Tagged: Schools

Newcastle East constituency one of the worst places in the UK for voters falling off the electoral register

A Newcastle constituency is one of the worst in the UK for voters falling off the electoral register.

In the last year more than 9,000 potential voters have dropped off the list in Newcastle East, with only Cardiff Central and Liverpool Riverside having worse figures.

A spokesman for the BiteTheBallot campaign group which is fighting to get more people on the electoral register before the May general election said the figure was “an absolute disgrace”.

The controversial switch from household to individual electoral registration has caused a great deal of problems for local authorities whose electoral registration officers are continuing to run into problems with their electoral management software systems.

The number of people on the register has dropped yet the Government and the Electoral Commission don’t have a plan to deal with this and it’s extremely worrying,” said the BiteTheBallot spokesman.

It was revealed last week that local authorities had been given an extra £20m in a bid to solve this.

However the spokesman was dismissive of the move, saying it would be spent mostly on sending out letters.

He said: “It’s about getting people into the community to engage with them and get them interested in politics and registering for the vote.”

The spokesman revealed the group has a Community Engagement Officer, Megan Patterson, who is working with Durham County Council and visiting local schools, sixth form colleges and youth clubs.

“She is doing stellar work in getting people registered. It’s labour intensive but it works.”

According to the Office for National Statistics there were 58,557 people registered to vote in Newcastle East as of December 2014.

This is an 13.8% decrease on the 67,945 people who were registered to vote in the constituency on December 1, 2013, the third biggest decrease for any of the 591 parliamentary constituencies in England Wales and Northern Ireland.

The ONS estimates there are 84,394 people aged 18 and above living in Newcastle East which means that only 69.4% of the potentially eligible voting population is in fact registered to vote.

However this percentage is likely to be higher as the population estimates also include people who are not eligible to vote such as those born overseas.

Ironically not far behind Newcastle in numbers falling off the electoral register is City of Durham where the BiteTheBallot community engagement officer is working.

It has seen an 11.5% drop in the year from 73,036 to 64,614.

Across the whole of Tyne and Wear, Northumberland and County Durham there was a fall of 3.8% in the number of people registered to vote with declines in all but one constituency.

Source – Sunday Sun, 01 Mar 2015

‘Free school plans need better checks’ – MPs

A committee of MPs will today call for tougher rules before the setting up of ‘free schools’, to prevent a repeat of the Durham Free School fiasco.

The Department For Education (DFE) is urged to impose stronger checks before giving the go-ahead in areas with surplus places and a large number of outstanding, existing schools.

And it is told to publish the impact on neighbouring schools – not only when an application is made, but after a free school is opened.

The recommendations go to the heart of criticism of Durham Free School (DFS), which has been condemned as inadequate by watchdog Ofsted and will close within months.

Critics, led by Roberta Blackman-Woods, Durham City’s Labour MP, argue DFS should never have been opened, in September 2013, and is a scandalous waste of money.

It attracted only about 90 pupils – in a city with high-quality schools, with empty places – and was expected to take another eight years to reach its target size of 630.

And it angered local people by opening temporarily in the former home of Durham Gilesgate Sports College, in Gilesgate, which had been controversially closed amid budget cuts.

The saga will be raised in the Commons tonight, in a debate led by Ms Blackman-Woods, who will demand that ministers reveal the full financial details behind the DFS failure.

Ministers are also under pressure to come clean about the role of Michael Gove’s former adviser, Durham-born Dominic Cummings, and his mother, in establishing the school.

Before that debate, today’s report by the Conservative-led education committee also accuses the Government of “exaggerating the success” of academies and free schools.

 Pat Glass, the North West Durham Labour MP, who helped carry out the inquiry, said the report was intended to prevent a repeat of events in Durham City. She said:

“We are saying the DFE needs to look very carefully before it agrees to set up a free school in an area that already has sufficient good places and good schools.

“Durham Free School was a waste of public money – £4m was thrown away – and Michael Gove did absolutely nothing about it.”

 Nicky Morgan replaced Mr Gove as Education Secretary in last year’s reshuffle. Last week, she announced DFS would be shut because “what Ofsted found is enough to shock any parent”.

Free schools have the same freedoms as academies, but have been typically set up the charitable arms of private firms, or groups of parents, or teachers.

There are now 1,884 secondary academies (60 per cent of the total) and 2,299 primaries (13 per cent), after outstanding schools were encouraged to convert.

Source –  Durham Times,  27 Jan 2015

Unemployment: Local Government Association praises the work of North East councils

Councils are doing more to help unemployed people than the Government as data shows people are falling through the cracks.

The Local Government Association has made the claim as the North East shoulders the country’s highest unemployment rate (9.1%) and as its research shows there has been an alarming 28% increase in the number of unemployed not claiming benefits in the last 18 months.

> Is that because they’ve been sanctioned ? 

It means that while Government data does not reveal the full extent of the problem, the LGA says local authorities are being left to pick up the pieces.

The LGA has praised North East councils for working with employers, charities and voluntary groups, schools, colleges and housing associations, and says schemes are offering one-to-one mentoring, training, work placements and apprenticeships at a crucial time.

LGA chairman David Sparks said the capacity for councils to play this role, however, is under threat as all parties eye further cuts.

He said:

“Unemployment is falling, but the headlines hide the plight of our most vulnerable residents who are falling through the cracks. Too many are let down by national job schemes which are unable to identify or help them because they have not signed on at their local Jobcentre Plus.

“Councils across the country are desperate to ensure no-one is left behind and have sought to support those being forgotten by these national services by using their local knowledge, expertise and connections with local organisations and services to target their hardest to reach residents.”

Council leaders say national schemes aim to simply shift people from the benefits queue and that approach is damaging for some of the most vulnerable, such as young or disabled people.

Leader of Newcastle City Council, Councillor Nick Forbes, said the news was more evidence that the Government must devolve more powers to the North East.

He said:

“The Government are more interested in getting people off benefits than getting them into work. The reality is the jobs that are being created are in most cases, part-time, low wage and zero contract hours.

“Local authorities are having much more success in helping people into jobs and training than Government because they have a better understanding of what is happening in their area.”

Councillor Iain Malcolm, leader of South Tyneside Council said:

“The national approach is to move people off the benefits register as quickly as possible, but sometimes this can be to the detriment of more vulnerable residents and can exacerbate their situation if they take the first job that comes along and they are not ready to work.

“Our approach has been to offer residents constructive and comprehensive advice and support to help them back into work at the right time for them and the employer. In partnership with employers, we have designed initiatives to support jobs and apprenticeship creation this has created over 400 new jobs apprenticeships over the past three years.

“Although there have been national schemes offering wage subsidies, feedback from our employers showed that the schemes were too difficult to access due to a vast amount of eligibility criteria.

“We have taken the time to understand the barriers that our residents face when looking to go back into employment and then commissioned community learning programmes that will address those issues, such as literacy and numeracy programmes and support to help residents gain IT and money management skills.”

Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 14 Jan 2015

Exposed: Jobcentre Benefit Sanctions Culture Revealed – Whistleblower

I worked for DWP for many years, in various roles including management and adviser positions, and can verify that Jobcentre Plus did and do talk about benefit sanction targets/expectations.

Benchmarks did exist, but there was no pressure to meet them until around October 2010. Prior to 2010, sanctions were rarely discussed and staff from my experience did not feel under pressure to make referrals to the Decision Maker.

A benchmark is “a standard by which something can be measured or judged” so does not precisely imply a target. A benchmark level is not a target directly, but indirectly policy to meet a benchmark level is a target that is set to meet the minimum standard.

Performance expectations” serve as a foundation for communicating about performance throughout the year. They also serve as the basis for assessing employee performance. When a business and an employee set clear expectations about the results that must be achieved and the methods or approaches needed to achieve them, you establish a path for success.

Report to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith (pdf).

CAB staff reported that their caseloads began to increase significantly to year ending 2011; this was during the same period when the 6% benchmark/target was enforced.

Ruth Owen said at the time, “targets create perverse behaviour” and hence the reason targets/benchmarks were removed from staff appraisal objectives.

However, targets were still discussed, despite staff being informed there were no Stricter Benefit Regime measures. In my district the target/benchmark at the time was 6% of the live load of unemployed people on the office register.

Furthermore, initiatives were introduced that were not always intended to help people, but to achieve the 6% target. I felt this behaviour was unethical and I decided to resign from a job I once enjoyed, because I was extremely unhappy with the new ethos and the welfare agenda. The situation has worsened since my departure.

Following the Guardian’s DWP whistle-blower story sanctions took a dip from July 2011, but they began to rise again during 2012 and have continued to rise significantly ever since.

This can only happen if staff are being encouraged and are expected to make more and more referrals to the Decision Maker (870,793 claimants were subject to an adverse decision to lose their benefit during an 8 month period in 2013); the highest level since the Baldwin government’s campaign against the unemployed in the 1920s, which saw disqualifications of over 2 per cent per month for the very similar, not genuinely seeking work from October 1928 to March 1929 and in April-May 1929. This reason for disqualification was ended by a Labour Party backbench revolt resulting in abolition in March 1930.

> Labour Party backbench revolt – there’s something you don’t hear nowadays… especially not on behalf of the unemployed.

In all my years as a public servant, I have never witnessed the bureaucratic excessiveness which currently exists within the welfare system today.

The impact of the harsher regime, which also includes longer sanctions (which range from 1 month to 3-years), is devastating for claimants who are already under enormous financial pressure and emotional strain; claimants must now contribute to Council Tax, which has resulted in a circa 4% cut in a claimant’s income and in some cases there is the Bedroom Tax to pay too, resulting in a further 19% cut on average.

In addition, benefits have not increased in line with the cost of food and utilities. The EU advice to the UK is, benefits are inadequate.

The sick, the unemployed and those on low incomes are now paying for the failures in the banking system.

The system was and can never be perfect, due to the ever-changing demands of ministers. However, I believe it is now failing many of the people it is intended to help and support, particularly the vulnerable. The support on offer is often insensitive to a claimant’s needs and many people are referred to multiple courses inappropriately at the tax papers’ expense.

To cite one example, an older claimant with arthritis (which Jobcentre Plus knew about) was referred by Jobcentre Plus to attend an unpaid work opportunity that entailed travelling on 3 buses for 90 minutes each way and then to spend up to 30 hours per week picking up cans.

It is, therefore hardly surprising that claimants find the current regime bewildering, frightening and confusing. The professionals, including claimant representatives, are frequently dismayed by the irrational and insensitive treatment our clients are subjected to by, Jobcentre Plus as well as the private contractors delivering the welfare programme.

The reason I initially became involved was due to my family and friends being hurt by the system; I felt I had to assist and things snowballed from there.

The current regime has led to my increasing anger and lack of confidence in the organisations administering the current welfare policies; the people I help feel the same. A number of vulnerable claimants I assist physically shake and/or perspire with fear when they cross the threshold of the Jobcentre or the Work Programme provider premises.

It must feel like a cruel game of Russian Roulette – “will I, won’t I get my benefit stopped today” and for those people who have had their benefit sanctioned wrongly for doing more than is required of them by law, their anxiety is further heightened.

In my view and from experience sanctions do not work; they create excessive anxiety, which is not conducive to productive job search. When I assist a claimant achieve a more relaxed agreement and fairer treatment, they tell me they feel less stressed and undertake more productive and quality job search; many with several disadvantages have found work.

Furthermore, there is a shortage of sufficient and suitable employment opportunities available for everyone. Therefore, a proportion of the population will be unemployed at any given time and no government has successfully eradicated this problem, despite the billions of pounds that has been spent trying to tackle this particular issue.

This leads me to conclude, that most people will take responsibility for their own affairs and require little intervention from the state.

I believe the cost of poverty and administering the sanctioning machine is a further drain on the public purse, due to the wider impact on society; the associated crime such as food theft, increasing debt plus child poverty.

The additional cost to service providers must be taken into consideration too, namely; social services, welfare/debt agencies, food banks, schools, the police, HMCS and the NHS who must pick up the pieces. A number of claimants I help feel suicidal and there has been a recent death reported in the media as the consequence of sanctions being applied.

I am shocked by the very poor treatment of vulnerable claimants. However, more recently I have been assisting professionals who have been sanctioned repeatedly without any justification; these cases have been overturned because the decision was unlawful and/or natural justice, human rights as well as EU law were not applied in many cases.

Other welfare workers mirror my concerns; some of these issues may be addressed by the Mathew Oakley review, but in the absence of the immediate removal of sanctions altogether the process as a whole needs to be examined and in particular the quality and accuracy of decision-making. Examples of poor as well as perverse decision-making are littered all over the Internet by MPs and welfare agencies.

DWP has a duty to get their decisions right first time (pdf) and this must start at the coal face by, the adviser preparing a reasonable and lawful agreement and establishing all the facts fully before raising a doubt. The evidence I have collected indicates that Jobcentre staff and Decision Makers’ fail to follow their internal quality and training manuals too frequently.

“Things done well and with care, exempt themselves from fear.” William Shakespeare

Discretion must also be applied for those claimants who are clearly vulnerable and/or are not wilfully refusing or failing to fulfil their responsibilities.

A client agreed to a Jobseeker’s Agreement (re-named Claimant Commitment) that required them to take 9 steps to seek work; they took more than 40 quality steps, but a sanction was still applied.

Clients have had their benefit stopped indefinitely on the basis that they were not available for work due to the withdrawal of their telephone number and email address from the Jobcentre computer system.

There is no requirement in legislation to provide a telephone number or email address to Jobcentre Plus or the Work Programme to prove availability for work. I have since discovered via Freedom of Information, that this is happening in more than one area.

Claimants are being informed by some Jobcentres and Work Programme providers that everything is mandatory and they are being directed indiscriminately to carry out all activities under a threat of a sanction.

Some claimants are also being mandated to give access to their Universal Jobmatch account or to provide their login details; this is unlawful.

Mandates for non-mandatory activities were only ever issued as a very last resort.

A 57-year-old client who has worked all her life recently told me; “she feels Jobcentre Plus treats her like a school child who cannot be trusted to do her homework without the threat of a severe punishment.” This oppressive regime will not inspire or motivate her to find work more quickly, but it does make her feel angry, stressed and humiliated.

It appears that respect, fairness, reasonableness as well as proportionality have been thrown right out of the window.

The public are told that claimants can access the Hardship fund, but this is not accessible to everyone and many claimants are not made aware of it, because they are not issued with the appropriate paperwork or even told their benefit has been stopped.

If a four-week sanction is applied, most claimants who are over 25 year of age* and not in a vulnerable group (people with health issues, children or expectant mothers) will have nothing to live on for 2 weeks and then only circa £43 for the remainder of the sanction period. This money must cover all their bills, food and travel costs to the Jobcentre, which can exceed £5 in many areas; it simply is not possible.

* JSA rate £72.40 for claimants 25 years and over, £57.35 for 18-24 year olds.

The consequences are several fold; debt which may lead to high interest lending and/or theft not to mention the physical and mental impacts that can significantly affect a person’s ability to seek work effectively or to find the energy or confidence to appeal.

Who would decide to inflict this pain upon themselves, let alone others?

I am also aware some claimants are not receiving travel expenses on their non-signing days, which creates further hardship and more so if they are being forced unreasonably to attend the Jobcentre daily.

These are typical remarks that I read and hear in the course of my voluntary activities to assist claimants:

I am poverty-stricken. I have no electricity; food and no friends or family close by, can you assist me?”

“I was sanctioned for not doing enough job searches even though I have been told my job search activity is good.”

“I am being forced to participate in an activity that does not support me back to work and makes my health condition worse, but Jobcentre Plus/the private contractor refuses to listen to me.”

There are some good people administering the welfare system, but I believe from the available public evidence that they are being placed under pressure (reference: PCS conditionality questionnaire) to implement the very harsh conditionality regime and, as a consequence a perverse culture is cultivated.

A personal Freedom of Information request can reveal improper behaviour. Further, there are several research papers that counter the government’s view about the effectiveness of benefit sanctions.

Poor treatment and service can also result in Jobseekers claiming sickness benefit (Employment Support Allowance) to escape the stress of attending the Jobcentre or the private contracted provision; this outcome is classified as a positive off-flow and during the period of a sanction Jobseekers are not counted as unemployed, because they are not in receipt of

I would urge all claimants to appeal every sanction and make a complaint to their MP at the same time about their poor treatment. I would also urge the unemployed, the sick, low paid and the agencies that witness first-hand what is happening to come together to stop this merciless treatment.

British people are in the main, compassionate and civilised. I also believe most people would be as horrified as I am if, they witnessed first-hand the consequences of the punitive measures being meted out to fellow citizens in order to attain performance measures and/or to frustrate people off the unemployment register.

When I talk to people about welfare many people are in favour of the government’s tougher stance via enhanced conditionality.

However, when I explain how the welfare policy is being administered and the human impacts, they are shocked.

I also find it very distressing that poverty related diseases are also on the rise in the UK, placing further pressure on the NHS. I am sure many readers of this story will be equally disturbed by these findings.

The UK ‘is the first country to face UN inquiry into disability rights violations‘.

I am not politically motivated and made a conscious decision not to vote in the past 2 elections. I am simply a very concerned UK citizen who is struggling to comprehend why fellow human beings are being treated so appallingly and why the gap between the haves and have-nots is continuing to widen. The current regime simply cannot be allowed to continue in a society which claims to care for the welfare of all its’ citizens.

It makes me want to weep the depths which have been plunged. The increasing volume of very poor quality decisions made by local Jobcentre staff and DWP Decision Makers’ is of great concern.

If everyone appealed and complained many more sanctions would be overturned, thus making their very existence unjustifiable.

> I agree wholeheartedly with that last sentiment. It’s not always easy, barriers will be put in your way, but from personal experience the mere fact of winning an appeal against an unjust decision is a real boost.

Sender has requested anonymity.

Source –  Welfare News Service,  02 Sept 2014

http://welfarenewsservice.com/exposed-jobcentre-benefit-sanctions-culture-revealed-whistleblower/

Almost one in five North East kids do not get enough to eat during school holidays, survey reveals

North East teachers say they worry about the health of nearly two in five pupils when they return from school holidays because they are not given enough to eat.

Research by Kellogg’s also found that while holidays should be a fun time for families, term time breaks put an extra burden on the food budget of 27 per cent of parents in the region – with 17 per cent of parents struggling to feed their children three meals a day.

Of the 39 per cent of teachers who say there are pupils in their school that do not get enough to eat over the school holidays, more than a third of staff notice children returning to class with signs of weight loss and 43 per cent have seen a noticeable difference in their readiness to learn when they return for the new term.

And 30 per cent of North East teachers think offering holiday clubs at their school would ensure that children get fed properly, while 67 per cent believe they would give the added bonus of providing children with extra learning opportunities over the summer.

Adrian Curtis is director of the Trussell Trust Foodbank Network, which has two sites in Newcastle, one in Gateshead and one in Durham.

He said: “These are sad statistics when children spend 170 days out of school compared to 190 days in the classroom.

“School holidays are especially difficult for low income families whose children usually receive free school meals or support from breakfast clubs. Many are deeply concerned about being able to feed their children over the long break, and may resort to skipping meals to feed their children.”

He added: “Last year we saw foodbank usage in August increase by over a fifth compared to the same time in June, before the holidays began, and we expect this year’s figures to reflect a similar trend.

“On top of the existing work foodbanks do to help families struggling during the holidays, we have started to partner with companies, like Kellogg’s, to pilot running holiday breakfast clubs for families whose incomes are stretched to breaking point.”

The Kellogg’s Holiday Breakfast Club programme is held in schools, community centres and foodbanks across the UK to provide food and social activities. It is part of the company’s Help Give a Child a Breakfast initiative which aims to feed 80,000 families in need every day.

Katy Luke, manager of Blyth Valley Barnardos children’s centre, said: “We are aware that many families we work with are living in poverty and holidays are expensive for them, even when meeting basic costs not to mention treats which children hope to have on holiday.

“In our centre arrange a programme of activities that are free or low cost and we give families ideas of how to entertain youngster without having to break the bank. We also offer parents help during term time on how to cook healthy family meals on a tight budget.”

Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 22 Aug 2014

North East public sector strike news – 2

SUNDERLAND –

Puplic services ground to a halt across Wearside yesterday as workers walked out in support of the strike. Schools, libraries, leisure centres, museums and other public buildings were shut.

Pickets were in place outside Sunderland Civic Centre.

John Kelly, secretary of Unite’s Sunderland City Council Branch, said: “Unite is proud to be taking part in strike action alongside our fellow trade unions.

“This is a fight for better public services, and for fair pay for those who work hard to deliver those services.

“Council workers have been targeted to bear the brunt of the austerity measures that have been imposed by millionaire cabinet ministers since 2010. Unite fully understand that Labour-run councils like Sunderland City Council are the scapegoats when implementing this Coalition Government’s austerity measures.

“Local government workers and the communities they deliver services to believe that local government workers should have fair pay, not poverty pay.”

Source – Sunderland Echo, 11 July 2014

SOUTH TYNESIDE –

There were pickets outside South Shields Town Hall, the town’s Middlefields refuse depot and at the JobCentre in Chapter Row, and more than half of schools in the borough closed for the day.

All the borough’s libraries were also shut, and all council refuse collections were cancelled, and the crematorium on John Reid Road, South Shields, closed for the day.

Despite the widespread disruption, Merv Butler, branch secretary of Unison South Tyneside, believes the public remain generally supportive of the action – and the reasons behind it.

Horn-beeping motorists expressed support for the dozen or so trade unionists gathered outside the town’s hall’s Beach Road entrance yesterday and, also on hand to show his support was Labour councillor Ernest Gibson, Mayor of South Tyneside last year.

There were pickets from the National Union of Teachers (NUT) at Harton Technology College in South Shields.

The school was closed to pupils, although members of other teaching unions and non-union staff did go into work.

COUNTY DURHAM –

Striking workers picketed outside council offices, job centres, tax offices and courts across County Durham and North Yorkshire.

Workers from government agencies including the Student Loans Company in Darlington, the Passport Office in Durham City and the HM Revenue & Customs offices in Thornaby took part in the industrial action.

In County Durham, more than 130 schools closed for the day, although only a handful of Darlington’s schools shut.

Twenty North Yorkshire schools closed and a further 50 suffered disruption.

On Teesside about 35 schools in Stockton were closed or partially-closed.

A survey commission by Unite on the eve of the strike found that 50 per cent of people in the North of England agreed that the local government workers’ call for an £1 per-hour pay rise was justified.

The poll confirms that people across the North support workers who are fighting to end poverty pay in our local councils,” said Mike Routledge, Unite local government officer for the North-East.

Source – Northern Echo, 10 July 2014

HARTLEPOOL –

Picket lines could be seen around the town with the most prominent outside of the Civic Centre, in Victoria Road, Hartlepool.

Other’s took place outside Hartlepool Borough Council-run buildings in Church Street, and also in Wesley Square, outside the Jobcentre.

Councillor Stephen Thomas, Labour representative for the De Bruce ward, was also on the picket line to offer his support.

Coun Thomas, who works for Health Watch Hartlepool but took the day off to take part in the action, said: “I’m here to basically show my support to the strikers because I think that the way the Government is treating government sector workers is absolutely appalling.

“The one per cent pay rise they’ve had in the last four years equates to a 14 per cent cut in real terms.”

Teachers were also included in the strike with a number of Hartlepool schools closed for the day.

The Fire Brigade Union (FBU) also joined forces in the strike action, with crews from Cleveland Fire Brigade’s Stranton Fire Station forming a protest.

Brian Gibson, the FBU chairman for Cleveland, said: “The action we took part in is particularly important because all the unions have got together to show our strength of feeling at getting one per cent pay rises. The FBU’s argument is also with the Government over pensions.”

He added: “We’ve had great public support, all we’ve had is support.

“We’re so pleased.”

Source – Hartlepool Mail, 11 July 2014

MIDDLESBROUGH –

Outside Middlesbrough Town Hall this morning, many office workers arriving for work crossed the picket lines.

Dawn Nicholson, Unison Area Organiser said: “It’s going well.

“Some people are crossing the picket lines but a lot of them are employed by Mouchel.

“Mouchel workers haven’t been balloted and can’t strike but many have signed our petition.”

However as one woman made her way into work she answered calls for her to strike saying: “People are still need to make a living.

GMB union, shop steward, Brian Foulger, said: “We’re quite surprised by how many people, even management, have gone out on strike.

“Since 2010, local government have been putting money away for a rainy day. Well, it’s pouring down.”

Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 10 July 2014

North East public sector strike news – 1

Thousands of public sector workers went on strike in a bitter disagreement over pay and pensions, as part of the biggest day of industrial action seen in the country for years.

More than 400 schools in the region were fully or partially closed as teachers downed tools during the walk out.

Joining them were home helps, lollipop men and women, refuse collectors, librarians, dinner ladies, parks attendants, council road safety officers, caretakers and cleaners, as well as firefighters, civil servants and transport workers.

Picket lines were mounted outside schools, council offices, Jobcentres, fire stations and Parliament in outpourings of anger over the coalition’s public sector policies.

Nationally, around 1m workers took part in the 24-hour strike, which unions claimed was one of the biggest in the country in years.

The Cabinet Office blamed union leaders for “irresponsible” strikes.

A spokesman claimed most public sector workers had reported for work and “nearly all key public services were being delivered as usual”.

The biggest issue in dispute is pay, after ministers froze public sector salaries in 2010 and introduced a 1% cap on pay rises in 2012 which remains in place.

Thousands joined a march through Newcastle City Centre campaigning against cuts, changes to pensions, pay and work conditions.

Chants of “they say cut back, we say fight back” could be heard as the crowd of teachers, firefighters, health workers, council staff and civil servants led the procession from outside City Pool, near the Civic Centre, as part of the one-day walk-out with teachers also highlighting concerns over children’s education and firefighters raising their fears that cuts risk lives.

Among those lending their support was Blaydon MP Dave Anderson who said: “It’s a really good turn-out. I’m impressed and spirits are really high.

These people do a tremendous job day in day out and we are not looking after them properly. It’s time we did.

“It’s time we said enough is enough. They are at the end of their tether and a cry for help.”

The procession of workers, carrying banners and placards and flanked by mounted police, headed towards Northumberland Street then through the throng of shoppers onto New Bridge Street for speeches on the blue carpet area outside Laing Art Gallery.

Most were delighted at the turnout.

Shirley Ford, 50, an administrative assistant at Marine Park Primary School in South Shields, said: “I was also on the picket line in South Shields this morning and when you’re in a small school it’s hard to sense how everyone else is feeling so this is great to see – and the sun has come out!”

Andy Nobel, executive member for the FBU in North East which is the middle of its own industrial action following the loss of 300 firefighter posts and station closures in the wake of the Government’s austerity measures, said: “Public support during our whole dispute has been fantastic.

“When they’ve heard our arguments there hasn’t been a great deal, if any, adverse public reaction.”

A further eight days of action is expected to be announced.

One firefighter, who did not want to be named, said the chief concern of colleagues was pensions not pay.

Meanwhile, teacher Tony Dowling, 57, the members’ secretary for Gateshead NUT, said: “The main reason is the pension and pay but I’m really on strike because I care about the education of the children.

“Michael Grove is making the jobs of teachers impossible and ruining children’s education.”

Cheers greeted the speakers at the rally who included Nicky Ramanandi, Unison’s deputy regional convenor for public services alliance, who called the national turn-out “the second biggest turn of action since the end of the Second World War”.

Gordon Thompson, a councillor from Newsham ward in Blyth Valley, known for his refusal to pay his Poll Tax, was among the supporters at the rally and stressed the importance of making a stand.

And a familiar face lending his support was local actor Joe Caffrey, accompanying his father, retired Unison member Joe Caffrey senior, who was standing up for service providers whose pensions are taking a hit.

The 69-year-old from Whitley Bay said: “I’ve got a pension but I’m here for the people still working, particularly the young people.

Picket lines were also formed outside some of the region’s schools and council offices, including Newcastle’s Civic Centre and the Department for Work and Pensions, in Longbenton.

Newcastle’s Grainger Market was closed to the public for the first time in two years because of the industrial action.

Reports suggest there was around 5,000 people at today’s march.

Source –  Newcastle Journal,  10 July 2014

Teachers ‘make lessons dull’ to keep Ofsted inspectors happy, claim Sunderland researchers

Teachers are making their lessons dull on purpose to impress Ofsted inspectors, claim Wearside researchers.

 A report from the University of Sunderland claims teachers have to make their lessons dull and mechanical during Ofsted inspections in an attempt to be judged outstanding.

Instead of making the lessons enjoyable and creative, the report claims teachers are constrained and the push for conformity is hindering progress in deprived schools.

The report, ‘Supporting outstanding pupil progress in schools in an area of social and economic deprivation, focused on a cluster of schools in disadvantaged areas and what behaviours make an outstanding teacher, contributing to outstanding student progress.

Ofsted is a key barrier for students to learn because of its insistence on having objectives at the start of the lesson, which does not always work with each student, the report reveals.

It adds that creativity should be harnessed and encouraged in learning, as well as making it more personalised.

The report states: “The push for conformity can hinder progress. More risk is needed at times, more ‘off-the-wall’ activities and more enjoyment.

“Doing things the ‘Ofsted’ way, you can sometimes lose sight of the love of learning.”

Several staff interviewed said that always having the objectives at the start of the lesson goes against ideas of discovery and student-centred learning and can make lessons dull and mechanical.

The report said the Pupil Premium is inadequate to counter disadvantages, and decisions about educational policy are made, for the most part, by very rich and privileged people who have never understood such levels of deprivation.

Researchers concluded that in disadvantaged areas, learning needs to be more personalised and students need more motivation.

Professor Bridget Cooper, director of the Centre for Pedagogy at the University of Sunderland, who led the report, said: “It is obvious from this report that schools in socially and economically deprived areas need more generous and more appropriate funding.

“Those in power need to understand and take into account the effort teachers in those schools have to make to counteract the multiplicity of needs of their students for their entire school lives.

“It is completely unfair and irrelevant to compare these schools, teachers and children throughout their academic life unfavourably with schools which do not have to meet such great need as the teachers have to work even harder.”

Source –  Sunderland Echo,  03 July 2014

Shocking new statistics reveal thousands of children taught in oversized classes

The number of infants being taught in over-sized classes of more than 30 pupils has shot up across the North East, it has emerged.

New statistics reveal that more than 3,000 five to seven-year-olds in the region are now being taught in classes above the legal limit.

And that’s more than double the figure in 2010, when the current government came to power.

Officially, a limit on class sizes introduced by the previous government is still in force. It means there should be no more than 30 youngsters in a class.

However, rules requiring head teachers to act if classes were too large by recruiting more teachers were relaxed in 2012.

Figures published by the Department for Education show that 3,035 infants in the North East were taught in classes larger than 30 in January this year compared to 1,230 in January 2010. That is an increase of 147%.

In Gateshead, the number of pupils in super-sized classes is 312, more than triple the figure in 2010.

In Sunderland, the number increased hugely from 31 pupils to 469, while in Newcastle, it went from 318 to 596, and in Northumberland from 93 to 125.

There are some cases where schools are allowed to ignore the size limit, for example if a parent wins an appeal for a place and this pushes the numbers above 30.

Pat Glass, MP for North West Durham and member of the Education Select Committee said: “These figures show just how out of touch the Government’s priorities are when it comes to education. Across the North East region we are seeing infant class sizes rise.

“Under the Tories we’re heading back to the bad old days in schools with children taught in overcrowded classes is school buildings starved of investment.

“Instead of improving the standard of our schools David Cameron and Michael Gove are wasting resources on pet projects such setting up new Free Schools.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “The average infant class size is up only marginally, from 27.3 to 27.4. However we recognise the significant pressure on school places as a result of demographic trends over the last decade.

“That is why we are giving local authorities £5bn to spend on new school places over this parliament – double the amount allocated by the previous government over an equivalent period.

“This funding has already led to the creation of 260,000 new school places, all of which are in areas where there is a shortage of places, and many more new places are planned.

“In addition to this we are setting up free schools, which tend to be smaller schools and have smaller class sizes. The vast majority of free schools are being set up where there is a need for new places.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said: “The rise in class sizes demonstrates the lack of forward planning on pupil numbers.”

Source –  Newcastle Joornal,  13 June 2014

South Shields MP seeks High Street debate in Parliament

South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck is hoping to spark a debate in Parliament on the state of UK high streets – after admitting the decline of the town’s main shopping thoroughfare “breaks my heart”.

 The MP has become alarmed at the number of retail outlets closing in King Street over recent months.

The decision by  Marks and Spencer to exit the town after 80 years was a particular body blow.

However, other retailers have left or are about to leave, including Mothercare, Thorntons, Internacionale and Greggs restaurant.

Mrs Lewell-Buck said: “I’m looking in the very near future either to get a debate in Parliament, or if not, write to communities secretary Eric Pickles, about what the Government intends to do to support our high streets.

“It’s really sad that we have got shops leaving King Street. People automatically say ‘oh, it’s the council’s fault’, but the council does not set business rates and they don’t own those buildings.

“It’s the Government that sets business rates and Labour’s got plans to cut and freeze business rates, and for an energy price freeze to help small business.

“I don’t understand why the Government won’t implement those things because it would actually see a revival of our high streets. I was in King Street recently and it was really sad to see. I used to go there when I was a kid. Each time I see  that another shop is closing, it breaks my heart. I think the Government needs to do something about this. They can’t just sit on their laurels.

“Of course, it’s not something which is particular to South Shields, it is happening across the country. I’m going to try and get a debate in Parliament.

“If I can’t get that I will at least write to Eric Pickles and I will give the Gazette a copy of his response, so people can see that I’m at least trying to do something.”

Town Hall bosses have no control on either the setting of rents in the street or on rate levels, which are set by central Government and merely collected locally by the council.

A council spokesman told the Gazette recently that business rates are a “major bone of contention” – but explained that they are set by Government, not the council.

South Tyneside gets to keep 50 per cent of the business rates it collects in the borough, with the other 50 per cent going into a central Government pot.

Out of that, a proportion is redistributed to the council to recognise the local authority’s financial needs.

The last revaluation of properties for rating purposes was carried out in 2008, the next being proposed for 2017.

The council itself pays business rates for its offices, schools, day centres and all other buildings it occupies, in exactly the same way as other private sector occupiers.

Source – Shields Gazette  30 April 2014