Councillor Johnson presented his portfolio report by placing on record his sincere thanks to all key workers and in context to his report thanked all educators and children service providers for being absolutely amazing in delivering the services during these unprecedented times. That their commitment to duty had done you all proud. Councillor Johnson made thanks to the Conservative Government in agreeing to support the free school meals over the summer and in line with the holiday activities provision over a four week period would ensure that those eligible would continue to receive good quality meals. There had been an amazing partnership working between the local authority and education and it was Councillor Johnson’s intention to visit as many schools as possible. Members were referred to the Headstart Housing Project to ensure young school leavers had a safe and secure base, the exemption for foster carers from council tax, Thurrock school pupils despite the many challenges faced this year had shown real resilience and some truly fantastic results, must continue to support children and young people and their families or carers as we begin the recovery phase of COVID, look how to bridge gaps not just in education but in social skills, important that all services and that of the Council’s partners ensure parents and carers were involved as much as possible, work collaboratively with the homelessness team to ensure all investigation work was undertaken to identify any household with children and the threat of homelessness and put measures in place to stop this becoming a reality, look to expand SEND education provision within Thurrock schools, find ways of improving the speed of ECHP assessments, Thurrock saw its fair share of unaccompanied asylum seeking children and to ensure the Council participated fully in the agreement across the East of England and provide good corporate parenting to those and indeed for all our children looked after, for Children Service’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee to continue to scrutinise, explore better ways of expanding Thurrock’s based foster carers and adopters by building on already exciting ideas for retention and recruitment, the Prevent working group had the remit to include investigations into preventing unaccompanied asylum seeker children being involved in human or gang association, continue to ensure Thurrock had enough school places required and look to improve the placement in first-choice schools.
Councillor Muldowney thanked Councillor Johnson for the report and also added her thanks to all staff working in schools and social services for their extraordinary hard work this year and to Thurrock’s children for giving up a lot of keep their parents, grandparents and older members of the community safe. That the care and safety of Thurrock children had enough to eat which had always be a cross party priority and asked Councillor Johnson to join her in addressing child poverty by making it one of his key priorities this year by refreshing Thurrock’s child poverty strategy and setting new and ambitious targets to tackle child poverty in our area. Councillor Johnson stated yes, of course, and reiterated that he would be working very closely with the homelessness team to ensure no household that had children would become homeless, we would stop that before it happened and Councillor Johnson agreed with Councillor Muldowney that this would be a priority of his.
Councillor Muldowney stated that the new school expansion of the new academy would be built within 200 metres of the construction zone of the proposed Lower Thames Crossing which would mean children would be going to school next to a building site for the next six years and questioned whether the portfolio holder was aware of this and what action would he be taking to mitigate the health and safety impacts on children. Councillor Johnson stated if the crossing were to go ahead this would be looked at when the plans were put forward to actually see how this would affect the school and what would need to be put in place but agreed those conversations need to start taking place.
Councillor Muldowney made reference to the cost savings to be made from a comprehensive review of the Education Services and asked for clarification on the meaning of a comprehensive review of the education service and how many jobs would be lost as a result of this. Councillor Johnson stated that proposals were still being worked on and would be as much as possible through the transformation work and through working smarter and expect these to be presented to children’s services committee by October. Councillor Johnson assured Members that the Council would never intentionally offer an unsafe service and remained totally committed to vulnerable children.
Councillor Byrne stated that portfolio holders new to their role needed time to deliver on their promises.
Councillor Worrall referred to Headstart Housing and praised Councillor Halden for taking this forward but stated the 26 properties available to these care leavers was clearly not enough and there should be ambitions to expand. Councillor Worrall questioned what work the portfolio holder would be doing with Councillor Spillman to ensure Headstart housing grew with looked after children should be looked after as a key priority. Councillor Johnson agreed that 26 properties had not been enough but the housing delivery paper had gone through cabinet and TRL would deliver these for the Council and it was Councillor Johnson’s ambition to continue to work closely with Councillor Spillman.
Councillor Pearce referred to the Free School in Aveley and asked why another school was required in Aveley as Aveley already had several schools or would it be the assumption that housing numbers would be rising in the very near future. Councillor Johnson stated the Council did not have a lot over free schools but would keep conversations going on pupil placement to prove the point whether we get schools that we need or whether we get schools we did not need and it was vital that those conversations remained open.
Councillor Redsell questioned how many children were now home schooled in Thurrock and whether the pandemic had made more children stay at home to be home schooled. Councillor Johnson provided Members with updated data which confirmed there had been an unprecedented increase of home schooling education cases. But stressed this was the reflection of a whole national increase not just here in Thurrock. There were only 19 cases recorded in September 2019, 103 in September 2020 and continued to grow to over 150 new cases recorded in the first term of this academic year 2020-2021. There were approximately 370 cases which would be reduced by about 50 at the end of this academic year due to students finishing their education. That COVID had been the overwhelming reason for such an increase with parents being worried about sending their children back to school when they reopened in September 2020. Some parents had reported that home educating had been rewarding and would continue. That 140 children did return to school education in this academic year which was of course where we would prefer children to be educated.
Councillor Johnson summed up by stating the past year had been an extremely challenging time and had to face a global health crisis but Thurrock had done some very exciting regeneration programmes and committed to having high quality education opportunities across the borough and had asked officers to look at the possibility of sponsoring a part of a fair debt summit in conjunction with our finance portfolio where financial responsibilities and outcomes being explained to young people to help stave off financial problems in adulthood.