Mike Franks tuned into February’s Children and Young People Scrutiny Committee for CEM. His sterling efforts have produced a double version bulletin below – all part of Operation Scrutiny
As with many issues across council services, this month’s scrutiny committee again highlighted that prevention is far cheaper than intervention – this advice could well be taken when it comes to their response to the climate emergency. Perhaps an email over to the outgoing Chair Bernard Stone (Levenshulme) on how he could create an enduring legacy for the scrutiny committee by integrating issues related to the education of climate change and socially just responses to it within their remit.
What was discussed (short version)?
Chair Councillor Bernard Stone (BS – Levenshulme) announced under matters arising that Executive had accepted the Scrutiny’s lack of support for a revised parenting commission which would result in increased costs. Also, no reply had been received from the Prime Minister to his letter querying the competence of the Secretary of State for Education.
In almost a repeat of January’s agenda devoid of any mention of the climate emergency, it concerned immediate impacts of COVID-19 and tight constraints of a single year budget with no scope for even medium term planning.
Amanda Corcoran (Director of Education) updated the response to COVID-19 (item 5). Only vulnerable children and those of critical workers were offered on site learning in the first month of the spring term, with remote learning for others.
Views of young people cited in the report include worries about mental health, wellbeing, thwarted aspirations and confusion due to changing guidance.
BS mentions inappropriate use of laptops due to lack of the expensive software preventing such use, asked whether there could be cost reductions through bulk purchase, and conveyed thanks to all staff in offices and schools for the work they have done.
Paul Marshall (PM – Strategic Director for Children and Young People) then re-introduced the Budget 2021/22 (split into items 6a – Children and Education Services and 6b – Schools). Interestingly these reports both include “Improving outcomes for the children and families across the City, helps build and develop whole communities and increases the liability of the City” as a contribution to the Manchester Strategy.
PM concluded no proposals come without risk. Children Services: ‘low numbers, high cost’ works on a strategy of cost avoidance, early intervention, prevention, and ensuring services that are safe, effective and efficient, whilst recognising volatility. Two or three children prevented from entering residential care will deliver necessary savings. A three-year budget allowing more strategic planning would be welcome to put resources in the right place. BS rounded off the discussion.
No comments on the Overview Report (item 7) other than BS expecting a report on Lyndene Children’s Home in March, which will be his last meeting as chair. BS not seeking re-election in May. A vote of thanks on behalf of the committee to BS was expressed.
For details of questions raised and answers given, please see the longer version below which includes contributions from Councillor Garry Bridges (Old Moat – Exec Member for Children and Schools).
What was discussed (extended version)?
Chair Councillor Bernard Stone announced under matters arising that the Executive had accepted the Committee’s lack of support for a revised parenting commission which would result in increased costs later. Also, no reply to his letter querying the competence of the Secretary of State for Education had been received from the Prime Minister.
In what had all the appearance of a repeat of January’s agenda, it was again concerned with immediate impacts of COVID-19 and tight constraints of a single year budget with little scope for even medium term planning, but devoid of any mention of the climate emergency.
Amanda Corcoran (Director of Education) introduced an update on schools and settings and their response to COVID-19 (item 5). In the first month of the spring term with remote learning for the majority of young people, only vulnerable children and those of critical workers were offered on site learning at their school. The DFE has indicated schools will not re-open for all children before 8 March, but as yet there is no more clarity apart from the promised two week notice period to plan for the return.
The numbers of children on site changes day to day and week to week, reaching a high recently, with impacts on staffing. The views of young people cited in the report include worries about mental health, wellbeing, thwarted aspirations and confusion due to changing guidance.
Cllr James Wilson (JW – Didsbury East) pointed to unmet need in South Manchester for school places and whether monitoring of remote learning was revealing requirements for more places in schools, and criteria used where demand exceeds capacity. Cllr Zahira Alijah (Fallowfield) raised the plight of families with a number of children and only one laptop, schools unable to access sufficient laptops, breakdown by ethnicity of children who are self-isolating, and lack of nursery places. Cllr Julie Reid (JR – Gorton and Abbey Hey) suggests some schools are already a half to two thirds full yet key workers are unable to find places for their children, whether special testing arrangements were in place for schools in the Moss Side variant area, and where vocational courses are carrying on the QCA has not cancelled assessments for BTEC students. Also how is the COVID winter grant being distributed with families experiencing food and fuel poverty, not forgetting mental health issues for children and staff.
Amanda Corcoran (AC) responded that four particular schools where demand exceeded supply contributed to half of the over demand throughout the city. It is under constant review. Not all remote learning is online. Primary schools for instance set tasks not requiring screens. Public Health provide data on COVID positive students, an ethnic breakdown may possibly be available. Over demand in nurseries may be due to the high staff to child ratio required. Testing for the workforce in settings within the Moss Side variant area have been arranged. There has been no communication yet from Government regarding examinations this summer including vocational courses. A reminder to schools and settings has been sent this week regarding the COVID winter grant, and signposting for mental health and wellbeing will be in place to support staff and students.
Liam Duffy (co-opted member) raises the question of inconsistencies between schools regarding staff required on site including teaching assistants, canteen staff and cleaners. Cllr Richard Kilpatrick (Didsbury West) questions whether sufficient supplies of lateral flow tests will be available when schools re-open, and whether Government advice that PCR tests no longer need to be taken in the case of a positive result from a LF test, will cause concern for staff and students. Cllr Madeline Monaghan (Sharston) emphasises the point that school staff other than teachers (eg TAs, cooks, lunchtime assistants) have more face to face contact with young people. Teachers appear to be treated differently than other school staff. Cllr Jill Lovecy (JL – Rusholme) commends support to schools from MCC in the light of late provision of Government guidance, queries whether the winter hardship fund could be used to offset increased wifi costs for families, and also asks whether childminders caring for school age children during school hours have good contacts with relevant schools. Cllr Susan Cooley (SC – Brooklands) raises the plight of children in need under special guardianship orders not being recognised as a looked after child and in some cases missing out on educational healthcare funding. Cllr Bernard Stone (BS – Levenshulme) mentions inappropriate use of laptops due to lack of the expensive software to prevent such use and asks whether there could be cost reductions through bulk purchase of such software. Cllr Garry Bridges (GB – Old Moat – Exec Member for Children and Schools) comments on the equivalence of staff in schools pointed to ongoing meetings with joint unions to discuss these matters. MCC’s stated position is that all school staff should be treated equally and they should work from home if they can. High numbers of young people in schools this term make it hard to manage with the same staff level as last year. COVID winter grant can be used for laptops and associated costs. The Government’s woeful planning for school closures and re-opening has caused schools many problems and there will be serious deficiencies such as in socialising and learning with their peers, which racing through the curriculum will likely do children more harm than good. Issues such as dental health, lack of interaction with others and normal life opportunities have also been impacted adversely. Cllr Bernard Stone echoes the importance of play at all ages.
AC comments on staffing issues saying there is dialogue with schools and often issues arise due to the difficulty of balancing rising numbers of children against staff levels where some may be self-isolating or simply sick. LF tests and guidance was directly from DFE to schools which has made it difficult to assess supplies. Some secondary schools have informed the LA that they are using LF tests for staff and in some cases for pupils, but as yet there is no indication of a shortage. Concerns are apparent for the return of students in greater numbers. No change in the position where PCR tests are deemed unnecessary if LF test is positive seems to negate ideas of track and trace. Prioritising vulnerable children has been a the LA policy and left to schools to identify children they consider need a place on site, so any issues should be flagged with the head teacher. It is expected that in the case of childminders with school age children that they should be accessing the remote learning provided by the specific school. Recognising the cost of the protective software for laptops issued to children, AC will pursue the suggestion of bulk purchase. BS conveyed thanks to all staff in offices and schools for the work they have done.
Paul Marshall (PM – Strategic Director for Children and Young People) re-introduced the Budget 2021/22 (split into items 6a – Children and Education Services Budget 2021/22 and 6b – School Budget 2021/22) reminding members that the report tabled previously, now includes minor amendments. It is interesting to note that these reports now repeat the contribution to the Manchester Strategy: “Improving outcomes for the children and families across the City, helps build and develop whole communities and increases the liability of the City”. Although the worst case of a £100 million shortfall in the Council budget did not materialise, there is a £41 million gap and need to deliver a balanced budget. Government provided a single year settlement so the budget is for the 2021-2022 period. The report takes account of previous decisions at Scrutiny and Executive in January 2021, and is split to reflect the Designated School Grant (DSG) received in mid-December presented to the Schools Forum in mid-January 2021 and agreed there.
GB reminded members and people following the budget process that this was not a budget that they wish to set. Government told Councils at the start of the pandemic spend what you need and we will support you. Because of a combination of increased costs and loss of income due to the pandemic Manchester is now facing a £50 million budget shortfall. Whilst all LA services are supporting the public (for instance during the recent floods) Government is forcing an increase in Council Tax and reduction in LA services. That being said, the budget does do a good job in protecting what means most to us and rely on whilst delivering savings. Early intervention has always been dear to this committee and has been protected. Managing the DSG should target support to schools to minimise harm.
JR worries about the long-term effects of the pandemic and what it will mean for future budget and the effect it will have on families and universal credit £20 uplift may not continue with families already struggling. JL requests more detail on the upward trend of Looked After Children and stresses the importance of wide access to special care provision. JW acknowledged and thanked the Executive for taking on board views of Scrutiny and shows democracy is still working. BS stated the public budget consultation was ongoing and people were welcome to contribute views via the Council website.
PM concluded none of the proposals come without risk, working on a strategy of cost avoidance, early intervention, prevention, and when children become involved with services ensuring that they are safe, effective and efficient. We know children services are low numbers, high cost and there is volatility. Monitoring our best indicators is a way to predict requirements. We don’t yet know the long-term impacts of the pandemic, children not being in school, family structures and those who are just about coping may start to struggle. We’ve seen an increase in requests for help at an early level, so by strengthening early interventions and targeting services this should avoid costly interventions later. Continuing to strengthen the front line and preventing two or three children entering residential care will deliver necessary savings. We would welcome a three-year budget which would allow more strategic planning and to put resources in the right place. PM and AC then responded to the queries raised by JR, JL and JW. BS rounded off the discussion.
No comments were made on the Overview Report (item 7) other than BS expecting a report on Lyndene Children’s Home for the meeting in March. The March meeting will be the last BS will chair announcing he is not seeking re-election in May. SC expressed a vote of thanks on behalf of the committee to BS as chair over the past three years.