Tory Plans for Education

February 2, 2015

Today David Cameron unveiled his plans for Education after the elections in May. His big plan: to force failing schools to become academies. Apart from wielding a big stick what is new about academies and are they actually working?

Academies were first introduced under the Labour government to introduce competition into the system. The rush to become an academy increased after 2010 because of clear financial incentives.  I directly experienced the damage of becoming an academy when a few years ago I was teaching in a top performing ex Grammar School which had absolutely no need ‘to be turned round’. The Headteacher had resigned because he was against becoming an academy in opposition to the chair of governors. A business manager was brought in, who had no background in education and only had eyes for the budget rather than teaching and learning; the appointment of a new headteacher failed a number of times until the business manager ended up the acting headteacher; outstanding teachers left in droves for different schools and the morale of the remaining teaching staff was so much undermined that standards and performance suffered visibly.

Schools across England and Wales are improving steadily, but a recent report into academies and free schools by the Education Select Committee concluded that there is no evidence that this is down to schools becoming academies.

What counts is good leadership and governance with the main focus on education. There are already 600 to 700 existing academies which the Department for Education thinks are cause for serious concern because of poor performance, and this number has doubled in the last year. The scandal at Oldfield School last year will have done little to convince local people here in BANES that academies are working.

It looks increasingly like the Tories want all secondary schools to become academies if not voluntarily then by stealth.

The biggest problem is accountability, but with the Tories increasingly dug in real figures and comparisons will become ever more difficult to obtain. If left to the Tories the future of education is set to become a non-transparent mess.


The NHS- A Political Football

January 7, 2015

Our health, physical and mental, is one of the most important things in life. Everybody will sooner or later use one or the other form of health service. Our health services matter a great deal and it is therefore quite legitimate that the issue is being publically debated. But four months away from an election that is entirely unpredictable is probably not a good time for getting a sensible debate.
There are some facts that have to be repeated and repeated often: We live longer and better than any generation before us. Many more people than ever before are using our health services. Many more complex conditions are being diagnosed and treated. The NHS that was created two generation ago is outdated and redesigning it fit for the 21st century is proving very difficult. Additionally we do not have endless money to throw at it. And of course this coalition government is not the first to try and change things.
What really annoys me about the current attack by the Labour party is that many things that they are complaining about are direct results from what Labour did when they were in government. I was chair of our Health Overview and Scrutiny committee in 2009. We were campaigning very hard to keep our local A&E services open and predicted correctly what the consequences would be if the closures would went ahead. And of course we were right, but the changes were driven by the Labour government and – it is worth pointing out- supported by the medical profession. In 2009 I led the scrutiny of the wholly inadequate access to our local GPs, an ineffective appointment system and poor out- of- hours- services, which meant that many patients were abusing A&E services even then. Back then our committee was also shocked about the way elderly patients were discharged from hospital with no joined provision between social care and hospital services, which often meant that many patients were straight back into hospital after only a short time.
None of what is happening now is new. We should possibly all be alarmed that little progress has been made, but blaming the mounting pressure on the NHS on the present coalition government is simply dishonest. And why then should voters trust Labour with the NHS when the way they debate this serious issue is so blatantly partisan.


B&NES Children’s Centres

December 4, 2014

Over the last few months Bath and North East Somerset Labour activists have been spreading a lot of negative stories about the future of B&NES Children’s Centres and I would like to set the record straight. The future of Children Centres is not uncertain! All 11 centres are to stay open and will continue to offer services to those families that need them. It is highly irresponsible of the Labour group to scaremonger the public over the future of Children Centres. Labour councillor Liz Hardman was part of the working group looking into the future for Children Centres; so she knows that the opening hours of the individual centres will reflect the targeted activities that happen in each centre and that there are no proposals to cut targeted work.

But services should not be duplicated. Children Centres should respond to national changes in the provision of services. From May 2015 there will be an increased health visitor service, a universal service offered to all mothers and babies, from birth.  There will be checks at more key stages in a baby’s life plus health visitors are now trained to spot earlier mental health issues in the mother, such as post natal depression and attachment concerns.

I fundamentally disagree with Labour’s dismissal of filling some gaps with volunteers. Volunteers are a valuable resource in many centres, and in other places such as church halls. They run a variety of groups such as baby and toddler play groups and the council will continue to support and co-ordinate volunteers for Children Centres. I am myself a volunteer for a mother and baby group and like all volunteers I am happy to give my time without being paid, while having ample qualifications to fulfil my volunteering role.

Do I have to remind Labour councillors and activists  that the need for looking at all public services to make them more cost effective is a direct result of the massive deficit that has been accumulated under the previous Labour government which went on an irresponsible spending spree for years. The way in which Labour councillors in this authority are persistently demanding that more money should be spent rather that responding to sensible ways of reducing costs to ensure that services can still be provided in the future just shows that Labour has not learnt a single lesson.



Carers Doing an Amazing Job.

December 2, 2014

Last Friday was Carers’ Rights Day and I went along to a whole day event put together by the B&NES Carers’ Centre in Radstock to mark the day. Like most I have a very personal reason to support the Carers’ Centre because like most I had somebody very close to me who was a carer. For many years my mother was a carer first to my grandmother and then to my father. 20 years ago there was no such ‘label’ and my mother did what she did without thinking that she was a carer or needed extra attention, never mind speaking about having any rights. Speaking to carers last Friday this is exactly how most feel; they do what they do out of love and responsibility. Most people don’t chose to become a carer, life just throws this role onto them and they respond. And they do an amazing job! There are statistics about the money carers safe or put into the national economy, but it doesn’t really reflect the extent to which most people put their whole life into the role of being a carer.

While having a label might be a problem it also has an advantage. Firstly it recognises that there are now a large number of people who are all in a similar situation. Furthermore being a carer is no other label than the ‘label’ of being a parent or an employee. It helps to break down the isolation into which many carers find themselves and allows them to speak about issues that they all share. It also means that there are now organisations like the B&NES Carers’ Centre who actively support carers and raise the profile of their role. These in turn has led to speaking about carers’ rights and has helped define the role of carers to the extent that there will be a new law called the Care Act which is currently making its way through parliament.

No law however can truly honour what it means to be a carer, because the role is so tightly woven into peoples’ personal lives. But it can help with practical support and more awareness to make sure our carers receive the help they need to continue with the amazing job they do.


Renewable s not Fracking

November 24, 2014

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated last month that fossil fuels need to be completely phased out by 2100 – or the world will face ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible’ damage. Their recommendation is that renewables must account for 80% of the power sector by 2050.

For those of us who would like to leave the planet in a liveable state for future generations, the proposal that fracking is the answer to the UK’s energy problems cannot be right.

This country may not be the sunniest in the world, but PV technology is making great strides towards harvesting solar energy even in less sunny areas. Furthermore Britain is one of the windiest countries in Europe. In a few years’ time the cost of producing on-shore wind energy will be less than that of oil. Britain is also surrounded by seas and the potential of harvesting tidal energy is enormous. So what is stopping us? We can generate our power from renewables – if we want to.

But the oil lobby, backed by the Conservatives and UKIP, seem determined to force fracking on to us while at the same time people agitate against any on-shore wind turbines or against solar panels in Somerset fields.

As North Sea oil and gas declines, we have a great opportunity in this country to replace it with renewable energy, the technologies are there. We should be leading the way in Bath & North East Somerset, and taking a firm step towards making our area self-sufficient in renewable energy.


Lib Dems want an EU Referendum but Tories don’t

October 29, 2014

This week David Cameron pulled the plug on his own bill despite being handed the opportunity by the Liberal Democrats to take it further in the political process.

Tories are in a complete mess over Europe. Instead of talking about the benefits of our relationship with the EU they have let UKIP set the agenda. Instead of exposing Nigel Farage’s troupe as a one-issue party,  they have ratcheted up their anti-Brussels rhetoric.

The Conservatives are in such disarray they have  now even sacrificed a chance for an EU In-Out referendum in the next parliament. Instead of allowing both our bill to fix the bedroom tax and their bill for a referendum to continue their journeys they spiked both.

It is clear the Tories are more concerned about maintaining the bedroom tax than their flagship referendum pledge. And of course they are trying to blame the  Lib Dems for the bill’s failure.

But why would the Conservatives sabotage a chance to legislate now for an EU Referendum?

The answer is cynical electioneering. The Tories simply don’t want to enshrine an In-Out referendum in law before the General Election because David Cameron would be forced to reveal his hand by either backing calls to leave Europe or fight the pro-EU case.

The PM simply can’t make the sensible case for Europe and keep UKIP voters and his Euro sceptic backbench MPs happy.

David Cameron owes it to the country to come clean and finally set out his position on Europe. After all, the General Election is just six months away. The problem for the Tories is that voters have well understood that the Tory leadership is trying to play a double game.


Songs from the North Somerset Coalfields

October 28, 2014

I have just come back from a wonderful evening at Midsomer Norton Library; a performance of mining songs and stories from the North Somerset mining communities put together by Dave Byrne and The Guss And Crook Band. The success of the evening was down to the mixture of entertainment and education mixed in with some extra fun, when the audience was invited to sing along, always a favourite!

Coal was mined here in North Somerset until 1973, so the stories are recent history. What the songs-and the talks and pictures which accompanied the songs throughout the evening- brought home was what a terrible and dangerous industry mining was.

Working conditions were absolutely awful. The coal seams in the North Somerset coalfields were narrow, only about 3 feet high. To get the coal to the surface men or boys (the ‘carting boys’) had to pull a sort of sliding basket (the ‘putt’) on their hand and feet. They wore a rope around their waist to which a chain with a hook was attached which passed between their legs; the hook at the end was then attached to ‘the putt’. (The whole thing was called the ‘Guss and Crook’, hence the name of the band).

Light was provided by a candle attached to the miners’ foreheads, the air was heavy with dust day in day out. And then of course there was the permanent danger from falling rocks or explosions.  Today we sometimes laugh about Health and Safety regulation, but the working practices of those days not so long ago make one appreciate what the workplace would be like without them.

No wonder that the people who worked and often died in the mines ended up striking. The mining songs were not folks songs, but written to support minors who were striking, to raise morale and funds.

Tonight’s performances told a compelling story about the mining communities here in North Somerset. Apart from being accomplished musicians Dave Byrne and his band are clearly passionate about their heritage and they have found a perfect formula of sharing this heritage and passing it on.