I’m probably a creep, but I rather like the videos that have been created for the Wandsworth Conservative council campaign. The latest to be featured is on education.

Wandsworth has a lot to be proud of, especially when one considers the challenges faced by inner city schools, but there’s even more to be proud of in the future, with the development of free schools.

Battersea's next new school - but where would Labour cut to fund it?

Yesterday, I commented that the ‘free schools’ idea had cross party support. I was wrong and shouldn’t have said that.

The Conservatives, locally and nationally support the concept of free schools. Indeed, there have been a number of meetings between the local and national Conservative frontbenchers and the local campaign to set up a school on the Bolingbroke site. It may well be one of the pioneer schools under a Conservative government.

Unfortunately Labour have not been quite so warm to the idea. While Martin Linton has been trying to talk up what Labour will do he hasn’t been talking to Labour Secretary of State for Education, Ed Balls.

Ed Balls is perfectly willing to support the idea, but his solution? Slash planned investment in other schools.

In essence Balls is saying that he supports the idea, but that he wants us to cut funding already earmarked for seventeen other schools and educational facilities in the borough. Perhaps he or Martin Linton could indicate which schools they would propose to chop?

Elsley School’s move to the Nightingale site looks like being made permanent. The site has been empty for some time now, and on occasion been a cause for concern and problem for neighbouring residents.

To be fair I’m not that surprised. I was chairman of governors at the school immediately before it ‘federated’ with Nightingale, the school that was effectively its big brother. At the time the school had a number of problems (some of which I was there to try and address) but one of the biggest was the sheer inadequacy of the building as a modern school – problems compounded by it being a special school.

And a Victorian school building often isn’t that suitable for anything anymore. It’s hard to imagine how the spaces within can be productively used for anything. The council will be demolishing the remaining buildings on the site (the Pupil Referral Unit was demolished some months ago) which will also enhance the overall security of the area for local residents and the site declared surplus to requirements.

In a way it’s sad, since the building clearly has history – there are some fascinating old photos of the school from Victorian times – but putting emotion to one side and looking at the site rationally it is, sadly, no longer a viable site for education and in its current state of no use to the wider council.

Battersea Power Station model Now that conference season is over things start getting back into full swing. A few of the bits and pieces I’ve not mentioned this week are:

School governors
One of the privileges I’ve had as a councillor is being able to serve as a school governor in three of the ward’s schools. I’m currently a governor at Shaftesbury Park – and attended the full governors meeting on Wednesday.

The council nominates people to each governing body and there are usually some vacancies somewhere as people come and go from Wandsworth. It can be an incredibly rewarding experience and need not take up much time (as little as a couple of evenings per term). If you think you might be interested in being a school governor you can find out more from the school governor section of the council’s website.

NLA event
Last night I was promoting Wandsworth at a New London Architecture ‘Our Patch’ night. It was a great opportunity to talk about how great Wandsworth is and what it has to offer (I will try to create a YouTube version of my short pitch).

Their building in Store Street has a model of central London amongst its displays and is well worth a visit, even if the Power Station has, sadly lost two of its chimneys.

Black History Month
And finally, I popped into a Black History Month (links to a PDF) event at Battersea Library this morning entitled ‘arrivals’.

Given my previous post (and talk) on why Wandsworth is great it was fascinating to hear the stories on how and why people came to Wandsworth. Wandsworth has a long and proud history of welcoming immigrant communities and listening to the stories of how people came here and become part of the wider community brought home how much better we are for being a diverse, but still cohesive, community.

I’m a little late in picking up on this, but John Burns School, situated in the north-eastern corner of the ward, has been named as one of the best in the country by Ofsted.

Ofsted included the school in its report ‘Twenty Outstanding Primary Schools’ which “showcases 20 primary schools in very challenging circumstances that have been rated ‘outstanding’ at least twice.”

The report concludes John Burns is a “very successful, heavily oversubscribed and highly regarded school.” I spent four years as a governor at the school shortly after the current headteacher, Maura Keady, started in post and can attest to her drive and determination for the school.

Recognition like this from Ofsted speaks volumes for the work she, and other staff, have done in the school over the years.

Unlike most newspaper editors I don’t have a photo of attractive young A level students receiving their results but Wandsworth’s schools managed some great results this year.

The provisional results show an overall A-E pass rate of 97.3% and overall A-C passes of 74.7%. A superb result for an inner London authority.

Some schools showed particularly good improvements, Southfields improved by 13.3% and Battersea Park by 10.6%.

Congratulations to all the teachers, parents and – most importantly – students involved.

Last month brought the news that the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) were freezing funding for building projects in colleges across the country.  South Thames College was just one of the colleges affected, being in the middle of a two phase rebuilding of their Wandsworth site.  Other colleges were even unluckier, having demolished their buildings to be told the money to replace them wouldn’t be there!

Yesterday saw the publication of Sir Andrew Foster’s report on what went wrong, few people come out of it in a good light.  But even though it was a government commissioned report – and presumably expected to come to the ‘right’ answers – it failed to exonerate the Department for Innovation, Universities and Schools (DIUS).  Sir Andrew concluded “that the crisis was predictable and probably avoidable.” He also failed to identify any reason why DIUS didn’t intervene and stop the LSC making promises it just couldn’t afford to keep.

The funding crisis was made public in last month, March 2009 – but it was revealed the LSC knew they had a problem in February 2008, over a year earlier, and that DIUS officials knew in May 2008.  Despite this the LSC were allowed to continue the making their spending promises.  In fact they managed to make promises that would have swallowed their entire capital budget for three years by the end of 2008!

The subject was debated at last night’s full council meeting with Labour trying to suggest that the Government had no responsiblity.  I’m aware that we often play the blame game in this country, and while I’m not keen on being part of it, where does the buck stop on this one?  When the DIUS gives the LSC its budget, isn’t it reasonable to expect them to at least keep an eye on the spending?  And when DIUS officials are part of the LSC’s decision making process, isn’t it reasonable for them to raise questions and call a halt when there are obvious problems?

Even worse, at the same time the minister was doing nothing about this crisis he was issuing a press release celebrating his commitment to and investment in the further education sector.  Left hand, meet right hand.

The council resolved to lobby the LSC and the Secretary of State to get South Thames College’s funding reinstated, but frankly it’s hard to imagine the current lot of ministers having the competence to rectify their failings.

Wix Primary SchoolOffers of places in the borough’s primary schools last week and while many parents will be pleased with the schools their child has been offered many will have been disappointed. About a third of parents did not get their child into their first choice of school, and while there will still be some change (people may move or transfer to the private sector) there won’t be enough to change to mean everyone gets their choice.

There are many reasons not everyone got their first choice. First, some schools are obviously more popular than others and are over subscribed, and some schools still have spaces, for example, most schools in Battersea still have places remaining. Second, the population change in the borough is not evenly distributed putting more pressure on schools in the south and west of the borough (and likewise leaving spare places in Battersea). Third, the recession has played a part, there are undoubtedly parents who would have moved or opted for the private sector but now find the economy means putting their children into a Wandsworth school.

It is a consequence of choice. Parents’ choices will never conveniently fit existing provision; but choice, even if not perfect, is better than the old ways which saw parents forced to send their children to the nearest school, regardless of their wishes. While not everyone will be entirely satisfied, the majority of parents got their first choice school for their child.

The council will be looking at expanding the entry into a number of schools this Summer (as we did last year) which will ease some of the pressure. But this is an ongoing challenge for the council and the borough’s schools. The best long-term solution, realistically, is improving the standards of all our schools so the first choices are more evenly spread.

South Thames College has become the latest victim of the government’s rudderless interpretation of the ship of state.

The college has been undergoing a dramatic makeover recently, with new facilities being built to the rear of their Wandsworth High Street site the next phase was on the listed front of the building. Despite having got agreement in principle and being told the money had been ringfenced for them, the college is now told the money just isn’t there.

The government were aware of the problems six months ago. On yesterday’s Today programme Education Minister Siôn Simon accepted that one of his officials had attended meetings, but that the minutes just weren’t very detailed, and didn’t really cover the funding problems until late last year. So that’s all right then.

All the time this gives the impression of a government that seems to know the game is up, and is just going through the motions until the electorate get the chance to blow the whistle. Unfortunately South Thames College, and the people employed on the work there, are amongst those paying the price on this one.

It might seem a bit out of date, since students got their results last summer, but the breakdown of schools and boroughs have just been published and it’s pleasing reading for Wandsworth.

The council’s website has all the details (this press release contains the school by school results and you can get the national picture from the Department for Schools, Children and Families) so I won’t repeat them, but there is one key fact I think worth highlighting – Wandsworth’s results are now ahead of the national average.  For an inner London borough this is a significant achievement.

66.2% of Wandsworth students now get the benchmark 5 A*-C GCSE grades – this compares to 65.3% in the country as a whole.  As an indicator of the improvement Wandsworth was 8% behind the national average in 2001.

This doesn’t mean we should be complacent, there is still room for improvement in many schools, but it is a cause for celebration and congratulation of the borough’s teachers and students.