‘I’m a woman for action not chat I’m afraid’

New officer leading Northants local education authority vows to give it an overhaul

By Sarah Ward

The officer overseeing education in the North of the county has vowed to overhaul the system so that it works better for special needs children and improves standards.

With a £4m overspend in the high needs provision, an over reliance on just one provider of alternative provision (for excluded children) and challenges around school attainment, North Northamptonshire Council’s new assistant director of Education Ann Marie Dodds has a colossal task on her hands, but speaking at the council’s Executive Advisory Panel last week she laid out the plans to overhaul the system.

In a series of bold statements she gave her vision for what needs to happen to make improvements to the education landscape in Northants.

She said:

“My cynical self says can we just have a real overhaul about everything that is going on with high needs funding, with SEND support in school, with Education Health Care Plans to make sure our children who require additional support are receiving supporting in the correct manner, with the correct oversight and correct engagement of other partners into those plans to ensure we’re meeting the outcomes of the child and we are not artificially providing data and figures and access and spend. 

“So we can understand the whole picture at the same time and have a degree of confidence that our children are in the right part of the system with the right sort of support.”

She said a full review of high needs funding was needed as her conversations with head teachers across the county had informed the current funding arrangement is not working. 

The amount of school grant is set by the government and comes into the local authority. The officer said that while demand for high needs provision is rising, budgets were not and this meant a new way of working was needed.

She told councillors on the panel:

“I will go out and try things and write about them as we are trying it. Not spend six months writing about it and then thinking about it and then thinking about trying it when we have got the paperwork right. So forgive me, we are going to try some of these things - I am a woman for action not chat I’m afraid.”

The officer, who in recent years has worked at Haringey, Sussex and Reading local education authorities, hinted at plans afoot to charge schools for some free services provided by the authority. 

The authority will also move away from its reliance on just one provider of alternative provision for excluded pupils and she also said resource was going to be taken out of the early years team and added to the Education Health Care Plan team, to ensure the plans were being completed on time. Education Health Care Plans set out the extra support a child with special education needs requires.The authority currently has 2,500 children with EHC plans.

A new board has also been set up with staff from education and health to focus provision for special needs children.

The relationship between the local education and the area's schools will also be reshaped.

Currently the North of the county has 142 schools and 50,000 children on roll aged five to 18.

She said:

"“We need to change our relationship with the schools. Historically we have been able to tell schools what they have been able to do and we have been able to stand over them until they have done it. We don’t have that power anymore, largely because a lot of the schools are not under direct control of the authority as they are either single academy trusts or multi academy trusts.

“But we are still responsible for making sure that the children in North Northamptonshire have a good quality education provision. So it is quite a complicated arrangement but it doesn’t have to be. So we will be changing our relationship with the schools we can be an equal partner in sector led support. We as the council need to be much better at brokering and facilitating sector led support.

“We need to be working with people like the teaching school and they will be assisting us in improving the quality of provision in all of our schools.”

Excellent practice by leading schools will also be suggested to other poorer performing schools.

She said as part of this there will be closer working with the regional school’s commissioner - which has responsibility for educational standards in academy trusts.

Cabinet member for children’s services in North Northants Cllr Scott Edwards backed the officer’s approach and said it was ‘absolutely the right way to go about it’.

The West Northamptonshire Council has a parallel assistant director for education, Chris Kiernan, who was appointed in May.

He is yet to provide a public report to the authority.