Archive for November, 2019

The Annual CCN Conference, and our hard-working highways engineers.

Monday, November 25th, 2019

Last week the Council Leader, Philip Atkins, a number of Cabinet members and myself attended the annual County Councils Network Conference.  With the General Election campaign ongoing, there were no leading national politicians there, but that gave us the chance to concentrate on the issues that face all county councils across England.  There were excellent sessions about children’s services, the challenges of improving adult social care, and many others.  I find this probably the most useful of the few conferences which I normally attend, as it is more focussed than those which cover the whole local government sector.  We are all doing the same things in different places, and as a result there is much learning to be had.  One thing that was noticeable was that, despite the uncertainty of Brexit and the outcome of the General Election, morale was robust.

With this very wet autumn, which is such a contrast to last year’s 5 month summer drought and dry winter, spare a thought for our highways crews who are working across the county to keep traffic moving.  One aspect that has struck me is that our work in mapping and analysing the drainage system appears to be paying off.  About four years ago, we didn’t know how many drains (gulleys in the highways vernacular) we had and where they were.  We do now – we have 148,000 of them across the 6,400km of roads in the county.  Having done that piece of work, which was an accomplishment in itself, our highways engineers then worked out which ones need cleaning more often than others. Like so many things in life, putting in the effort up front before the emergency reduces the effort required to recover from the emergency.  And so it has been with the recent flooding.  The system relies on Severn Trent Water’s mains drains and the Environment Agency’s stewardship of our rivers, but the water has abated more quickly in known flooding areas on our roads than it has done previously.  We will need to keep an eye on the pattern of rainfall as the climate changes, to work out whether the overall system is capable of dealing with it, so there’s no room for complacency, but so far, so good.      

An outstanding college, and a chance to complete the Digital Skills Survey

Monday, November 18th, 2019

We heard this week that Newcastle and Stafford College Group (NSCG) have become the first Further Education (FE) college in England to be judged “Outstanding” across all areas by OFSTED.  This is a major achievement, only 3 years after the amalgamation of Newcastle and Stafford Colleges.  The offer of high quality academic and vocational education and training is key to improving the prosperity of individual residents and Staffordshire’s economy.  The Local Industrial Strategy, which is in its final stages of drafting, makes great play of providing more, highly paid and highly skilled jobs.  NSCG are very much playing their part, and we are very fortunate to have them in the county. 

Talking of skills, we have a Digital Skills survey that is now live to support a Learning and Development offer. The survey is open to the whole workforce, to gain an insight into the current digital skills level of our workforce when using technology and software. The results of the survey, which closes on 27 November, will help us identify a suitable and targeted learning offer to help develop our colleagues.  The links for the Leadership Teams and the  Wider Workforce will take you straight there.  Please take a little time to complete it – it will help us to focus our efforts in this vital area.

It has been pointed out to me that I omitted a specific mention of children with disabilities in my piece in last week’s blog entry on SEND.  Clearly, providing the right support for children with disabilities, with the aim of enabling them to live as independent lives as possible, is our focus in this vital area.  As with those with Special Educational Needs, the focus of our efforts is to allow them to be educated in mainstream settings with the appropriate support, which benefits not only the children with disabilities, but also wider society through greater inclusion.  I am happy to correct the omission. 

Remembrance and SEN

Monday, November 11th, 2019

Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith of the A Team in the 1980s’ TV series had the catchphrase of “I love it when a plan comes together”, and I did feel that way after an excellent discussion with Julie Day, our newly appointed lead for Vulnerable Learners, and attending the Special Educational Needs (SEN) Hub for South Staffordshire on Friday morning.  I’ve long believed that the role of the senior leader is to create the conditions in which good people can achieve their greatest potential; with SEN, it’s taken some time, but it does feel that that is now happening.  The SEN Hub is one of the key elements of the Local Offer, and it is worth describing.  The Head Teachers of the district’s mainstream and special schools meet on a monthly basis to discuss cases of children with SEN – in this case about 20 children were discussed in detail.  Also in the meeting are County Council SEN specialists and representatives of the children’s services.  What struck me was the open and engaged nature of the discussions, with all parties offering advice and suggestions of different approaches and therapies to get the right solutions for some children with very challenging conditions and behaviours.  The patience and resolve of all involved was inspirational.   I passionately believe that the best solution is for as many children with SEN to be educated in mainstream settings with the appropriate support to ensure that they live as independent lives as possible.  As we roll out the Local Offer across the rest of the county, it will adapt to the local conditions, but it certainly looks like the right solution to a very complex set of issues. 

I am writing this on Remembrance Sunday before attending a service in Stafford; tomorrow I will lay a wreath in Chadsmoor in Cannock at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 101 years after the end of the First World War.  It is remarkable and humbling, as a veteran, that the country makes such an effort to remember the service of our Armed Forces.  We often focus on those who died, and sometimes we focus on those who bear the mental and physical scars of their service, but I would ask you to consider all of those who have served our country in your everyday activities.  We are just ordinary people, who joined whichever branch, regiment or corps of our service, and we return as civilians to the communities that we left.  I count myself as enormously fortunate to have moved into a challenging and rewarding job, but not everybody is so lucky.  It is a reality that the Armed Forces in the UK are dearly loved, but not very well understood; the preconceptions often get in the way of veterans establishing second careers.  I would ask that, if you are ever hiring somebody, take a little time to understand a veteran’s experience and potential.  The chances are that he or she is just like you, but with a slightly different set of education, training and experience, and it might be that their potential will add real value to your team.         

The New Parent Mentoring Scheme and Vision for Staffordshire

Monday, November 4th, 2019

I’m always heartened by colleagues who take matters into their own hands and come up with solutions – it reminds me of the calibre and energy of our people. I spent some time recently with 5 members of the New Parent Mentoring Scheme, an initiative to assist colleagues who are becoming parents for the first time. The group is made up of people who have recently returned to work themselves from maternity and paternity leave, and who are keen to offer support to those going through the same process.  They focus on providing practical and emotional advice and guidance, providing a “buddy” from prior to the birth through to the return to work.  Some of what they have identified is practical, such as our ICT policies which lock accounts out which have not been active for a number of weeks, but a lot of it is about supporting people who are juggling work and parenthood for the first time. I was enormously impressed with the enthusiasm of the group, and I envisage that it will grow in strength, not only in the practical aspects of supporting colleagues, but also in formulating policy which fits with our People Strategy of retaining, developing and recruiting quality people. 

Also this week we had the high level meeting of the Vision for Staffordshire group, attracting senior leaders from across the public and private sectors.  The three areas that we are focussing on are: Smart Staffordshire, in which we are looking to retain the lead that we have built in superfast broadband into the next generations of 5G mobile phones and fibre broadband; a Data Institute in which we are looking to maximise the sharing of data across the public sector to the benefit of Staffordshire’s residents: and Place Branding, an effort to produce a coherent and compelling brand for Staffordshire with due consideration of our history, but focussing on the county that we want to be in the future. It’s a fascinating set of programmes, and it is clear that the County Council sits at the centre, as the organisation with the reach and the mandate to provide the necessary leadership and effort.

Lastly this week, we had a slightly longer Digital Programme Board in which we conducted an audit into the many digital projects that are running across the County Council. We have deliberately allowed colleagues the freedom to run with projects to make best use of the intelligence and enthusiasm in the organisation, and it was heartening to see how much is going on – over 50 separate projects. The other key finding was that there is remarkably little overlap and duplication, which is always a risk with this approach; it appears that we are much better at working across barriers than sometimes we give ourselves credit for. Watch out for the introduction of a chatbot to assist us in taking Smart Working to a higher level – we’re closer than I had hoped.