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Outdoor Education: what does Oxenwood's closure teach us about Wiltshire Council's new ways of working?

There are as many complex and difficult issues surrounding the way Wiltshire Council reached the decision to close the Outdoor Education Centres at Oxenwood and Braeside, as there are difficult issues surrounding the decision itself.


The first sign marlborough.news has seen that Outdoor Education Centres would be the target for savings or closure goes back to 13 June 2017 when Wiltshire Council cabinet member for children, education and skills, Councillor Laura Mayes, asked for a review of traded services for schools - which included outdoor education.  That was one month after the unitary council election and the naming of the new cabinet.

On 27 March 2018, the decision, outlined in a report in the name of Councillor Laura Mayes [the Mayes report], to close the two centres was made in the closed or secret part of that day's Wiltshire Council cabinet meeting - without the presence of public or press.  The closures were announced the next day on the Council's website - which happened to be the last day of term before the Easter break.

Between 13 June 2017 and 27 March 2018 there appears to have been a total lack of consultation with schools and parents.  One can - just about - understand not involving parents before the cabinet made their decision. They might well have gone - should have gone? - straight to the press.  But why did the Council not consult schools?  Staff at local authority schools are unable to speak openly on Council policy matters. They are silenced. So why not consult them? 

The Council had from January to the end of March to do so.  The fact that the announcement of the closures was made on the afternoon of the last day of term tells us all we need to know.  Head teachers did not count in this decision.

What was going on between June 2017 and March 2018? The Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee did a 'rapid scrutiny' exercise and reported on 26 September 2017.  This was based solely on evidence from within Wiltshire Council.

The review pinpointed the ending of the government's Educational Support Grant as critical to the funding of outdoor education.  One of its conclusions read:  "The review of outdoor education would, inevitably, have an impact both on Wiltshire schools and their associates, as well as on staff attached to the sites under review.  A greater level of detail was needed to be able to sufficiently conclude the size of this impact."

Either before or very soon after Councillor Mayes' request of 13 June, council officers and consultants had been at work.  The members of the 'rapid scrutiny' team had before them 'A report on the draft scope for review of Outdoor Education' and 'A confidential PowerPoint presentation on the review of Outdoor Education'.

 

It now appears that the decision to close the centres was in fact taken earlier than March 2018 - in early January, when the budget for 2018-2019 was being set.  The draft Budget paper states:  "Proposal to be brought to Cabinet to consider review of Outdoor Education Centres" - the saving was £135,000 which was described as an "Efficiency".  It was dated 25 January 2018.

 

A report by the Traded Services for Schools Task Group (published on March 19 as part of the agenda for the cabinet's March 27 meeting) stated: "The task group appreciated that there would be a cost to the Council associated with the deferral of a decision by Cabinet on 27 March 2018 and that it could also pressurise achieving the £135,000 savings approved within the 2018-19 budget." (We will return to 'Traded Services for Schools' later.) 

 

However, that Task Group pointed out that there were 'currently, unknown costs of closure of one or both centre(s)'.  It seems the Task Group was not made aware of figures for redundancy costs and any pension costs - figures which could, Councillor Laura Mayes' report to cabinet stated, be available for cabinet members if they wanted them.  They have never been made public.

Savings in 2018-2019?

The executive response to points raised by the Task Force makes it clear the expected budget saving in 2018-2019 of £135,000 comes solely from the cost to the Council of business rates due on the two sites.

This response from officers states that closure will also avoid  "...on-going losses and Council subsidy" - and, of course, "Avoid a capital funding risk of at least £1.4million".  It adds that closure will cost the Council £20,000 to make the sites secure - as well as the unquantified redundancy costs.

In fact the subsidy to the centres has not been great.  The centres' deficit over the past three years are as follows - the negative sum of £2,226 is a surplus:
But these figures include costs set against the centres' finances of hefty Corporate Support Recharges - which are assumed to be for Council officers work on HR and payroll. 

In 2017-2018 these recharges were £114,530 for Braeside and £32,250 for Oxenwood - a total of £146,780.  Unless the closures bring job losses to staff in County Hall, that £146,780 in the Council central costs will have to be lodged against some other Council budget line.

It is unwise to take all Wiltshire Council's claims of poverty at face value.  Just this week, the Council has surprised the residents of Chippenham by finding money for a £200,000 grant towards a new skate park.

Were there other ways to fund the centres?

The Council has had some contacts with organisations that might have taken the centres over - and have allowed more time for them to prepare business cases.  But closure on the prescribed date (31 August 2018) was the pre-eminent requirement.

The centres' role in encouraging young people to enjoy outdoor pursuits and to take exercise - a key part of any anti-obesity strategy - might have led to alternative funding.  The draft Wiltshire Council budget for 2018-2019 shows an expected saving of £200,000 achieved by charging 'Youth Area grants' to the Public Health funding the Council receives from central government. 

How did they justify this sleight of hand? By ensuring youth activities have "...a focus on health and prevention of poor health."  Why not do the same for outdoor education?

The closure of these two centres - the only such centres Wiltshire Council owns - comes as the Council is moving towards a commercial relationship with schools - marketing the services it provides to make profits - income for the Council.  These are called 'traded services'.

The Council looks ahead to these services as a main funding stream and their commercial strategy aims to "Have the most effective and efficient models of delivery be that in-house, through a social enterprise, employee trust, joint venture, wholly owned company, or any one of the models open to us. We will trade beyond our borders where it positively impacts on our County and our priorities are protected."

(Click on image to enlarge it)(Click on image to enlarge it)"We will seek to use Council Tax income to fund key priority services, and all others will be funded from our commercial work, so most services will be net nil cost at least and some will make a return to subsidise priorities, for example how at present parking fees are used to fund bus subsidies."

When the Council advertised (undated) for a Head of Schools Traded Services, Outdoor Education was included among the "range of educational, support and infrastructure services...we currently trade" - along with Health & Safety Services, Finance, HR and Property Maintenance. That option for making profits to fund other Council services has been closed off.

Closing these two centres will deprive the Council of revenues of £700,568 (2017-2018 figures).

Commercial viability?
The Mayes report cites the alleged need to spend £1.412million on bringing the centres up to scratch as the main reason for closing them.  This figure is from a 2012 estimate - and none of the 'necessary' work appears to have been done since 2012. 

But the figures, which include the replacement of a prefab Pratten building at Oxenwood, have been challenged.  A more likely reason Wiltshire Council deems the centres' future to be unsustainable is the drop in earnings when prices were raised during 2017-2018. 

The 'rapid scrutiny exercise' considered by the Overview & Scrutiny Management Committee (in September 2017) and the Children's Select Committee (in October 2017) noted that "...there had been an increase in prices and corresponding decrease in take-up.  This was attributed to the fact that funding for outdoor education has diminished over the years - for example, grants that were previously available are no longer accessible for schools and parents are now required to pay for school trips." 

Squeezed school budgets and squeezed parental budgets were already taking their toll just when the Mayes report said that to cover the capital spend of £1.4million, prices would have to rise by 41 per cent at Oxenwood and 27 per cent at Braeside.

The value - rather than the cost - of outdoor education
The Mayes report concedes "...the benefits of outdoor education, recognising its contribution to educational attainment and development of social skills." 

It says that a "full Equalities Impact Assessment has been completed."  This has not been published, but the Mayes report says the closures "May have a particularly detrimental effect for disadvantaged communities and ethnic minorities who may not get the chance to experience outdoor education benefits."

In consigning Oxenwood to history, Wiltshire Council should learn from its own online history of the area which states: "The village school which operated from 1905 to 1967 was re-opened as an Outdoor Education Centre in 1969 and has benefitted many Wiltshire schoolchildren."

There is a meeting about the closures at St Peter's Church, Marlborough on Tuesday, May 8 at 7.30pm. 




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