La Mare de Carteret – personal response

I spoke in favour of the Chief Minister’s amendment to the Education Department’s report on the rebuild of La Mare de Carteret. My speech below explains why.

Sir, on a personal level, I am very disappointed that despite the hard work of both Ministers, common ground could not be found by both Boards and therefore I have to make this speech today.

I fully support the development of a new school. Of course I do. In response to Deputy Lester Queripel’s comment that I was unable to go round the school with him, that was true but I did tour the school at a subsequent date and saw for myself the state it is in. So I have no doubt it needs to be replaced. And I suspect that is the view of most if not all of everyone here today.

However, we are talking about what is NEEDED, not what is WANTED.

Now, reading this report sparked memories of an earlier report and to a debate that took place a year ago. That report was also submitted by the Education Department and called Transforming Primary Education. Having read the Hansard record of that debate, painful as it was, it quickly became apparent to me that statements made then are directly relevant to the debate we are having today.

Let me start with a comment made by Deputy Green. A year ago he stated, ‘This policy letter should be supported today by all who wish to tackle the budget deficit’ He went on to say;

‘The States of Guernsey does not have the equivalent of a ‘Magic Porridge Pot’ that keeps on giving. Digging into our reserves as a community cannot go on and will not go on ad infinitum.’

Well, indeed it can’t. And of course, whether it is capital or revenue it is all from the same pot isn’t it?

I also reference what my good friend Deputy Conder said last November;

‘The reality is that our tax take from the economy is no longer sufficient to cover our revenue expenditure, capital development and sustained reserves. Put simply we are living beyond our means.’   And I would ask fellow members, what has changed between now and then?

We were also told by Deputy Conder that, and I quote,  ‘every attempt to cut or curb spending or generate efficiencies is met with howls of public protest, special interest lobbying and resistance.’

Well hold on a minute. I witnessed 1000  people at North Beach a week last Sunday who were making the completely opposite point. At a time we are increasing taxes and charges we are also looking at spending more and more.  These were people I knew would never have gone to anything like that in the past. Just ordinary working people. The tide has very much turned.

As I stated during the budget debate just 1 month ago, and as Deputy Gillson said yesterday, our funding is not keeping up with our capital spending! We are facing a capital reserve shortfall of £57m by 2017 and it is very uncertain whether this gap can be closed in the short to medium term. We therefore owe it to the taxpayers to ensure what we spend represents best value for money.

Now, I would like to turn to the size of the schools.

This report proposes building a primary school with 100 more pupil spaces than the existing one. Well, this got me scratching my head somewhat. I wondered whether I had entered a parallel universe. Last year the Education Department presented us with projections which indicated a peak in pupil numbers in 2019 and then a considerable drop off. We were told by the Minister there were 751 spaces. and when these figures were questioned that, ‘The Numbers are Secure, Trust Us!’ Those of us who questioned the figures were told to do detention  and write out a hundred times, ‘I will trust the Education Department’s figures’.

And we also had Deputy Fallaize’s contribution to the debate for which he was complemented for his forensic anlaysis. In his speech he said that, and I quote, ‘After Education’s proposed closure of 2 schools there would be 4303 spaces, which provides sufficient capacity, even at the projected peak of pupil numbers in the year 2019, after which the projection is that pupil numbers will drop off quite considerably. But not only that, Deputy Fallaize went on to say that he thought Education’s figures were conservative and, that a further 400-500 spaces could be found!

How can the fact that last year we are told we can close 2 schools and still have bags of capacity when we reach peak pupil numbers, but now we are being told we need to build a new school with 100 more spaces?

And what about the secondary schools? Classrooms are built for 30, an additional 20% compared with the current maximum, then a 16% uplift added for extra space and then 5% for population growth. This is in addition to extensive unused capacity at other schools. According to this report there is capacity for 2,580, but in October 2013 there were 2,190 students, that’s approximately 400 spare places now.

Not only that but we are told a smaller school would restrict curriculum offer – well isn’t that what the federation was meant to resolve? Whatever Deputy Sherbourne said yesterday to counter this, according to the document sent out in February to parents, students and staff and called Transforming Secondary Education it was. It states a Federation will address, ‘the difficulties that some students experience if they want to study minority subjects or subjects at a different level than is provided by their own school. The federation will help to address some of the present inequality of opportunities that students face by dint of the size of their school or where they live.’

Nothing in this report explains adequately why such a  big school is needed.  The Department obviously realised this and hence the letter on Friday telling us they need to build a bigger school in case another school has to close. Really? Create a sunk cost for something you have no idea will happen and if it does, have no idea when?  Have scenarios been tested and other options considered than building a bigger school – just in case?

That letter just emphasised to me that a review is needed.  I welcome the email from the Chief Minister last night and welcome his assurance that Policy Council will return to the States Assembly with a report on the outcomes of the independent review proposed, in time for the February States Assembly sitting. I would hope that this would allay the concerns expressed by some members yesterday.

Now, I had originally intended at this point to make my closing comment. However, I cannot finish without commenting on the response sent by the Education Department in response to the T&R Minister’s questions prior to this debate.

I have to say that I was appalled by the discourteous nature of the reply which as far as I am concerned was totally disrespectful to a member of this Assembly.

Then we look at the actual content. In response to Deputy St Pier’s question – Is it right to assume a 5% uplift in population projections to future proof? Policy Council suggest 1-2%

We are told, this is the difference between statisticians dealing with parameters of certainty and educationalists looking at the difference in the actual numbers between a baseline number and a 5% uplift.

The response to Deputy St Pier’s question as to why 420 spaces were now being provided at the primary school was not answered. In fact by saying there would be a maximum 350 pupils actually seems to argue against the need for a 420 capacity school.

So finally I would like to say that, we knew this debate would always be an emotive one,  just like that a year ago. Although I did note that Deputy O’Hara didn’t get his hnkie out yesterday.

We have had emails from parents and teachers at LMDC saying how awful the building is, how the children feel like second class citizens. We’ve even had the video like last year. However, I refer back to what was said by many who spoke a year ago, epitomised by the words of Deputy Harwood who said ‘Decisions must be driven by reason not emotion’.

We must remember that as much as we would love to throw money at this project we have to consider NEED not WANT.

There are just too many unanswered questions  for such a large capital commitment when more and more of our citizens are rightly asking us whether we can justify our spending at a time when their own budgets are being stretched to breaking point. For that reason I urge members to support this amendment.

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