Over to you, Sir Mike

WAS somebody at Camden Council having a little joke at my expense last night? I was invited to the round table discussions at Acland Burghley School in Tufnell Park marking the start of the Education Commission, an independent look at the future of the borough’s schools and their relations with the council. There was a good turnout, plenty of tables. So, which one did the organisers table-plan me at?

The one which sat me next to former deputy council leader Angela Mason, who many lines on these pages have been devoted to in recent weeks – some of which I guess she can’t always have appreciated. Also around the table were the headteachers of Parliament Hill School, where there was irritation in staff room at one of my articles from the Labour Party conference last year, and William Ellis School, of which I wrote several pieces on their past financial problems. It was nice to meet them all.

There were other headteachers there too and it was good to hear them agree that secondary schools in Camden should not become “islands on their own” in a new London landscape likely to be dotted with ‘free schools’. One of the strengths of the borough’s schools is that they have rarely fought among themselves. Just look at the success of La Swap. It will be interesting to see if the opening of the UCL Academy in Swiss Cottage and a gradual decline in applications to schools that were once easily oversubscribed create some sort of competition down the line.

It’s all for the Education Commission to investigate over the next few months. And for this exercise, there was lots of self-congratulations from the politicians last night that Camden was setting out on something no other local authority is doing. The idea of holding commissions like this is actually not so rare. In Islington, the Fairness Commission recently investigated inequalities in that borough. An odd name, but a worthwhile exercise headed by Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level.

A real cynic might ask why Camden chose education for such special treatment when there are so many burning issues affecting this part of the world. Why not, for example, a Housing Commission? After all, waiting lists for social housing are so long and repairs to council-owned properties remain one of Camden’s thorniest issues. Julian Fulbrook, the council’s housing chief was on television at the weekend, explaining that 500 council flats remain empty. What a waste. Surely all of this is just as worthy of the commission treatment?

The ultra cynic might say housing is an area where there is still resentment towards the Labour Party for the way former housing ministers starved Camden estates of investment – purely on the blackmail basis that tenants would not agree to their homes being privatised. Local members find that whole period hard to defend.

Similarly, Conservative and Liberal Democrat members find it hard to defend the removal of the Building Schools for the Future money that had already been earmarked before the general election to improve all of Camden’s schools. It was one of the first things the coalition government did. Bosh – it was gone in a flash. The justification seemed to relate to BSF mistakes made elsewhere in the country, not in Camden – where headteachers, governors, parents and councillors of all parties had worked hard to draw up important improvements. It’s not a decision councillors with links to the coalition would necessarily want to dwell on.

So. If you were a Labour boss running Camden Council: which issue would you choose to set up a Commission to investigate – housing or education?

The party knows it has a good chance of winning a debate on schools in Camden locally while it has the trump argument: well, your government took away £200 million for our schools and left children in rotting classrooms.

It sounds better than: well, your government took away £283 million for our council homes and left families in rotting council flats.

But that’s just what a cynic would say. Just a cynic.

Last night, I asked the Education Commission’s chairman Sir Mike Tomlinson, respected by politicians of all stripes, whether his evidence-taking sessions would be hi-jacked by people furious at cuts to schools, hiking of higher education fees and removal of sixth form allowances. This, I suggested, could be the perfect forum for free school haters to bash free schools. He insisted he would not allow that to happen, that it would not become party political and not simply a talking shop of anti-government views. He just wants every child in Camden to have access to a decent school. We can only wish him well in that task.

Over to you Sir Mike…

10 Comments on Over to you, Sir Mike

  1. Theo Blackwell // May 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm //

    I think you look too deeply into the matter in order to find meaning. Housing in many parts of the borough is being looked at via the Community Investment Programme.

    • Richard Osley // May 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm //

      I hope you are not calling me a cynic, Theo..

      The creation of the Education Commission, however, does raise questions over whether the scrutiny committees at the council are working properly. This surely undermines the work of the CSF scrutiny for example..

  2. Scrutiny of the Housing Dept. in Camden Council does not exist ! –
    …whilst it is true council housing has always been a lure for poltical party’s looking for the ‘social’ ticket ; local authority landlords should always look after it;s tenants needs first and foremost NOT follow a party political agenda. ..
    which incidently, Labour has none.
    Let us not forget, it was a Labour govt. that refused Camden it’s due funding ;
    after tenants had voted against the ALMO.

  3. Theo Blackwell // May 21, 2011 at 1:52 pm //

    It’s all slightly churlish, that’s all. Schools have long been supported by Labour in Camden with the 5th highest funding in the country and a respected tradition of investment and community support from legions of school governors (many of whom would have made/and did make excellent councillors). Camden’s schools have a certain ‘model’ which is now under threat.

    I don’t see your point about CSF – the previous administration made scrutiny committees more like the committee system, and therefore less strategic – something your paper has argued for. The council now needs to have a strategic, wider look at schools in the light a massive changes from the government and BSF deficits.

    If Labour were to do a Commission on housing, I’d welcome it. But I would never argue that it be limited to council housing, as you suggest. We would need to look at accountability in housing associations and the private rented sector – not just council housing, which is already a well-represented view in the Town Hall. Most young families either make their way through PRS/ or HAs – if they can afford it – or leave Camden. That’s wrong.

    That said the government is making so many fundamental changes, we could launch an independent review on lots of things. We might have to, as the pace of change is leaving Camden residents and many of their elected representatives well behind!

    • Richard Osley // May 21, 2011 at 2:04 pm //

      Thanks Theo. Completely agree about the wide-ranging scope a Housing Commission, if ever created, should take on.

      Your other points kind of bear out what a cynic might say: education has been a strong area for Camden in the past, great topic to keep at the top of the agenda for Camden Labour. Lots of people can say how well you’ve done, and how they don’t like anything that comes out of Michael Gove’s mouth. Evidence to a Housing Commission might be slightly more uncomfortable. Scrutinywise – if the internal council scrutiny committee is working well, why the need to set up a supa-dupa external version?

      As I said in the original post, however, it’s for the new commission to show what’s it all about, impossible to tell at this moment. We’ll be following closely. It goes without saying that anything that leads to visible improvements can only be congratulated and I do not say it is a wasted effort.

      • Theo Blackwell // May 22, 2011 at 9:36 pm //

        Btw was the Fairness Commission in Islington a slap in the face for their scrutiny process?

  4. Theo Blackwell // May 21, 2011 at 3:46 pm //

    I answered the points on scrutiny. The more the committee-like the system, the less strategic it is – not something I agree with but that’s how it works now. The changes passed without comment by the CNJ in 2006. Indeed, the decline of scrutiny since the quite successful experiments of long-running panels between 2002-2006 is evidenced by the rare sight of journalists at today’s scrutiny meetings. However, people might feel they have more say over the running of things – although demonstrably not on the evidence of our AGM.

    A cynic would miss the point about education – the challenges facing schools in Camden are completely fundamental to how we have done things.

    (btw I doubt a respected independent chair would spend their time and credibility praising what Camden has done in the past).

    Besides, we need to look at where we have not succeeded – e.g. the relative underperformance of SCCC compared to Camden’s other schools.

    One thing is for sure – we’ll not have as much budget to lunch Eric Gordon as Islington did with its fairness commission…sorry

    • Richard Osley // May 21, 2011 at 6:38 pm //

      These are all fair points (apart from the bit about the guv’nor, which is just cheeky)…

      Some of the best bits of scrutiny work I’ve seen in Camden were the dedicated panels we saw between 2002-2006. These were varied, some very much better than others. But the investigations into drugs, suicide prevention and licensing enforcement finished with much credit.

      You could say that scrutiny work isn’t about getting journalists in, but you are right: the decline in attendance should be an indicator of something.

  5. does camden comply with or has it’s scutiny cttee.s looked at camden’s implementation
    and compliance of the mental health strategy, carers strategy and human rights act?
    The answer is NO.

    http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/uploaded_files/humanrights/human_rights_at_home.pdf

  6. Michael Read // May 29, 2011 at 3:36 pm //

    That would be the Defend Council Housing that never holds an AGM, doesn’t have a constitution, doesn’t elect anyone and is funded covertely by trade unions, who don’t want to be seen lobbying for a policy which means they can screw management and tenants as they did in the classic DLO organisation. That’s the DCH.

    That’s the organisation which rather than you stated, resisted “privatisation”, resisted the move to an almo, for the reasons given ie screwing management and tenants, and succeeded in screwing tenants royally. That’s the DCH.

    On the facts. Islington went almo and is now heading back to a directly council controlled organisation with the whole property portfolio refurbished. Camden is scabbling around with its true socialist virtue intact, with the property portfolio in a desperate state of disrepair and the tenants screwed.

    Well done, Theo. Can you think of any reason given the facts above why Nick Raynsford wasn’t correct in observing that you and your pals were nutters.

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