Agenda item - Chair's Communications
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53.1 The Chair gave the following communication:
Welcome to this virtual meeting of the Children Young People & Skills Committee. Please note that this meeting is being webcast and is capable of repeat viewing.
We have two addendums to the main agenda. Please note that Item 67A is an additional item regarding the Executive Director’s use of Urgency Powers regarding Council Nurseries and that can be seen in Addendum 2.
On Saturday 2 January, Brighton and Hove City Council made the tough decision to advise our primary schools to close to all but vulnerable children and the children of key workers. We did this because we were worried about rising case numbers and that we wanted to protect our community. But we did this with concern – knowing that this would cause challenges to some families, particularly with short notice and that we may end up in the position that Greenwich Council did before Christmas, being challenged legally by Government.
On Sunday 3 January, the Government said schools were safe and on Andrew Marr, the Prime Minister issued a challenge to us. Just one day later, the Prime Minister issued a directive for all primary schools across England to close - after many primary schools had been open for just one day.
We said at the start that we were making the brave decision that Government weren’t willing to make, based on concerns for safety, of staff, families and in recognition of the shocking rise in cases in our city. And we heard huge relief from our community when they did make that decision – and that we had made the call a few days earlier; given that the government’s announcement meant children had gone into school and then back out again within 24 hours. Having reviewed the data on the rise in cases – at that time, telling us of an increase in cases across all ages and up to 700% increase since the end of the November lockdown. However we still felt there is inconsistency in the guidance and later in the week we made the decision to close council-run nurseries to all but vulnerable children and the children of key workers. The same justification for schools applied – we need to protect our wider community and the public health figures were showing it.
The figures for cases among 0-4 year olds were very similar to 5-9, but even if you weren’t looking at the children themselves, it’s about staff, its about families and it’s about those in the community. It’s about decision makers making the decisions needed to bring down rates of transmission, so we are ready to open when it is safe to do so.
As a council, we can do little about private early years providers. But we know many are concerned about the effect on the community from remaining open to all children. Sadly without support from Government, making this call will come at a financial cost to them.
I am grateful to Cllrs of all parties for their engagement over this issue. Cllr Allcock and I also wrote to the children’s minister Vicky Ford, asking her to reconsider the government’s decision to not advise early years providers to close and to not reimburse them as they did during the lockdown period last year.
As of yet, we are waiting for Government to change their mind on early years too. We may well see it in the coming days. Today, the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said in the press that parents and carers should avoid sending children to nurseries where possible.
This is a testing time for families and we have also focused on ensuring provision is in place to support families in need through our approach. Government should do similar.
Similarly, you may recall that at the last committee I raised the situation with exams this year and green councillors had written to Government to ask them to cancel this years’ examinations. We welcome the decision that has finally been made – as we will highlight in a joint notice of motion with the Labour Group today. But we advised in our letter that early notice was welcome to enable schools to prepare. Once again they delayed and delayed and delayed the right decision. We’re still waiting on BTECs.
It shouldn’t be up to local councils to have to challenge Government’s decisions to make them do the right thing. The Government has received feedback from schools and unions about what measures – particularly around exams – would support students and school staff in combatting the virus.
Our focus locally is on managing the response to the virus and taking reasonable and effective measures to keep our community safe as far as we can. But sadly it has been repeatedly proven that we are left waiting for government guidance or action.
I want to thank Brighton and Hove City Council’s education and skills team who have been supporting schools and early years providers through the many last-minute changes from Government over the last 9 months. And of course, the schools and providers themselves who have shown great resolve in tackling the pandemic and are now delivering high-quality online learning for most pupils, while still delivering face-to-face learning for the children of critical workers and vulnerable children.
I wanted to highlight that members of this committee will spot there are two papers on today’s agenda which relate to our social work provision. Coming in as chair, I felt that this committee needed this oversight of children open to social work – because there are many children who we are not corporate parents for, that we still support. Over the next few committees you will see more reports on this – and I hope that committee members use this opportunity to challenge and ask questions on what is a vital part of the work delivered by the families, children and learning directorate.
This agenda today has some papers which are emotive and difficult and involve councillors making tough decisions on behalf of the community. In particular, I know that many may be upset by decisions made on school admissions.
As Chair, I attended one consultation meeting for each school, and I want to thank colleagues on this committee who also attended various sessions. Councillors have also had oversight of all written responses to the consultation. Councillors on the school organisation working group in particular have poured over these tough decisions and weighed up all the responses. More than anything, we want to avoid closing a school – this is my absolute priority - and this is why we have taken this approach.
This is the last meeting of this committee ahead of all councillors meeting to set the budget in February. We as an administration have sought to prioritise avoiding the worst of cuts to our city's children and families. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any cuts in our directorate at all – but as our plans become clear over the coming weeks you will see that despite the inadequacies of Government funding, we are prioritising protecting the most vulnerable.
Many on this committee will know that youth engagement is of particular importance to me. So firstly, to welcome Ben Skinner and Louise Brown who are attending today on behalf of Brighton & Hove Youth Council and will present to us later on their work. But secondly to say that today, we look to be the first council to sign up to the Power of Youth Charter – something which is a real sign of our commitment to listening to young people. Work on listening to young people on decisions is never over – and I’d welcome thoughts from any young people themselves on the decisions we make and how we make them.
I’d finish by saying that if I have any further sway over the next decision that Government make, I’d ask them to consider releasing the Youth Investment Fund. Nearly 18 months ago they announced vital funding for youth services that they haven’t yet delivered on. And in the pandemic, it’s needed more than ever.