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Wednesday, 28th February 2018

Staying Focused on the Real Crisis

Staying Focused on The Real Crisis

The Council Tax round is over. Eventually budgets were scrutinised, the County one became clearer and we face another year with inadequate funding for local services and as yet unspecified cuts. At the same time the world of Local Government in Tandridge will soon be moving towards election mode. Election for TDC is in thirds for each cycle, meaning that one third of the seats is up for election in three years out of four- in the fourth is the County Council election.

I mention this because it is too easy for elected servants to neglect their core work during the run up to elections as they are consumed with other things. As we all get older it is hard to find the energy for everything. But we have to if we are to do our job.

By the same token, the temptation to grandstand for cheap electoral advantage can never be resisted by some; I don’t think that really works. I think our electors are genuinely a bit sharper than that.

Early Help

One of the strategies I use to sustain my energy and passion is to get as close as possible to the front line. I can’t sit with Children’s Centre staff or social workers while they deal with all the complexities of their everyday work, but it is essential that from time to time I can sit and drink a coffee and just listen. In the case of our excellent Children’s Centre finding a bit of funding to support a new project, helping to make connections with other services, or just listening, means I can get some understanding of what the work is and the differences it makes. And, of course, that helps me to fight for it when a new round of cuts comes, as now, with upwards of £9.7m of cuts being proposed to the Early Help offer, of which Children’s Centres are a vital part. Whatever happens, it is essential that the skill and understanding this service brings to families who might have nowhere else to turn needs to be protected, even if it has to be re-shaped into a new way of working. I have been so impressed by the impact of our service for families whose children have special needs. It will be that impact that counts when services have to be re-shaped.

However busy I am, I am pleased to chair the governing bodies of two Surrey schools- one infant and one primary.

Surrey has for some years had a scheme to train governors to support schools where there are issues with governance or leadership. I spoke at the Children’s Select Committee last week in the hope that this service will be saved when the Babcock School Improvement contract ends in March 2019. It is running a skeleton service now but it is my contention that the governance support service can demonstrate real value in helping heads and fellow governors secure good outcomes for schools.

The role of school governors has changed a lot over recent years and just keeping up with government guidance can be very time consuming, as new circulars on key issues such as safeguarding appear regularly and are crucial to school leadership. Supporting heads to manage this workload and ensure they are not let down by their governing bodies is a crucial part of the role.

But I also have to confess that the role helps me to understand what the front line of challenged public service looks like. The challenges facing the teachers of young children today are vastly different from those which my teacher education led me to understand, and while the focus on measured outputs has arguably raised standards over the years it is clear that the gap between children from wealthy backgrounds and those from less favoured families has not diminished and seems intransigent to initiatives ranging from free school meals to Pupil Premium. Of course, there are pockets of success both across schools and within schools, but I am shocked almost weekly by the amount of time headteachers have to spend dealing with the consequences of domestic violence, family conflict over custody, and the impact of those on the emotional wellbeing of the small child.

More and more we need to keep strengthening and investing in the safety nets into which suffering children fall, whether that be the need to feed them a proper meal at lunchtime (and what happens in the school holidays?) or supporting them in their distress, which for many manifests itself in behaviours at school and at home. The naughty child is rare, the troubled child is all too common and our mechanisms for supporting them stretched too far; talking to Heads who care so passionately about these issues and constantly return with reinvigorated vision to their schools inspires and calls us to our duty to find ways of supporting them. Unfortunately, they suffer significant abuse from time to time, which is nothing new, but still distressing. It is hard to become inured to it.

Good school governance needs to ensure that the headteacher has around her the systems to ensure safe and high quality education, but also that her wellbeing is secured against the stresses of what can be a very lonely job. Indeed the wellbeing of all staff is essential to the effective school. If only the ministers who keep making life more difficult understood that! But there is a close connection between the wellbeing of the teachers and of the children they serve.

The SCC Cabinet discussion this week on the County’s Early Help offer, fundamental to all this, reflected an understanding of the issues very well. The funds available for supporting families under pressure are increasingly tight and I will do all I can to ensure that the Early Help offer is focussed appropriately, with the faces of the children who need that support in the forefront of my mind.

A Government Green paper on Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMHS)

Consultation on this interesting and important document is closing as I write.

The main themes of the Green Paper – improving emotional and mental health support in schools, increasing access to early intervention, advice and guidance and improving access to specialist help – are hard to argue with. These are some of the areas where the need and evidence suggests we could have the greatest impact.

The government’s proposals in the Green Paper to address these areas are to incentivise every school and college to identify a senior lead for mental health; to create mental health support teams focused on early intervention with their work supervised by CAMHS and jointly managed with education; and trial a four-week waiting time for access to CAMHS.

As a commentator in the Guardian observes, these objectives are worthy and to be welcomed. But they can only remain aspirations while we do not, as a nation, have even a fraction of the workforce to deliver the service levels required to meet these suggested standards. Surrey’s own CAMHS provider identified at last week’s Select Committee that the workforce was a major factor in the length of delays both for assessment and treatment. Even if the funds were available, which they are not, the staff simply aren’t out there.

I wrote in my last blog about the decline in the funding of primary care and how this had a severe impact on recruitment of staff- doctors and nurses. But the crisis in nursing provision is across so many specialities- health visitors, midwives, psychiatric nurses, everywhere. There are thousands of vacancies across the NHS. So while a four week wait target for CAMHS is a very fine idea, it has as much of a chance of becoming a lived reality as I do of becoming slimmer of the year.

The Real Crisis

It is always fine to dance to a tune of aspiration. But when the music stops we are confounded because there is not enough money. Not enough money for any school, for nurse training (not helped by the catastrophic policy of the government to remove nurse bursaries for training), not enough money for vulnerable families and children, not enough to fill the holes in the road. One County Council, Northamptonshire, has officially gone bust. Yet the national conversation seems to treat the case as a deviant outlier. It is not that. I find it extraordinary that this isn’t the most important conversation on our nation’s lips. It is a precursor of imminent collapse of the whole system.

The Brexit vote and its fallout have left our country bitterly divided- divisions which don’t heal, but like an infected wound continue to suppurate. We are even more fractured as a nation now than just after the referendum.

What we should unite around is the real crisis- not about trade agreements or the Ulster border, important though they are, but the fractured services we and our families have grown up to rely on but which are falling apart about us as we watch.