Trudy Dean sets out some of the challenges which Kent County Council needs to address to help all children and young persons get the best start in life.
The Liberal Democrats believe that the financing of Education in the UK is too heavily skewed toward Secondary Education at the expense of the all-important formative Early Years and argue for greater funding of Early Years settings. There is a particular need for greater focus on speech development and creative play for children from poorer backgrounds to try to ensure that their life chances are not limited from the start.
KCC needs to take urgent action to eliminate the financial deficit experienced by a high proportion of KCC Secondary Schools.
The budget for school maintenance is not sufficient, on the admission of KCC officers, to cover the urgent annual repairs in schools.
Funding from Government for new school building has been so far reduced that in many areas KCC is dependant for new school places on developer funding. This means new schools are built where large new developments occur, and parents and pupils must travel greater distances to schools outside their local area, with poorer outcomes for the environment community cohesion.
KCC has been roundly criticised for its SEND provision, and particularly for its lack of consultation and continuing involvement with parents.
We support the comments of the OFSTED Inspectorate, and the actions which KCC is now taking to improve performance. A particular concern is the lengthy wait for assessment for EHCPs. Whilst Government legislation has raised parental expectation of school choice to very high levels, it is nevertheless a parental entitlement which must be available within the shortest possible timescale.
KCC argues that too many children are being placed in Special Schools when more successful outcomes for the child could be achieved in supported mainstream schools. However, this is only tenable if parents are confident that mainstream schools are able to support their children effectively. Much more needs to be done to ensure that mainstream schools do have the necessary resources and skills to meet their needs, and that admission practice therefore supports this. The deficit position of many Secondary Schools needs to be addressed in this regard.
The Covid pandemic has forced a rapid increase in virtual contact with some children educated out of school or requiring specialist support in addition to school provision. For some children this has proved highly beneficial, and we support KCC adapting working practices to build on this experience.
The pandemic has also resulted in a further worsening of the educational standards of children from poorer backgrounds, who already do worse in Kent than in most other counties. After London, Kent lies in one of the most prosperous parts of the country, and this is not acceptable.
The argument that Kent's Selective System aids Social Mobility has been undermined by the removal of free transport to Grammar Schools.
In our view, if the County Council chooses to have a Selective system, then it must choose to make that system available to all. The County Councils own Select Committee on Grammar Schools and Social Mobility demonstrates that this is not the case. That conclusion was reinforced by a further Select Committee on Pupil Premium payments which pointed to the need for much more to be done to ensure these payments are claimed, and appropriately used, to close the nationally high Achievement Gap in Kent.
Though some Grammar Schools have adjusted their admission procedures to assist children from poorer backgrounds, some have not, and we understand the number of pupils admitted under these provisions is still very limited. It is a far cry from the position in Birmingham where the King Edward VII schools are aiming to admit 25% of children from poorer backgrounds. The recommendations of these two Committees need to be robustly implemented.
KCC's funding of Youth Service has historically been low, and in recent years has reduced still further to the point where, outside of town areas, provision is largely absent for most children, and contact levels for the service County wide are low. Again, an on-line service has proved popular during lockdown, but this cannot replace the social activities which aid transition into adulthood. Consideration should be given to working more closely with secondary schools, community hubs and national organisations such as Duke of Edinburgh Scheme, Scouting and Guiding movements, to ensure access to all children.
FE colleges have suffered from inadequate national funding criteria. Unemployment prospects for 18-25 year-olds are predicted to be depressed in the wake of the pandemic and the shift towards further digitalisation of the economy. FE colleges have a vital role in helping young people acquire the skills needed by emerging businesses and industries. KCC needs to become much more effective in bringing the business leaders and FE colleges together in order to ensure that the County is better placed to take advantage of the economic recovery.
Trudy Dean is the Liberal Democrat Spokeperson for Children, Young Persons and Education at Kent County Council