Brighton and Hove’s new director of children’s services Pinaki Ghoshal had a glimpse last week of what to expect when he takes up his post next month.
He sat quietly at the back of a meeting of Brighton and Hove City Council’s Children and Young People Committee at Hove Town Hall.
And he heard some strongly held opinions forcefully expressed.
The committee discussed the closure of an outstanding school – Patcham House – although no one present would describe it as a closure.
Anxious parents held a public meeting last night (Wednesday 12 June).
And the committee talked about the way poorer pupils fall behind children from wealthier families in their first few years at school.
And how the gap in achievement widens during their junior school years and widens further at secondary school.
It’s a national problem. But the deterioration is markedly worse locally than nationally.
School standards generally were discussed. An official report indicated that the picture was mixed.
Primary schools in Brighton and Hove are strong. The sixth form colleges and City College are also strong.
But secondary schools are still not doing as well as they should although there have been some notable improvements.
Results for children with special educational needs (SEN) have fallen further behind. And across the board, maths is a weakness.
Mr Ghoshal will also inherit a youth service facing further pressures on its budget. Some councillors believe that the whole set up should be the subject of a thorough review.
The last time it was looked at, services provided by the voluntary sector appeared to be challenged rather more than those provided by council staff.
The Green administration has tried to protect in-house services and minimise job cuts. Financial constraints may spur Mr Ghoshal to look again at the youth service.
Another headache is where to build schools. The Hove v Gove campaigners were celebrating victory last week in the campaign to prevent a secondary school from going up on the BHASVIC playing field.
It was left to Lord Nash, a member of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s ministerial team, to sound the retreat.
Goldsmid ward councillor Ruth Buckley was especially delighted, having taken the campaigners and their petition to 10 Downing Street.
The BHASVIC field proposal united the four schools that use the site for PE as well as parents and neighbours, the Green-run council and the Conservative MP for Hove Mike Weatherley.
All opposed using the field for a permanent home for the King’s School which is due to open in temporary premises in Portslade in September.
When officials announced that the playing field was to be used, it caught everyone by surprise – even the King’s School.
The church school’s backers would like to be based on the King Alfred site or somewhere closer to where hundreds of families live with no secondary school near by.
Instead they may end up settling for Toads Hole Valley by the A27 Brighton Bypass where 700 homes are planned by the end of the decade.
Even the Hove Park depot – a less controversial site – has attracted opposition.
Last week a second consultation meeting about a proposed school there was organised by the ward members, Councillor Vanessa Brown and Councillor Jayne Bennett, and chaired by Councillor Andrew Wealls.
They were keen that everyone living near the site had a chance to ask questions and make their views known.
Councillor Wealls and Councillor Brown both have a credible track record in trying to improve educational opportunities for children and young people in Brighton and Hove.
The council has been considering the depot site for use as a school for at least three years.
In April 2010 Councillor Brown authorised council officials “to further explore the options for providing a new two-form entry primary school either on the Hove Park depot site or the Hove Park Upper School site”.
She was the Conservative cabinet member responsible for children’s services at the time.
The choice of the Hove Park Upper School site was dependent on funding through the Building Schools for the Future programme which was scrapped in July 2010.
This left the Hove Park depot as the site earmarked for a new primary school in that area.
Since the Greens have taken over, the process has continued. And the council has agreed with government officials that the site should become the permanent home of the Bilingual Primary School.
The bilingual school opened last September. It has been housed temporarily in Falmer by the Brighton Aldridge Community Academy (BACA). But there is not enough room for the school to stay there.
It already ranks highly among the popular and oversubscribed primary schools in Brighton and Hove and, unusually, those children who are not native English speakers outperform the rest.
At last week’s consultation meeting one resident said that the school wasn’t needed because children living in Hove Park ward mostly went to private schools.
Another said that it was an “exclusive” school because the children were taught in Spanish as well as English.
And another said that it was only for the children of immigrants.
One bilingual school parent, who lives in Goldstone Crescent, Hove, said that the shortage of primary school places meant that she had to drive her three children to three different schools. This, she said, added to the area’s traffic problems.
Certainly traffic and parking were of concern to more of those present who live near Hove Park.
The school said that relatively few parents take their children by car – even to Falmer. Their potential new neighbours were sceptical.
The school also said that classes would start at 9.30am, meaning that any extra traffic would fall outside the rush hour.
And lessons are expected to finish later for junior-age children than for younger pupils with staggered pick-up times and after-school clubs diluting extra traffic at the end of the school day.
One solution to concerns about parking, which the school is exploring, is an arrangement with the neighbouring Co-op.
The superstore’s bottom car park is close to the proposed school site and is often almost empty.
The shop would surely welcome extra trade.
Tesco reached a similar accommodation with St Andrew’s School in Hove which has benefited both.
One speaker on behalf of the school said last week that, unlike most office workers, any parents in cars tended to park relatively briefly.
The council has long acknowledged the sensitivities relating to the site. Apart from the ecology, the listed Engineerium overlooks it – and will still do so if the designs on show last week are approved.
At the moment few, if any, would describe the depot as attractive. Commercial-sized vehicles come and go all day.
One resident said after the latest consultation meeting that another worry was whether the council might sell the site for flats if plans for a school fell through.
Some years ago, a Hove Borough Council member, Jim Marshall, steered through plans for the children’s play area in Hove Park to be moved to its current site where it enjoys the afternoon sun.
Goldstone Crescent residents were vocal in their objections.
But Councillor Marshall, who lived in Goldstone Crescent himself, had the courage to stick to his guns. Few now doubt that it was the right decision.
All this will be new to Mr Ghoshal. But as he watched the committee in full flow, he may also have taken heart.
The Greens, Labour and Conservatives are all represented but despite their political differences they often find common ground.
In part this is because behind the scenes members of all three parties have met in their own time to try to find solutions to some difficult problems.
In part it may be the inclusive way that Councillor Sue Shanks tries to chair the committee’s meetings – although she was sharply criticised by long-serving Labour councillor Jeane Lepper last week.
In part it could be the presence of “civilians” – 12 co-opted members from the ranks of the police and criminal justice system, the health service and voluntary sector. They have non-voting seats at the table.
All of them want Mr Ghoshal to succeed in his new job. He faces many more challenges big and small.
When his appointment was announced, council chief executive Penny Thompson said: “Our aim is to make Brighton and Hove the best place in the country for children and young people to grow up in and to achieve the most that they can out of life.”
Thousands of local parents will agree.
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