On June 8, I published an article called “Derby City Council wantonly axe ‘Outstanding’ Castle Nursery”; this included the response from the Derby City Council press office. The article was sent to every Councillor and all of the local MP’s ; the only person to reply was Ruth Skelton.
As the official position was, at best, unhelpful, I asked for an interview with Cllr Banwait and/or Cllr Bolton – both refused to meet me. The Press Office maintained that all of the questions that I had asked were answered by the Cabinet papers which they clearly were not. Their attempt to prove me wrong was embarrassing – it was evident that they had not properly read the article. To make the position clearer I distilled the article into clear numbered questions, and sent this through on 25th June.
1. The cost/pupil measure, which is central to the Council’s case for value-for-money, was never discussed with the Governors or school leadership before being identified in the Council documents in November. How does the Council respond to the view that the measure was manufactured just for the purposes of the closure proposal?
2. The Council identified an internal cost/pupil “target” of ~£1000/pupil. The Council re-designated the school a few years ago as a 52 pupil nursery which means that, at full capacity it could never achieve the target. How does the Council respond to the view that the measure would always have resulted in a closure decision regardless of occupancy levels based on the use of a simple algorithm?
3. The Chair of the Governors disputes that there was a loss in the year at all – his view is that schools are required to break even. The DCC reports a £3000 loss which is 1.5% of the budget. How does the Council respond to the view that, suggesting a zero/small loss is critical to the survival of an “oustanding” nursery, given that there would be costs of closure and redundancy, is a sound decision when a modicum of “working together” could have solved that element of the problem?
4. Only closure was proposed as an option in the cabinet documents. The Department of Education guidance is that ” there is a presumption against the closure of nursery schools” Why were no other options identified, explored, consulted and discussed, when many options do in fact exist, to closure?
5. The Council seems to be “blaming” the nursery for poor occupancy when in fact it is the Council’s legal responsibility is to “identify and encourage” children to attend. The Friends of Castle Nursery group managed to gain a substantial amount of support with limited effort which suggests that with a concerted effort more could be achieved. This was presented to Cllr Hussein prior to the Cabinet meetings. What active efforts has the Council done in the last 6 months to push the occupancy levels in the Nursery? Why were the Friends of CN efforts ignored as an indication of what could be done with focussed effort?
(NB The point being that the low occupancy was not a fundamental problem in the Nursery but results from the poor efforts from the Council and the Governors)
6. Castle Nursery is right in the middle of a major housing development which is already generating interest from occupants. The Council requires a Nursery to be in place in the development. The developer’s preferred option is to transfer the existing Castle Nursery. The planning permission states a transition plan as a condition. Common sense would suggest that you maintain the existing “outstanding nursery”, create a transition plan to secure the skills and quality of the existing nursery, and move it in line with the development plan. Why was such a common sense option not considered given that it would benefit everyone?
7. All responses to the Consultation were in favour of keeping the Nursery open – why was this overwhelming evidence ignored?
8. Is the £100,000 being saved i.e. not spent, or being re-allocated to another school? If so, where is it being allocated to?
9. The Council, by its own admission cannot forecast the supply/demand for Nursery places accurately. The Govt is going to double the number of free hours available to parents and therefore increase demand, unpredictably. Does the Council not think it would be prudent to keep the Castle Nursery open pending an understanding of the effect of the new Govt proposals and the impact of the Castle Ward development?
Despite pointing out that none of the answers to the above questions were covered by any public information, the DCC response back was:
“On speaking with the Cabinet Member yesterday, you now have the Council’s response to your article ( as previously issued prior to 8th June). We are not going to be making any further comment above and beyond that already provided to you and beyond the extensive information already in the public domain.”
I interpret this as a “No Comment” on the questions asked.
The Council Plan 2015-2018 issued on March 4 2015 was very eloquent on pledges and principles. Some key ones being:
“Going through the motions” of consultation does not constitute “listening”. Acting in a way that explicitly acknowledges the validity of the feedback and which has demonstrably informed the outcome is “listening” – regardless of the final decision. Being seen to follow a process is not “listening”.
Dismissing the views and concerns of a strong representation of people who have a legitimate position does not empower residents, it demoralises them.
The plan talks about “working together” – this episode bears none of the hallmarks of such a principle. It is about a Council who clearly had determined the outcome before the consultation had started.
Why are they refusing to answer simple and reasonable questions?
On this occasion the Council has fallen well short of its obligations and promises. If it was being truly transparent, then the answers to all of the above questions would be clearly evident in publicly available documentation – and they are NOT! Why not?
Categories: Derby City Council