January 2009

Wed, 28 Jan
Today was an opportunity to get a Catholic perspective on this schools' review and to do that I visited St Mary's in Wool. I was met by the head Helen Brown and it wasn't long before we were deep in conversation over a welcome cup of coffee.
St Mary's is not running a campaign because it hasn't been targeted for closure, and I could see why. With its large class rooms and outdoor play area, the children are well catered for. But this doesn't mean an absence of controversy. The proposal is for St Mary's to accommodate the children from the neighbouring CE school, with governors and staff from the two churches working together.
Again, understandably, the CE school is not impressed with this suggestion, claiming that IT is the village school and not St Mary's. There's also a religious dimension, as you'd expect. My tour of the school was a delight, with several stop offs to chat with the children. At one of these, I bet a form of youngsters 50p none of them could spell 'accommodation'. My bet was looking safe until one young man popped his hand up after several before him had made a brave but incorrect attempt.
Speaking with great confidence and no pauses he got it smack right; well almost right. He missed out one 'm'. We all laughed as another youngster at the front of the class quipped something along the lines of: "He's a bright one!"
Then, some hours later, I returned to Swanage to attend both public meetings. The first was not as well attended or as vociferous as the later one. But, again, good points were made by many, and these were all duly noted.
And, it must be said that not everyone was against the proposals. One lady told the LEA representatives that their ideas had been poorly presented and they'd missed a great opportunity to sell good news, which included massive investment and a new school. The last meeting ended with a note of what I think can only be described as frustration from the new head of the middle school, Dave Pratten. He spoke passionately of a lost opportunity for Purbeck, which the head of children's services, John Nash, appeared to agree with. This only emphasises in my mind the importance of this consultation phase and the duty of the LEA to listen and take note of people's feelings and suggestions.
Of course, pervading everyone's mind is the subject of money, without which none of these proposals will go anywhere. Even Labour's now making warning noises about education expenditure and this cannot be very reassuring to anyone involved in this review.

Tue, 27 Jan
I much enjoyed my visit to Mount Scar School in Swanage this morning. As most of my readers probably know, the school is at the centre of a schools' review, which would see it close and move to a brand new school on the site of the existing middle school.
Understandably, this is not popular with the new head, Paul Mason, his governors, parents and of course the children. The school is 'outstanding' and having now been around it, I could see and sense it is indeed an excellent school. Paul and I chatted for some time before he kindly showed me around. I met several teachers, who spoke touchingly of their school and the need to preserve it. I hopefully reassured them and Paul that the LEA is listening to people's comments and will take them seriously when this consultation periods ends next month. I reiterated my point that I was not going to come down on the side of any one school. That would be divisive, in my opinion, and it is important to hear the views of all the schools involved in this review without there being a prejudice evident.
I have heard many sound arguments in the search for a way forward and I have asked the LEA to consider them all.
Later I attended a meeting between the LEA and Mount Scar parents. The meeting was well run and those who wanted to talk were given the opportunity to do so. It's a great shame that reviews like this have to be done at all, but with very low Government funding and a shortfall of about 1,000 children the LEA has no choice but to look at overall education provision in Purbeck. The problem now is to find a way through this emotive minefield and to establish an education system which really does offer the best opportunities for the next generation.

Fri, 23 Jan
To Portland this morning, to hear people's concerns about the proposed new Tesco supermarket. It seems that the majority of residents want a supermarket on the island, but not where it's proposed. Easton Gardens would become one of the busiest roundabouts in the country if this proposal gets the green light. I shall be writing to asking the borough's planning committee to reconsider (a) the location of the store and (b) the planned traffic layout, which is going to severely disupt the lives of those residents who live near and around the gardens. 

Thu, 22 Jan
Back to windy Portland today to meet with businessmen, before returning to our office to meet with a Party rep from London. Lots of banter and hopes there'll be an election soon.

Wed, 21 Jan
Tonight was evidence, not that any is needed, of just how sensitive this whole schools' review is. The hall at Wool was packed. There must have been several hundred people there. Cllr Toni Coombs, the education brief holder, ran an excellent meeting in tough circumstances.
After a brief from council officers, the floor was opened for questions. As you can imagine, there were a lot. They were all answered, however, and the evening ended peacefully! Maybe that was thanks to the local vicar's prayer at the start of proceedings which set the mood so brilliantly.
All on the DCC panel repeated that their option was NOT a done deal, and I believe them. So, I can only urge you again to write to the authority with your concerns or ideas.

Tue, 20 Jan
Much of the past few days have been spent answering prospective constituent's letters. Naturally, the subject is the schools' review. I sympathise with many of the excellent points raised and urged them, and urge you, to write in to DCC.
And, on this note, I continued my tour of schools today by visiting St Mary's RC VA First School in Swanage. The headteacher is Maeve Baker and I was most impressed by her. A pragmatist and level-headed, she explained her position in all this, before whisking me round the school for a tour.
What delightful children I met, and I particularly enjoyed one stop where we spent some time talking with the students.
Again, my heart goes out to the teachers, governors, parents and children of this school. It is not an easy time for anyone.

Mon, 19 Jan
With the schools' review bleeping at me on the radar, I drove down to Swanage to meet Jeremy Harrison, headteacher at St Mark's CE VA First School. What a charming man and we chatted away for some time about the many concerns both he and others have about this planned shake up.
Jeremy kindly took me on a tour of his school and I could quickly see that the site was not suitable for a primary school. It's been suggested St Mark's should merge with Mount Scar and move to the existing Middle School site to form a new primary school.
Jeremy is pragmatic and calm about this review. He understands the reason for it and only hopes that whatever the outcome is it will truly benefit his children. Then, after a meeting with local Conservative councillors, I moved on to the Middle School, which was hosting a meeting by campaigners, who'd formed an action committee. The mood was sombre, as you'd expect, with several contributors making some very good points. No doubt these points will be made to DCC, which has said it will listen to people's very real concerns.

Thu, 15 Jan
Late this afternoon I attended a meeting of headteachers in Swanage. On the agenda was this schools' review. The heads all spoke well, each making his or her pitch. It is a difficult time for all of them and I sympathise enormously. They all agreed that the best way forward was a collective one, if at all possible. And that the top priority was of course the children and their future education. There are many meetings to go before this review ends and I have no doubt the path will be well trodden by the time a final decision is made. What we've got to do is find the best solution, and that will take a lot of debate and patience.
After the meeting, I drove to Weymouth to attend our Supper Club, which had invited the Rt Hon Sir George Young Bt MP to address it. His address was both warm and informed and everyone enjoyed the evening.

Wed, 14 Jan
Today was a very sad day for the family of a very close friend of mine, who died far too young of a heart attack. His memorial service was a very special event and reminded me just how important good friends - and I mean good friends - really are.

Mon,12 Jan
Sailing has been in my blood for as long as I can remember, so when I heard of a rather remarkable young man from Portland, I wanted to meet him. Adam Greaves, who is 12, experienced the sport via a local charity which sponsors children to have a go at sailing for a fiver. Adam did so well on the day that he received an award for being the most promising child that afternoon.
The charity then paid for Adam to complete his Royal Yachting Association level one and two qualifications. Adam was so taken with the sport that he wanted another child to share the experience. So, he decided to make a sponsored walk to raise money for the charity which had helped him. A local businessman matched the money he raised, and Adam proudly handed over £234 to the charity.
When I met him today, he'd just returned from school. He was in buoyant mood and looking forward to the future. Who knows, but one he could be competing in the Olympics himself. I hope so.
Later in the afternoon, I went to Wool CE First School to meet governors, staff and parents, who'd gathered for a presentation by Dorset County Council (DCC) on the educational review for Purbeck. The governors listened first, before the parents filed in for their turn.
Both meetings were well ordered and emotions - albeit running high - kept under control. DCC's in a predicament. Falling school rolls have forced the authority to look at ways of remedying the situation, before teachers are made redundant and schools close due to lack of pupils.
Schools are emotive issues at the best of times, but when some are threatened with closure defences are dug and barricades manned, and understandably so. I have decided not to come down on the side of any one school for fear of putting school against school and antagonsing an already delicate situation. What I am doing is to listen to everyone concerned and encouraging opponents to the review proposal to write to DCC with their concerns. I, too, have mine, and will write to DCC concerning the Wool merger. I also have concerns about the proposals for Swanage. But I will not predetermine the consultation phase, which ends next month.

Mon, 5 Jan
Welcome, reader, to the New Year. And what a new year it's already turning out to be. Close to home one of my oldest friends collapsed and died from a heart attack, while further afield the Middle East is once again in turmoil as Israeli forces move into the Gaza Strip in their battle against Hamas. As always in any war, it's the innocents who are being killed alongside the combatants and the pictures beamed into our drawing rooms every day are harrowing.
However, back home we have our own fight on our hands as Labour continues to fritter away our money in the rather misguided belief that we can spend our way out of recession. All they are doing in reality is to endanger the future of our island nation and our children and grandchildren.
So, there's a lot to fight for and I relish the combat when it comes in the form of a general election.