Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Millbrook School Meeting Descends into Chaos

I attended the first of the Learning Futures (MK2) public debates last night. The meeting was held at Millbrook School - one of the schools threatened with closures by the Lib Dems.

Lib Dem Education boss, Councillor Ann Milton chaired the meeting, which was packed out with parents and concerned residents.

Is the financial case for closing schools a sound one?

The logic behind closing a school on the west and a school on the east of the City, is that there are too few children to fill out secondary schools. If we reduce the number of schools we can spend more money on teaching and the children and less on overheads, such as heating and lighting part empty buildings. I can see this argument and have some sympathy with it. However it is presented as a fait acompli that schools must close. This is not true. The Council can keep them open, although it would be costly to do so. This cost would need to be weighed up against the advantages of a local school and smaller class sizes.

Ann Milton presented various slides showing how the remaining schools might be upgraded and expanded. The money to do this seems to be readily available. What she didn't mention was that some of that money comes from Government grants that would otherwise be spent on primary schools in the City. The Council is also banking on large sums of money from the Government in 2010. It's not guaranteed that this money will materialise and it's likely that it will be conditional on Private Finance Initiative arrangements.

Building Houses on the Sports Fields?

The general view of those attending the meeting was that the Lib Dems are keen to sell off Millbrook School to allow the playing fields to be developed for housing. This would mean a big cheque for the Council but a terrible loss of green space for local children. Councillor Milton poured fuel on suspicions by refusing to rule out housing development should the land be sold off. Quite sensibly people asked the question, if more houses are going to be built, where are the new children going to go to school?

How many children will the City have in the future?

Council Officers talked through their projections for future school roll numbers. However the figures quoted were greeted with some suspicion. The Council has only allowed for an extra 2% increase in roll numbers, to take account of the growing Polish population in the City. Official Council figures put the number of Polish residents at around 10,000. The true figure is likely 2 or even 3 times this! No wonder people don't have much faith in the official statistics!

Do we need larger schools to provide a more varied syllabus?

This was one of the arguments put forward by Cllr Milton and Council officers. The logic is that if you have small schools, they can't afford employ a large range of teachers teaching different subjects. I can understand this logic. However I don't see why Schools can't work together to provide a varied range of subjects and children can go to another school for specific classes. This already happens with Bellemore and Regents Park.

How confident can we be that Cllr Ann Milton is doing a good job?

At the meeting of the whole Council in July, a majority of Councillors called for Ann Milton's resignation. The call came after her disastrous handling of the schools review up until now. She refused to go. The feeling I got from parents and local people at the meeting last night was that she is not up to the job. Comments from people sat near me included, "how did she get that job?" and that she was "clueless" and "dim-witted". Parents are clearly upset by the process and I can understand their frustration. The comments are perhaps a little unfair, but it's clear that parents, like the majority of Councillors are unhappy with the situation.

The meeting ended with a walk out as Cllr Milton tried to sum up. Not a good start...

The next meeting is tomorrow at 6:30pm at Oaklands School.

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