. For the more recent years, for which births are higher than ever and predictions are difficult, the council projections assume a 10.4% loss, which is probably a good enough guess.

Analysis of actual pupil number changes shows a loss from reception to year 6 of about 5%, with the largest annual loss of about 2% between years 2 and 3. The loss between years 6 and 7 varies between about 4% and about 7%. From year 7 to year 11 there is a smaller loss, about 2%.

Looking at the council projected pupil numbers, in most cases it is assumed there is no change between reception and year 2, between year 3 and year 6 and between year 7 and year 11, but this is not always the case. The projections for years 1 and 2 for academic year 2013-14 and years 10 and 11 for academic year 2012-13 are anomalous in this respect and I had asked about this in my first public question. Losses are incorporated into the projections between years 2 and 3 and between years 6 and 7, but these are not a fixed percentage and I wondered how they were calculated, so I asked about the algorithms used, also in my first public question.

I was disappointed that my first question had not been answered at all properly so my supplementary question (0:40:08) was: “This response is nothing more than vague waffle that doesn't answer the question. What are the actual mathematical formulae used for changes between years 2 and 3 and between years 6 and 7? Also, the specific cases I listed are clearly anomalous and I want to know why.”

Alan Dutton (0:40:41) admitted he couldn't even say the word algorithm and offered a meeting between me, himself and the relevant officer to address my questions. I was happy with that outcome and the meeting is currently in the process of being arranged for the new year.

The issue of BSF has taken an interesting turn more recently. BSF largely failed to take public views into account and has resulted in poor planned high school provision with insufficient future places particularly in the Bucknall / Abbey Hulton and Longton areas. This has resulted in the community schools action group campaigning for a free school at Mitchell and more recently a campaign for muslim faith free school at Edensor, following the BSF plan to close these two schools. Whilst I was opposed to the imposition of academies under BSF, am not keen on the free school concept either and have never liked schools being run on faith lines, I do appreciate the persistence of parents in trying hard to get what they want for their children and particularly schools where they want them, in spite of the system and using what they can of the system to that end. If such additional schools go ahead they will help with the shortfall the council has left in pupil place provision over the longer term.

Second question on post-16 education and training

The reason I asked my second question about the variety and numbers of places available in post-16 education and training is because the current academic year is significant. It is the first year that students cannot just leave school after year 11 and sign onto benefits or, I had thought, get a job without associated training. Although the answer indicated that the government has delayed the training requirement for students moving into employment – interesting! I had just been curious about the impact of this change and how it is being dealt with.

My supplementary question (0:41:14) was “This response is more encouraging in that it does list a wide range of post-16 education and training available. But it is severely lacking in actual numbers! I'm asking how many places of each type of training are available and I would like numerical answers.”

Alan Dutton (0:41:37) indicated that this could also be answered in the meeting. I welcome the chance to meet with Alan Dutton and relevant officer(s) to discuss both the questions and get into the details of the actual numbers.

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