Monday, 20 September 2010

Kennington Park Children's Centre (or, When "consultation" risks being lip service)

(All pictures of Kennington Park Children's center (above) attributable to and copyright 2010 Google Streetview)

On 22nd July, I attended a meeting with Kennington parents at which Kate Hoey, Cllr Peter Robbins and Cllr Mark Harrison  (among others) were present, to discuss primary school provision in the area.  At least twenty minutes of the meeting were dedicated to discussing Kennington Park Children's Centre (a Lambeth day care centre for those aged from 6 months to 5 years old), which is useful since the issue of its potential closure is still under dispute.

One parent at that meeting spoke up to say (roughly, as my notes aren't perfect), "I'm a mother of a child who attends Kennington Park Children's centre..  There is a proposal to move the Children's Centre to Henry Fawcett Primary School.  How will that impact on what you're able to do for the rest of the school?  Will the space be sufficient?  It seems to me that if the school is so under pressure then to add to that might not be the right thing to do."

Claire Nuttall (Associate Head Teacher) of Henry Fawcett answered by saying, "At the moment, it's not... it is a consultation.". 

But more tellingly, somebody from Lambeth Council said as follows.  (I'd be delighted if Cllr Robbins or Cllr Harrison were able to tell me the name of the speaker, as what follows is a shorterned transcript of their remarks (my highlighting)).:

"We are proposing to move Kennington Park Children's Centre to Henry Fawcett School and we are consulting on that over the next couple of months.  We've got a number of meetings with parents next week.  Children's centres... are hugely succesful and... we've got 30 in Lambeth and... we've had a history in Lambeth with having children's centres placed in schools.  We've got 5 in the voluntary sector in Lambeth and 5 in place with nursery schools.  The other 20 are in primary schools.  The advantage is that the school can work with families and children from a young age.  Head teachers who have a children's centre say they find it hugely advantageous to do that.  They get to know parents and work with families and they work with issues and problems the families have.  It's a universal access service which is a huge advantage of children's centres.  If families do have special needs, they can be targeted with additional services." 

"We don't know what will happen in the future, but we hope we'll be able to maintain a children's centre service.  We've found having children's centres in schools provides a strong leadership for the children's centre, so a head teacher will know clearly what they want to happen with the school and provides leadership for the children's centre as well. On the whole, that model has worked very well in Lambeth.  It's difficult for a head teacher to manage a children's centre which is off site because the staff are at arm's length and I think clearly it's better to have that flow of children and activities... within the building and outdoors.  There is the space at Henry Fawcett and we're hoping that we'll have some capital...  We've earmarked some capital to put into the building, and the ground floor of the Henry Fawcett School provides a lot more space than there is at the Kennington Park children centre.  It's not quite as much outdoor space, but is perhaps a better quality outdoor space / learning environment for the children, but that's a proposal.  We've got 4 meetings next week with parents where we want to hear your views on that and we know that parents who use the childrens centres have some concerns about is, so we'll be consulting you over the next couple of months about whether you want that move to happen, but also, we think there's a very strong case for it and if it goes ahead, we can then start consulting on plans, and what the plans look like and what services would be delivered in the children's centre.

Kate Hoey:  "When you say consulting, are you going to listen to what they say?"

Lambeth Council person: Yes, of course we're going to listen to what people say..."

Hoey: "You haven't made your mind up in advance?"

Lambeth Council person:  No, we haven't. We haven't. But there are strong financial worries as well.  Within the children centre model, the health and family support is funded separately, but the childcare has to pay for itself.  The childcare is not subsidised.  We can't use the children's centre funding to provide cheap childcare places and that particular aspect of it is not working well at Kennington Park Children's Centre and we've talked with Claire and the Chair of govenors at Henry Fawcett School and produced an improved model for childcare to work at the school site because, to be frank, we can't afford to have a childcare business which is losing money.  It's just not possible in our current financial climate. 

Claire Nuttall (Associate Head at Henry Wafcett):  "Just to answer your specific question as far as Henry Fawcett School goes if [the Children's Centre] came and the impact that would be on it...  The Children's Centre was a part of Henry Fawcett School until a year ago.  When we took on the school [after it entered special measures], because it was on a different site, we went to the LA and said "we can't manage it there" because we couldn't see it every day.  We had to walk across the park and we weren't able to effectively manage it.  At the time we said, "unless it's on our site, we can't manage it" and the LA took it back... I think it would be very positive for the parents to be able to access the kind of extended provision that we get because it would provide a real hub for the parents... There are health visitors and groups for the parents to come to.  We already have our own version because we think it's important, so we run a Reading Cafe for weekender(?) drop in.  It would be positive. It wouldn't take away from our resources or our capacity because it's separate and it has its own manager.  But it's under the overall leadership of the school, so the impact, I think, would be positive."

Council person: , "what we do want to do over the next couple of months is talk to parents across the area as a whole, not just the current users of the children's centre".


Anyhow, today I received an email, addressed to Princes Ward councillors, Kate Hoey, and a number of other folk, suggesting that there are plans afoot to close the Kennington Park Children's Centre.  You'll note from the above dialogue that the consultation was somewhat farcical, even from that first meeting.  I've highlighted in red that funding appears to have been earmarked to move the Centre, even prior to the consultation about whether to move it or not.  When pressed by Kate Hoey about whether the consultation was genuine, the speaker was forced to concede that "there are strong financial worries".  I'm not too sure whether there's much point in Lambeth Council pretending to consult, if they're just going to close something anyway, but perhaps it has to happen for statutory reasons.

It appears that staff and parents have come up with a number of ideas about how to make the Children's Centre profitable eg. by using it for other events, such as yoga/gym/creches etc. but the correspondent who has written to me has suggested that Lambeth Council has been running down the building on purpose, in order to reduce intake and undermine staff morale.  That's a harsh criticism indeed, and (being that I have no children and even little experience in day care centres), I can't back it up.  I'm sure that Lambeth would dispute that claim!  There don't seem to be enough people to fight for all of the services that we're going to need to preserve, but there appear to be at least 137 people who want to save Kennington Park Children's Centre.  There's a Facebook group here (which seems to be open to all), where they've advertised all of the consultation meetings.  Discussions on there seem to be quite active, so I'd advise you to join if you're interested in retaining the centre on its current site.  137 people can be wrong, but they represent a significant body of concern, and from the meeting I attended above, I was already concerned (as was Kate Hoey from her remarks) about the legitimacy of any such consultation.  I'm not at all surprised that Lambeth are leaning in the direction of closure, since they've already allocated the budget!!

The Associate Head Teacher of Henry Fawcett was enthusiastic (at the above meeting) about having the children's centre on the Henry Fawcett site.  Cynically, I presume it means that the school would receive more money.  But positively, it improves the educational life cycle of children if the school get to know them from their earliest years.  (Early intervention is also a significant help in reducing likelihood of delinquency in later life).  All I'd add is that the Henry Fawcett school is landlocked between two roads.  I doubt that the space they could provide the Day Centre is equivalent to the amount (and quality) of the space they've currently got, based in the middle of Kennington Park. 

I say that, despite being deeply impressed by the quality of the presentation from Claire Nuttall (Associate Head of Henry Fawcett) at the Kennington Parents meeting.  I'm not too sure that continuing to refer to Henry Fawcett as a school that has "just emerged from special measures" is productive.  Two members of staff were present from the school at the meeting on 22nd July, and they spoke very positively about wishing to remain under council monitoring so as to improve their school even further.  I'm not saying it's perfect, but if I were a parent, I'd have been the first to visit the place.  My guess is that they'll achieve a "good" Ofsted rating very quickly if their level of enthusiasm and commitment was anything to go by.  By contrast, no member of staff from Vauxhall Primary was present at the meeting at all.

But, I've been lurking in this area for some time now, and I've a wider remit than merely young people and education.  I'm just the tiniest tad suspicious that the real reason for relocating the Kennington Park Children's centre is because of the St Agnes redevelopment to take place in the park. The park land on which the centre is based could be sold off for considerable profit by Lambeth.  And once again, there's a risk that the Kennington Park Children's Centre would be lost from the public domain, just as Bolton Crescent (Southwark) and St Agnes are redeveloped with family housing, causing an inevitably increased intake at the local Henry Fawcett, Crampton Street and St John the Divine Primary schools (not to mention the others further into Kennington) and an increased need for daycare places.  I'm concerned about reducing the footprint of a school at a time when Lambeth parents are fighting like crazy for places in the south ot the borough (and the ones in the north are showing rumblings of discontent).  How great is the benefit of a children's centre on the site of a school, if that reduces the size of a landlocked site for current primary school students?


No longer anon said...

The kind of consultation you seem to want, that is where for every working of Government, the people must have a say, happens every five years or so and it is called an election. That is when we select (and hold accountable) people to get on with it.

There is this silly sense that consultation means “here is a blank sheet, tell us what you want”. No, we elect people who hire people who get on with it. At times, they put on the table plans for something and invite our scrutiny – this type of “consultation” means “have we missed something” not “completely blow it up and start over”. We have to trust them to work for us. If they don’t, we vote them out.

Kate Hoey is a politician. Her comments are quite laughable.

For large capital projects, you have to start earmarking and budgeting early – sometimes even restricting planning in certain areas. Otherwise, if you wait till a group of residents are happy, you might as well tack on five years to the timeline. If things go pear shaped, the money is then reallocated.

So there is no vast conspiracy to push something through the back door. This is how Government does and should work.

As for consolidating child centres into schools, it sounds quite sensible really.

As for selling properties “for a profit”, again it sounds quite sensible. This is not some underhanded deal lining politicians pockets, it is our Council making the most of assets, which will benefit us all.

And, unless you are struggling to win the Labour leadership, you will admit there is a bit of a funding crisis going on, so the more “profit” the better.

And a facebook group should be considered with a grain of salt. How many of us sign up for any cause, without any real stake and just because we hear one part of the story. Of course a group of people who use the current centre will oppose it – that does not mean it is the wrong thing to do.

So maybe a good idea, maybe not. But it all sounds sensible, and the process they are following sounds good.

SE11 Lurker said...

If consultations were to work as you suggested, then I suggest that they are pointless. If the intention of Lambeth is to close the Community Centre on accounts of its failure to make a profit, they should just do it.

Holding 5 meetings as "consultations" is a waste of tax payers money if they are not genuine consultatations.

On the other hand, if the centre is only just unprofitable, and it would not be that difficult to bring it into profit, there's no reason not to do so.

I'd need to see the balance sheets.

Consolidating children's centres into schools is only sensible if there are enough school places. My concern is that with the building projects I outlined, there will not be enough school projects on account of the space taken by the children's centers.

I don't think the process they're following sounds "good" on the basis that consultation is pointless if the intention is to close a centre, regardless of what the wider community think.

No longer anon said...

A consultation: here is a plan that we believe will work. If there are things we have not considered, please tell us. If they make sense, we will change course. Otherwise, you elected us to do the best, and we believe this is it.

That, to me, is a good consultation.

Otherwise we have to gather every citizen, every Monday morning to agree that weeks agenda for Government. To me, that sounds an unworkable way of doing things.

Sadly, again we diagree.

No longer anon said...

Ha! We diagree, whatever that means :-p

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting about this. Parents have not been well-informed of the possible move, which I think has angered parents. They will also be taking away 0-2 year old childcare, with Henry Fawcett only having childcare for the over 2s. In an area which sorely lacks in affordable under 2 childcare, parents are quite concerned about this. Not only that, but parents agree that Kennington Park Children's Centre has a strong sense of community and helps new parents meet other new parents. Taking the centre away from the park will take away a lot of that sense of community if it is placed in the middle of a school. Other centres that are based in schools in Lambeth do not have the community support as this centre does.

Further to your other posts as well, it does make worrying reading that Lambeth keep taking away from children's areas in order to develop them into more housing.

Anonymous said...

The kind of consultation we want, No Longer anon, is actually the really simple type: where you ask people who use a service what they think about it being displaced for an inexplicable reason and then take their feedback genuinely on board. It's called common sense and doesn't get called into question every five years.

Didn't Kate Hoey get elected in exactly the same democratic process you praised in your first para? Sorry, you are losing me...

And I'm really not sure why we are undertaking this "large capital project" when the centre is already short staffed and the nursery doesn't run to full capacity. I know this because I use the centre. Shouldn't the capital be ploughed into improving what already exists? Or sorry, am I talking nonsense because I am one of the many uninformed parents?

While councils were thinking about how to make profits by fiddling pointlessly with assets, and operating inefficiently, social media has actually changed. There are now 24.2m facebook users in the UK, according to research firm Nielson.

Here is what I suggest: if the centre is unprofitable get better are making it profitable. Don't just shift it to someone else's backyard and rob Peter to pay Paul.

The "group of parents" you refer to clearly care a lot more about KPCC than you could purport to - whether you were elected to act on their behalf or not. And that's the sad but honest truth...

No longer anon said...

Then by all means, say that.

Consultation works this way. A group of professionals hired and managed by our elected leaders have a hundred targets, a limited budget and a need for new solutions. They are charged to come up with plans, and if they have a good boss, come up with plans that are about 85% right and ready to implement (or they are toast).

Then, go out for consultation. And listen. If they get it wrong, then change it, tweak it or start over. But again, they should be sensible and 85% right – this is what they should be good at.

Of course you are upset, you should be. Things could change for you and the group of parents involved. Change is always upsetting. It doesn’t mean this isn’t a good solution, it doesn’t mean it is.

I question propping up an unprofitable service at the expense of more affordable housing and some cash in the bank to spread around through the sale of under-used assets. It is not some underhanded cover-up that a professional body has suggested rationalising unprofitable services into one school, then selling off the assets to actually result in a surplus, with the children getting a better (or at least as good) a service (note I don't care about KPCC per se, but I do care about children). That’s the sort of plan I expect from them!

On paper it sounds right. If not, now is the time for you to make a reasoned argument that demonstrates that have got it completely wrong. Good luck! If you are right, I will join you in voting them out!

Anonymous said...

Consultation means you listen to people and are open to changing plans where necessary. The way councillors see the process is a sign of not doing your job properly if you have to change your plans - if you go into a consultation with this bullish culture - there really is no point, can't you understand that?

If you think Kate Hoey cannot be taken seriously because she's a politician, then this goes for all elected councillors too - everyone has an agenda. I am a parent - my agenda is the best childcare for my son in the best place.

Henry Fawcett in no way compares to available outdoor space. the green space and gardening project at KPCC far outstrips what HF can offer.

The childcare business is running at a loss at KPCC - so fix it - don't just throw hundreds of thousands of pounds to move to a sub standard site, remove 0-2 childcare and short change a primary school which needs to concentrate money and resources on its primary school students.

And selling off the land for development - this land does not belong to the council- it belongs to us, local residents, we have a right to say we want it to be used for children and families in the community.

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