Norwich school facing closure: Key questions

A specialist school in Norfolk for challenging pupils could be forced to close because the county council will no longer fund it to teach GCSEs to pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties.The Evening News submitted a string of questions to Norfolk County Council about the decision to withdraw funding for the school and today publishes the answers we received...

Bosses at Norfolk County Council have insisted they followed the correct procedure when a decision was made which has put a Norwich school for challenging youngsters at risk.

Future Education, based in Motum Road in Norwich, has been hailed by school watchdogs and the Home Secretary Theresa May, but could be forced to close.

That is because the county council decided to withdraw a contract for the school to teach GCSEs to pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties and/or a statement of special educational need.

And the school missed out on a contract for vocational education, which instead went to national contractor CfBT.

The Evening News discovered that the decisions over those contracts were made not by elected councillors, but by a panel of of council officers, children, parents, a school finance officer and a psychologist.

So we submitted a list of questions to the county council asking whether that was appropriate and whether the right procedure had been followed, with the answers we received published on these pages.

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The council insists the right procedure was followed and asserted that there was no need for elected councillors to be involved.

We also queried whether that panel, in reaching its decision. had considered a socio-economic impact assessment of Future Projects, which was carried out on behalf of the county council, which said it was 'an important resource for the local authority as it prevents them from having to send young people to out-of-county provision at considerable cost.'

The council sidestepped that topic, responding that the panel had 'looked at the quality of the bids in front of them and made judgements based on this.'

The council stressed that the children who had already been excluded from pupil referral units and ended up at Future Education, would not go without an education.

However, the answers have not allayed the concerns of some campaigners who have concerns over the way the situation has been handled.

Richard Bearman, the children's services spokesman for the Green party group at County Hall said: 'The county council do make decisions about all sorts of contracts and it does make sense for officers to have some delegated authority.

'But the concern in this particular case is the they failed to recognise just how important this service is to local children.

'Another provider might be satisfactory, but they do not have the local connections and history with the children that Future Education has. 'From a councillor point of view, if a service is being provided in Norwich, for Norwich children then officers need to make greater engagement with Norwich councillors. 'Whether unintentionally or unintentionally, this one has gone under the radar.'

He added: 'It's not completely done and dusted and to give them their due, the council did show it was prepared to make changes during the Big Conversation consultation, and this is one they should rethink.'

Brenda Arthur, leader of Norwich City Council, said: 'I am very concerned. This is the big problem with the Localism Bill, in that they are suggesting that local people can run services, but when it comes to the tendering process it tends to go to the larger, more corporate organisations. 'Those companies have larger numbers of people and more experience on how to go about submitting a tender, so they are more likely to be successful.

'I think it is really important we have local experts and that is why I am so concerned.'

Chloe Smith, Norwich North MP, said she had written to the county council about the issue and had received a reply. She said: 'I think that did explain the situation and the reasons why the decisions were made.'

She added that, with Future Education based in her fellow MP Simon Wright's Norwich South constituency, she had not had many constituents raising concerns over it.


The tendering process

1. Why and when was it decided that this decision could be reached under delegated powers rather than made by elected councillors? If it is part of a wider policy, can we have details of when that policy was decided, at which meeting and by whom? Has the panel followed correct procurement procedures, within legal, government and EU guidelines?

Yes, correct procedures were followed. In essence this is how local government works. Members set policy direction and senior officers implement policy, under delegations. This is nothing new.

EU law was not applicable to this tender. We complied with the law and with our own contract standing orders.

2. Was it appropriate that this decision was made by a panel of non-elected people? How were the members of the panel qualified to make funding decisions?

Yes. Tendering issues and decisions on where to place individual children have to be delegated to officers to ensure that the day to day running of services can continue unabated and they are able to get on with the job they are skilled to do. Each of these decisions is made in accordance with council standing orders which dictate how procurement decisions are made.

It would be impossible for councillors to be involved in every arrangement of this kind - they set the wider policies and budgets which shape these local arrangements.

The panel was made up of experienced officers from Special Educational Needs (SEN) commissioning, procurement, finance, the education advisory service, educational psychology, parents and young people.

Our Additional Needs Strategy and Commissioning Manager chaired the panel. He has many years of experience in the area of SEN and knows the needs of children across the whole county and what provision is required to meet their needs.

A senior educational psychologist also sat on the panel, that person works directly with young people in alternative provision.

Parents were included via Family Voice Norfolk, a group which represents families who have children with SEN or additional needs. A member of the schools finance team was involved because the money comes directly from the schools budget.

By placing this service to tender there was clearly the implication that Future Education may not have succeeded in this procurement process.

3. Who was the most senior person involved in this decision?

Our Additional Needs Strategy and Commissioning Manager, who reports to the Assistant Director for Children's Services.

4. In total, how many alternative education contracts for year 10 and 11 students are there? What are they and who has won each of them? Who else bid for them?

Contracts were awarded for vocational-style provision in Norwich ( 20 places) King's Lynn (15 places) and Great Yarmouth (15 places) and for Foundation Learning provision in Norwich (20 places) and King's Lynn (10 places) The winning bidder for all of these contracts was CfBT Include. We cannot release details of who else bid as this is commercially sensitive information.

CfBT Include provided very strong bids and can deliver high quality provision across the county. It was felt that the needs which the other three lots covered could be met from our own provision, or via commissioning placements for individual children.

5. If the academic lot had not been withdrawn, had a decision been made to award it to Future Education?

As the contract was withdrawn, a decision was not taken to award it to anyone.

6. When the tenders came in over budget, why were they not renegotiated? Why was the decision to make it an 'open' (so that all the contracts could not be renegotiated) tender made? What were the other tender framework options?

The vast majority of public procurement in the UK is done using either the Open or Restricted procedures. Neither permits post-tender negotiation. There are a number of difficulties with post-tender negotiation. Firstly, we are required by law to treat all bidders equally, and post-tender negotiation makes this difficult. Secondly, any purchaser which gets a reputation for post-tender negotiation is unlikely to get competitive bids in the first instance – bidders will always 'hold something back' for the anticipated negotiations. Sealed bids are likely to achieve better value for money.

7. What factors were taken into account in the tendering process? Was the Norfolk County Council commissioned socio economic impact report (2009) taken into consideration? Were socio economic impact reports commissioned for any of the other bidders?

The evaluation panel looked at the quality of the bids that was in front of them and made judgements based on this. When we wrote the specification for the tender, detailed work took place on the data and historical trend in demand across the county and existing provision that was available. The CfBT bid stood out for what it could provide across the county.

8. Who made the decision about the size of the alternative education budget? Has that budget been reduced since last year?

Budget has remained the same at �4.5m over three years - this represents a significant sum per pupil.

This budget is set as part of the Dedicated Schools Grant allocation. This is done with the Schools Forum (which represents Norfolk's schools) and subsequently reported to Children's Services Overview and Scrutiny Panel.

9. What other decisions have this particular panel made?

The evaluation panel was set up for this purpose because it had specific skills and knowledge in this area – it hasn't made other decisions of this kind. Panels for procurement processes are always configured specific to that tender.

Next intake

10. When the academic lot was withdrawn, where was it anticipated current students and those expecting to start in year 10 would continue their education?

We have said from the beginning that we wanted to ensure continuity for current students, which is why we have been working hard to reach an agreement with Future around a contract for the students entering Year 11. Some money was kept aside for this purpose. We were clear with Future that this was our intention and offered them several meetings to discuss the way forward.

The academic lot was for 10 young people. We anticipated that we could currently meet the needs of this small group of young people via our own existing provision, or by purchasing placements on an individual basis.

All of the providers in the process had put up their costs by more than we anticipated, including Future. This meant there simply wasn't enough money to award lots in all of the areas and we had to prioritise the area where there was greatest demand – this was in vocational and foundation learning.

11. How have you communicated with both current student and those expecting to start at Future Education for year 10?

No students were due to start at Future next year as their contract had come to an end and we were in the process of tendering new contracts. That process had to finish before the admissions panel for those young people could meet to make decisions about their placements.

We wrote to parents affected by the changes as soon as we could once the contract was provisionally awarded. We have kept them up to date as best we can but there has, regrettably, been some uncertainty while we have been working to reach an agreement with Future.

12. Which budget will the money to 'spot purchase' the places for the year 11 students at Future Education come from? Was the cost taken into account by the panel?

The places for the Year 11 pupils are not being spot-purchased – we are seeking to agree a single contract covering all the students concerned. The Commissioning manager had full understanding of all the budgets available used to fund students in need of alternative provision. The tendering exercise was undertaken in the light of the approved budget available for the next three years. This funding is part of the Dedicated Schools Grant which is 100% ring fenced grant provided to fund schools and other pupil related activities. The funding of these one year transitional costs will be met from the part of that budget held for pupils with special educational needs who are not in our maintained schools.

13. Why did the council encourage Future Education to put in a bid to EEDA in 2008? Was there a long-term agreement at the time?

We have worked closely with Future in recent years and as part of this have helped them to identify which resources are available that they may want to apply for.

However, we have had no long term agreement in place with them. Our contract with Future Education came to an end this summer and they had been aware of the tendering process since December 2010.

14. Why has the council withdrawn its funding when it has been so supportive of Future Education and its positive impact in the community in the past?

We continue to be supportive of Future Education's work, which is why we want to continue to work with them via a contract for the Year 11 pupils and why we will be meeting with them again in the coming weeks to discuss what options they might want to explore for the future.

Another provider put in a better bid for the vocational contract and we withdrew the academic contract for the reasons already explained.

We believe Future has also lost other sources of funding, outside of the County Council's control, which is having a wider impact on their work.

15. What work is being done to provide suitable education provision for those students expecting to start in September? What exactly are their options?

As question 10.

16. What will happen to those children already excluded from pupil referral units and Include, who would normally attend Future Education?

All of these young people are different and will have different needs. However, we will ensure they can continue to access full-time alternative provision, either via our own provision, or by purchasing placements individually where this is appropriate. We do not expect any young people to be excluded from CfBT Include's provision.