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Calls for greater scrutiny of Suffolk's education issues

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Failings in special educational needs and a rise in home schooling have prompted questions over whether education issues need greater scrutiny.

Suffolk County Council previously had a separate education scrutiny committee to assess the success of its work in that area.

It was scrapped by former council leader Colin Noble in June 2017 – but now questions have been raised as to whether a new scrutiny group or a series of task forces could be formed to give education issues the adequate level of assessment.

Endeavour House in Ipswich
Endeavour House in Ipswich

It follows a series of rows in education policy over the past year, including controversial plans to make cutbacks in home to school transport and a damning report by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission into special educational needs.

Former county council leader Mark Bee, who introduced the education scrutiny committee in 2013 and currently chairs the council’s main scrutiny group, said: “I didn’t support the move of getting rid of the education scrutiny committee because I was the one who actually brought it in. I could see there was a real need for it.

“If you remember we pared down scrutiny, perhaps too much back in 2010, and there was a need for education scrutiny because of the real issues that this county was facing – not just on education but also on young people.

“Whether there should be one in the future, it went before our present leader was made leader, but I think there is nothing to stop us revising that. But maybe the way forward, as Cllr [John] Field suggested is there should be these task and finish groups because there is then that opportunity to drill down into things and report back to the main scrutiny committee and see if there is further work that can be enforced.”

There remains little opportunity to hold decision makers to account - Jack Abbott, Labour education spokesman

Both the Labour and Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent groups are understood to back more detailed scrutiny of education issues.

Councillor Penny Otton, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: “I certainly believe there needs to be either a task and finish group looking at a specific issue for example home schooling or exclusions, but the serious issue of the lack of progress for SEND children needs something where the council can invite parents, carers and the pupils themselves to hear just where the crisis points are.

“I still think there needs to be a standalone children, education and young people’s scrutiny group of some kind.

“We are missing the input from school governors, one to one classroom assistants, and specialist teachers.

“With the reduction in education funding we need to hear just what impact this is making on a day to day basis for Suffolk schools.”

Labour education spokesman Jack Abbott added: “I believe that the decision to discontinue the education scrutiny committee was a huge mistake and I said so at the time.

“Education is our responsibility but, over the past year, we have seen a shambolic school transport policy forced through, a stagnation of the Raising the Bar programme and a devastating Ofsted report into SEN provision.

“There remains little opportunity to hold decision makers to account and the scrutiny committee, although doing good work, simply does not have the capacity to give education the consistent and focused attention it needs.”

Currently education issues are presented to the main scrutiny committee, but a separate committee continues to operate for health services.

But Conservative council leader Matthew Hicks, who took over from Mr Noble in May last year after education scrutiny had already ceased as a standalone committee, said he would continue to monitor the situation.

“I will keep an eye on how the scrutiny is performing with education,” he said.

“Any matter that needs to go to scrutiny will naturally go to scrutiny, and things from children’s services and education do.

“They [the committee] can ask to see anything they want, and it’s not that there isn’t any scrutiny of children’s and young people’s services at all.

“The schools commissioner and Ofsted are involved so there is consistent scrutiny and maybe in a year we will look at how the scrutiny function works.”