Worried about Schools? Don’t complain do something. The Swiss Gardens Story.
Posted on 30th March 2017 by Alastair Reid
Categories: Data, Education, Schools, Uncategorised, West Sussex County Council
A year or so ago, my kid’s school announced that it had been forced, (against the wishes of the Head and Governors), to add another class to its 2016 intake.
There was natural consternation from parents. Everyone likes the idea of a small primary school. It’s your child’s first serious step out from your protective cloak, and into the big world over which you feel you have little control. And if that’s our experience, imagine what it must be like for the child. The smaller and less daunting the better please.
However, at heart I am also a pragmatist. Kids need to go to school somewhere. All the other local schools had already expanded. Kids not having a school to go to is not really an option. And there is an argument that objecting was a form of nimybism, and that is pretty close to #pullingupthedrawbridgeandnotallowingotherstohavewhatwe’veenjoyedism. So I quietly resigned myself to the prospect.
Other parents took up the cause more vociferously, organising a petition against expansion to the local council with pretty much unanimous parental support. They organised meetings with parents, and with councillors. The latter’s response varied from indifference to empty promises to ‘look into it’.
Events, dear boy, pricked my interest. The school is on the road I live on. The ‘bulge year’ was being accommodated in two Portacabin type buildings. And one assumes these things are managed competently, and professionally. Yet, it soon became clear that there was a litany of things that at the very least raised concerns.
The school is on a tiny site for size of the intake, blocked in by roads on two sides, houses, and a public field on the other sides. A ‘temporary’ ‘budge class’, is of course not temporary, as it takes seven years for that class to go through the school. So the foundation work for the portacabins was pretty serious. The builders ripped out the bike sheds, some of the staff car park, and without permission, a pupil eco area the PTA had just spent several thousand pounds, and many weekends building.
As it turns out the council, WSCC, built without planning permission, (this was only retrospectively applied for after it was finished), which in itself represented a huge risk to public money. It also turned out they had not told any of the prospective parents that it was set to move from a 2 class to a 3 class entry.
It also turned out the next nearest school had 21 empty spaces. And that most of the children making up the new class at Swiss Gardens had put it as first choice, but were out of the catchment area for the school. So most of those parents would not have expected their kids to have got into our school, and indeed that outcome would be in line with the council’s own stated admissions policy. The decision to honour preference ahead of catchment, and create the extra class, was it seemed a political one, and arguably not even necessary.
And yet, at some point, most parents, (me included), resigned themselves to the change, not unreasonably concluding that there was not much point crying over split milk.
A few moments changed all that for me.
A Wider Issue Than Our School
At one school parents forum, more details of bungling emerged, but more significantly two parents had gathered a lot of data around whether this was a one-off need or a trend. Many teachers and heads said they had been warning of a changing demographic in our area for years, but that nothing had been done. There were also plans for thousands of new homes nearby, generating future demand. And the very obvious conclusion started to arise. This was not a one-off, and we were going to have major capacity issues in our schools going forward.
In that meeting, it was agreed was that rather than trying to fight it as group of parents from one school, it would be much more helpful to look at it with a wider area view. After all, saying no to expansion at our school, would always risk accusations of nimbyism, and achieve limited external support. And at best we would displace the issue from one school and area to another. Given the obvious solution was a big one — we need more schools — this would take wider action and support.
The other moment came incidentally. When I dropped off a forgotten bag one day to school. It was break time for the new reception classes. To get to the school office you had to cross the schools one proper playground. It was well supervised but intense. Three classes of 4 and 5-year-olds, some 85 kids in approximately 300 concreted square metres.
It bothered me. And when I went home I worked out that this space was roughly equivalent to an adults arm span per child. This felt like a pretty intense experience for a child’s first experience of play at school.
Added to this all sorts of other implications of the expansion became clear. School assemblies became harder as they couldn’t fit everyone in. This meant more assemblies, more school performances, lots more logistics for already stretched staff to deal with on a site designed for 90 children, now with over 450. School lunch sittings became shorter as they had to turn over the sittings, and if you have a slow eating child like mine, more often than not they would simply not finish their lunch. The school lacked its own kitchen. And the library rather uniquely doubled up as a music room.
In short, the staff were trying to do an outstanding job but were dealing with a system, and an infrastructure not built for purpose. Something had to change.
One of my friends used to have a saying, ‘no-one likes a moaner’. That stuck with me. Everyone is allowed one moan. But moan twice about the same thing, and it’s time to shut up, move on, or if you can, do something about it. And so I decided to get involved.
The Start of Doing Something
I joined a parent group a couple of others had set up, FAST, (Future of Adur Schools). The goal was to campaign for better planning and provision for school places in our district. We tried to gather more data about the need to support our case. We lobbied the councils, politicians and the council executive involved. We met developers. We tried to inform other parents of the context and progress of what we were doing. We got support from the local press. We went to community and council meetings about new developments and asked questions, and put our cause on the agenda. We got to meet and understand the main players and decision makers. And crucially we started to follow the money.
In doing so, we also knocked down a lot of false assumptions. We thought the local district council, Adur, were at fault for approving thousands of more homes without new schools without matching infrastructure. Turns out this is outside of their control, as they were obliged to meet nationally set targets. Even if they turned down new developments in planning, the likelihood is that the developers would appeal, and the decision would be overturned by the national Planning Inspectorate because the developers were fulfilling a need in line with national policy.
We thought county councillors who were responsible for education would care. Turns out they were at best ambivalent. We thought the developers were behaving irresponsibly by profiteering out of all these developments without putting anything back into the local community. Turns out most of big ones locally were housing associations, with no evil shadowy shareholders, and who put all profits back into providing affordable homes.
And crucially, we found out the developers did actually put A LOT of money back into the community infrastructure. This money is called Section 106 money. It is agreed as a condition of planning approval between the developer and the district council and is money that can be used for investing and improving infrastructure such as highways, recreational facilities, health and affordable housing.
And it transpired that WERE pots of money from developers set aside from local developments for local education. The problem was nobody seemed to know where it went, and what happened to it after they wrote the cheque. And I include the developers in that. The money went into the local district council and then would go back out the county council who are responsible for education provision. And what happened next, in terms of decision making, nobody knew.
There IS Money
So we made a Freedom of Information request to the local council to find out from the 500 dwellings that were either being built or had been granted planning permission, how much had been set aside for education? It turns out it was the best part of £1m. Available to be spent on local schools, which very few people knew how it was going to be used.
This included £250k from a new development 500m from our school that was in the final stages of planning approval.
Taking Back Control
We found out that in some instances the use of 106 money is very specifically laid out in planning, i.e. it is to build this road crossing. Mostly, it was fairly generically allocated under broad headings such as Education, or Transport.
We figured if we could make the allocation specific for our school, i.e. ring fence it in the planning approval process for our school, this would a) be a big win and b) the money would be used as was intended. Local developments supporting local infrastructure.
We asked our school what they would use that money for if they had it, and the clear answer was more play space. The school lease a bit of the adjoining field. It is sometimes used by the school, but has drainage issues, which means it’s frequently unusable. If the drainage could be fixed, with some sort of all-weather surface, the play space is doubled, with added benefits to sport and the local community.
So we went to the council planning meeting where the development planning decision was being made. (I never even knew you could do such a thing.) We asked questions, made our case to the council and met the developers, and got them on side too. Remember they have to spend the money, so for them to see where it goes, and have a local positive impact story to show for it is good for them too.
The developers suggested we also get it onto the full council’s agenda. Which we did. We produced white papers for all the councillors making our case, we used the questions procedures for me and the school Head to make our case and ask our ask. And we got universal approval.
It still required WSCC to buy in as they, in theory, controlled the money. But by this time, we had public support, press support, political support, developer support, school support, and parental support. To be frank to object at that stage would have been churlish.
And so a deal was agreed. The district council, the developers and the county council agreed the money could be ring-fenced for our school. Hopefully, our kids will get more usable play space, and we will have gone some way in alleviating the pressures put on it by expansion. For now.
A happy byproduct of generating all that heat and attention was that the county council also suddenly found £100k of additional money to help the school with essential repairs and maintenance. And found some more money to make good the damage done to the school’s eco garden. And we also think that it is unlikely that the council is going to want to push on the school further expansion, at least in the short term.
Our data was also used to help support the case put forward for opening new school down the road. A final decision on which is due imminently.
So in a little over a year, we have put the issue of school places provision firmly on the map. We may have helped open one new school. In the last six months, we have helped find our school the best part of £360k which it previously wouldn’t have expected to get. We’ve galvanised the support of hundred of parents. And this is from just 6 parents acting in their ‘spare’ time.
We haven’t yet touched the sides of the bigger capacity issues, both locally and nationally. And that is going to need more support, and more parents prepared to stop complaining and get involved.
From our experience here’s our top 12 tips for making a difference:
Top 12 tips for making a difference
1. Gather and rally as much support as you can.
Supporters are amplifiers of your cause, people who can help with time and resources, and voters. If you can show you have support those in power will, at some point, listen.
2. Gather stories and data. ‘Facts tell. Stories sell’.
Gather data to back up your cause, and people will take you more seriously. Gather and share stories, and you stand a chance of making people care.
3. Establish a small working group focussed on your main concerns.
Too many people will make decision making slow. Too few and you’ll burn through your enthusiasm pretty quickly. About 5 people directing and coordinating efforts feels about right. It allows people to drift in and out when they are busy, whilst still keeping it moving. Bring in others as required. And have a blend of skills and personalities. On our team, we have a qualified teacher, a data pro, marketing types, and town planners. That means we can cover a lot of bases.
5. Avoid too much formal process.
We’ve only met face to face as a group a few times, rarely have formal minutes, roles, or structures. Working like this, with a clear goal, a few people can make decisions and agree on next steps quickly, and move fast.
6. Make use of digital tools.
Pretty much every organisational need a group like this has can be met by free, or nearly free digital resources. We use messaging apps such as Messenger to communicate; Google Drive to store files; Facebook for creating groups and organising events; Google docs to work on shared resources; Survey Monkey to make questionnaires; and email for the rest.
7. Go to relevant public and council meetings.
This might seem like a massive drag, but you’d be amazed at what you’ll find out, and who you’ll meet that might prove useful to your cause. Ultimately, a lot of these things will be decided by a relatively small number of people, and they are often to be found at these meetings. Stick around at the end and you’ll be able to put names to faces and have good conversations. Get on agendas to ask questions and you can quickly gain a voice and support.
8. Get the heads/schools on side.
No matter how great your cause, and how sympathetic your school, you will still only be one of the hundreds of things they have to worry about. Make it as easy as possible for them to get engaged, do as much of the work for them as you can, and just get their buy in. Their authority combined with your action proved to be very effective. It will also avoid duplication of effort.
9. Be ‘A’ political.
There are alway political contexts to a cause, but we took the view early on that to affiliate our cause with a political party or philosophy was the wrong approach, simply because it would risk alienating a lot of potential supporters.
10.Press still matters.
Even in the age of social media, an article in a local newspaper lends authority and helps raise the profile. They have an online presence that you can link to on social media, and many of the decision makers will read the main local media. Plus local community stories is what they exist for, so they’ll generally be pretty receptive.
11. Be nice and work towards solutions.
You might be pissed off, and voicing that loudly might get you noticed. But after the battle, you will need to negotiate the peace, so be prepared to bring solutions to the table, and be prepared to collaborate with anyone that can help. We have been successful because we’ve campaigned loudly, AND have been able to bring together and work with the private sector, councillors, council executive, heads, parents, planners, and so on.
12. Google is your friend.
You’ll be amazed at the information you can find online to enlighten you about your cause. So much information is now published on line by councils and decision makers. Just Google it, and if it’s not there use a Freedom of Information request. (It’s pretty much as easy as sending an email)
Finally, have a bias towards action.
If you didn’t do anything, you have less right to complain. And if you rely on others to do things and make decisions that affect you, you can’t assume they are going act in your best interests if you haven’t made your voice heard. Moan once, then next time, do something.