Under the carpet

Over the past few months, I have been taking an interest in the figures used to determine the size of a viable ‘A’ level class in our schools.

This is important to those of us who favour the retention of sixth forms because the higher the viability number the more difficult it becomes for schools to run ‘A’ level courses and the more likely that the default position for such provision will rest with Pembrokeshire College.

This all kicked off at the July 2017 meeting of full council when cabinet member for education David Lloyd urged members to endorse a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the college which set the number at 18.

The original MoU included the words: “For the avoidance of doubt, class sizes will not be fewer than 18” but that has now been watered down with talk of flexibility and school governing bodies having the ability to cross-subsidise less popular courses.

This issue has a complicated history.

Following its debut in July 2017 the MoU was sent off for examination by the schools and learning scrutiny committee before returning to an extraordinary meeting of full council on August 14 where the proposal that PCC should sign the MoU squeezed through by 25 votes to 24.

From the outset, I had serious misgivings about the figures being used to underpin this agreement and shortly after the extraordinary meeting I arranged to meet with the deputy director of education to discuss my concerns.

He provided me with a sheaf of documents showing the basis for the calculations and after studying these and noticing what I will politely call anomalies, I put down a notice of motion for the council meeting in October last year:

” That this Council asks the Schools and Learning Overview and Scrutiny Committee to conduct an in-depth audit of the data and calculations used to inform the drafting of the Memorandum of Understanding with Pembrokeshire College on future ‘A’ level provision in the county.”

My NoM was referred to an extraordinary meeting of the scrutiny committee in December where it was agreed to adopt the principal auditor’s recommendation

“That further work is undertaken by officers at each of the secondary schools in conjunction with finance and education staff to ensure consistent data is captured for the current and future financial years, and also to confirm the calculation model is fully complete. A full audit of the revised process should then be completed.”

When the report on this “further work” returned to the schools and learning scrutiny committee in April the chairman Cllr John Davies swiftly closed down my attempt to draw attention to the considerable differences between the latest calculations and those that had informed both the MoU and the extraordinary meeting of his committee on December 7.

Thanks to the wonders of the webcast, I am able to bring you Cllr Davies’ words in full:

We’ve had a session on where we’ve come from previously.

We had a special meeting to deal with that and I think the view was – the conclusion was – it wasn’t ideal, it was not an exact science and hands were put up in the air in that respect.

So let us start from that point because I don’t want to go back and rewind the tape back to day-one and have all that debate all over again.

We have moved on right or wrong, I accept that and I think I said from this chair at that time that it was not acceptable.

Whatever words you want to use the figures were not exact or a fair reflection of the actual cost.

We were given good reasons, Heinz 57 varieties basically, but that is no excuse and I think we all accept that. Now we’ve moved on.”

This is pure, undiluted, gold-plated drivel because the subject matter before December’s meeting where “hands were put in the air in that respect” was completely different to that in April and Cllr Davies’ long-winded attempt to conflate the two was a classic example of Orwell’s description of politician-speak as an attempt “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

The meeting to which Cllr Davies was referring had before it a report by the principal auditor which admitted to problems with the calculations, but concluded that it made little difference because there were errors both ways and they cancelled out.

Indeed it was a typical PCC effort because, while there was an admission that mistakes had been made, there was no hint that any particular person might be responsible as is clear from the following extract from the minutes of last December’s committee meeting:

The Principal Auditor advised that a number of inconsistencies had influenced increases and decreases in the viable number figure and that a quality assurance audit would need to be conducted again before a viable number was quoted in future; however, that when put through the calculation model used the overall viable number still came out at approximately 18.

It was suggested [by me] that this figure was inaccurate and that based on further research this number could be as low as 12 or 13. The Principal Auditor confirmed that this was not the case. The Business Manager for Ysgol Dewi Sant advised that since 2012 Ysgol Dewi Sant had spent a considerable amount of time investigating post 16 provision and trying to find a financially efficient model. He advised that all avenues had been exhausted and that Ysgol Dewi Sant were averaging a figure of 15 based on this year’s cohort, which was still by no means financially viable.

So, while there had been “inconsistencies” in the original calculations, they cancelled each other out and the “overall viable number still came out at 18”, a conclusion backed up by the business manager from Ysgol Dewi Sant who stated that classes of 15 were “by no means financially viable”.

And the report that went to Cabinet in February 2018 concluded:

Taking the key calculation issues identified, together with the identified arithmetical and consistency errors (which impacted on the viable 6th form class number both upwards and downwards), and adjusting for them as far as was possible, resulted in a very limited net impact on the overall outcome.

“Move along there, nothing to see here” was the message and cabinet – no doubt relieved to be offered a quiet life – was more than happy to swallow it.

However, this latest report that came before the April meeting of schools and learning tells a completely different story.

The revised cost of ‘A’ level provision across the county is now calculated to be £4.5 million rather than the original £5.5 million with a corresponding reduction in the number of students in a viable ‘A’ level class from 18 to a “by no means financially viable” 15.

So the errors no longer cancel out as previously claimed and the supposed transfer of money from Key Stage 4 to Key Stage 5 – which was the main reason for seeking to set a limit on ‘A’ level class sizes – was also severely pruned.

Indeed, using these latest calculations, the total amount of cash taken from KS4 to “subsidise” ‘A’ level classes has reduced from £1.8 million to £0.8 million an average of roughly £100,000 per school and well within the error bars of this “inexact science”.

The most dramatic change is to be found at Tenby where, without any explanation, the original cost (£1,006,701) is now down to £622,000 and the “subsidy” from £425,000 to £41,000.

I had anticipated that Cllr John Davies would close down debate so, as a backstop, I put down some questions to full council on May 10.

When I suggested to the cabinet member for education Cllr David Lloyd that cabinet might like to take another look at how these flawed calculations had come to be used in the MoU he told me: “No, it has better things to do.”

So I will have to do it myself.

Watch this space!

As predicted, the Tory/IPG cabal managed to scrape together enough votes at the annual meeting to install its own men into the SRA-bearing chairmanships of the two regulatory committees: planning and licencing.

Tory David Howlett beat Jacob Williams to the planning chair by 27-26, which, considering that there were only 24 cabal members present, means that three from the unaffiliated/Labour/Plaid ranks voted against Cllr Williams.

And, as there were also two spoiled ballot papers, at least five who didn’t give him their support.

There has been much idle speculation as to the identity of those who failed to back Jacob, though, as it was a secret ballot, nobody knows for sure.

However, some of the tea room gossip suggests that among them may have been a cabinet member or two, which, given that most owe their positions (and SRAs) to Jacob’s efforts in discrediting the IPG, would be rather ungrateful to say the least.