Cllr Martin Curtis, the Cabinet Member for Children in Cambridgeshire replies to John Bald's criticism last week
I would love to have a conversation with John Bald to discuss his ideas, but I do believe, as Cabinet Member for Children in Cambridgeshire, that I have earned a right to respond to his article in Conservative Home last week.
Firstly, I need to make it absolutely plain that our Locality Teams are not carrying out a function of Parish and Town Councils. Yes, one aspect of the locality teams’ role is youth services, where we have a variation of provision around the County, increasingly working hand in glove with Parish and Town Councils. But in some areas Parish and Town Councils make no youth service provision. Making the £5m cut in County Council integrated youth service provision he suggests would be a further erosion in Youth provision and our recent budget consultation found there was absolutely no appetite for this at all.
As well as Youth Services our Locality Teams provide, amongst others, Connexions services, Education Welfare, parenting support and Children’s Centres. They allow Children’s Services to tailor to a much more local level instead of providing one-size fits all solutions driven from the centre of the County. It is a more localist way of doing things – something that, quite rightly, is top of the Conservative agenda. I have had no suggestions from parish councils that they want to take on any of these roles.
In one of his responses John suggests that Education Welfare (which is basically dealing with high level truancy and absence) should be done by schools. When I talk to schools they don’t express that view and appreciate the way we work. Of course, if they become Academies, schools will be able to make their own individual choices rather than rely on the decisions of the Schools Forum for services like this – and that is how it should be. Although a number have already said they will continue with the current arrangements.
John also suggests that we have not taken enough funding out of some of our learning support services. The 9% he mentions is from the total budget, which includes a significant amount of traded income, if that is taken out of the equation the savings are much higher. Again schools are choosing to buy additional services from us out of choice –a level of choice that is, quite rightly, being expanded on with the Academies programme. If schools do choose to go elsewhere, then our budget will be reduced accordingly – but to reduce it further at the moment would reduce services that schools are choosing to buy. The same is true of Education ICT who are a fully traded service to schools. They provide technical support and helpdesk services to schools to enable them to function on a daily basis and ensure security for children and staff, they also provide curriculum support and networks to enable schools to work more effectively together. Some schools do provide their own services as John suggests, but the majority choose to buy back from what is a traded service so they can focus on education.
The role of OFSTED is one of inspecting, the services we provide are of improvement, they are entirely different. Recent OFSTED reports in some of our struggling schools have praised the role we have provided, including praising the innovative and partnership approach of the service.
The cut to ESLAC is not one that we made easily. However, it comes as a result of a huge amount of investment, developing a virtual school model that allows us to target more effectively in order to make savings. This service will still retain sixposts in addition to the Head of the ESLAC, ensuring effective
support for our most vulnerable children, I would suggest that this level of staffing is still larger than many comparable authorities.
I should add that over the last year in Children’s Services we have significantly reduced the salary costs of our Directors and we have plans to reduce a Director post in a couple of years time when the huge change programme we are embarking on is complete. We are also reducing other management costs; so we have made sure that we have cut from the top. The Learning Directorate is reducing by just under 50 posts in total to reflect the significant changes to school improvement and school to school support. Cambridgeshire schools are keen to work collaboratively to ensure they learn from each other and our reduced new team will ensure they are able to do so.
Cambridgeshire’s locality teams are a model we are looking to build on, to try and make our front line services more local, to drive decision making close to the ground, to stop needs escalating and, where there is an appetite, to allow Parish and Town Councils a bigger decision making role in areas such as
Youth Services. Eliminating a service that is appreciated by schools, parents and families at a local level would be a retrograde step, I would argue that it would be a reflection of Labour’s centralisation agenda which we are trying to move away from.
Having stood up for the Conservative budget in Children’s Services Cambridgeshire, I want to reiterate what I emailed to John, that my door is open to him. I would always listen to a fellow Conservative and I invite him to get in touch so we can have a discussion.