Wednesday, 4 March 2015

An Evening's Consulation - Part 2

Here is a continuation of my notes with afterthoughts, on the meeting with Ministers “drop in session” at Communicare on Monday night.

When I met Rod Bryans, the Education Minister, I had my local Parish magazine hat on first. Now one of the key matters in St Brelade has to be Les Quennevais School, which is known to be overcrowded, and will faced increasing pressure in the future.

For a start, there is a baby bulge coming up through Primary Schools, which had been noted by his predecessor, Patrick Ryan, and secondly, more developments taking place even now in St Brelade mean the number of children will also increase because of what might be called “Parish immigration”.

As I mentioned before, a really useful statistical exercise would be to link inward migration, even within the Island between Parishes, and education provision. If we have 30 families coming in, how many will have school age children, and going by past statistics (useful if someone had compiled any) what proportion might be expected to take up places in States schools in the catchment area, and what proportion might ease that by going to the private sector?

This is the kind of look-through thinking which seems absent from debates on population, but good, solid statistics, are the foundation stone for good planning. With education, the claim that we need extra immigration to pay for schooling is not viable unless we can understand how much of an impact that will have on an already overstretched school system.

Anyway, my main questions on Les Quennevais School were – where is it going to be built? When is it going to be built? And, given the constraints on States spending, how is this going to be funded?

I mentioned that the project had rather stalled under the previous Minister, Patrick Ryan, but Rod assured me that it had not and in fact it was progressing well.

Property Holdings are providing a feasibility study which should be out within a week, and following this there would be a public consultation on the options at Communicare, a vote in the States, and the development of the option chosen, which should take between 2 – 3 years to complete.

It is good to have a timetable, because the Parish magazine, La Baguette, actually had an email from Patrick Ryan on the subject of Les Quennevais School back in 2012.

His email, which appeared in the magazine with his permission, and is public domain said:

“I can confirm that I am not proposing to relocate the school to the sports ground. I will, however, be taking a fresh look at the last feasibility study, which dates from 2002 and contained options for refurbishing and extending the existing building. The States set aside £7.7 million for that work to start in 2016.”

“It is now ten years since the feasibility study was carried out so it makes sense to revisit it in the light of changes that have taken place over the past decade. Les Quennevais was originally built for a maximum of 500 pupils. The facilities have been extended over the years and the school now has about 780 students but the site footprint remains the same. Pupil numbers are kept under review and future predictions are used to inform our planning.”

“We need to ask whether it would now be better and more cost-effective to completely rebuild the school. This would be a major decision and would require extra funding.”

“There are other important questions too, including what will happen to the branch library and the old site if the school were to move. It's currently too soon to provide the answers but I can assure you that St. Brelade parishioners will be among the first to know. Please watch this space”

Well, the people of St Brelade have been watching that space from June 2012, and if that is not some degree of stalling, I will eat my hat.

On 16 December 2013, Patrick Ryan told BBC Radio Jersey:

“The school was built in the 1960s for 450 pupils; it now has almost 900 and has been described as overcrowded and outdated. The favoured site is near Jersey Airport on what is currently privately-owned farmland. I must stress that the project is at an extremely early stage and we have a long way to go before we are even in a position to confirm that this is the right site.”

Now it looks hopeful that the early stage has finally passed, and the delays under Patrick Ryan – I’d personally still think of it as stalling – are over. It’s as well because the number of students in 2012 was 780, and by December 2013 was around 900.

Rod Bryans gives me more confidence than Patrick Ryan, and more open to set out a time table, whereas Patrick Ryan seemed to have had the scriptwriters for Jim Hacker (of Yes Minister fame) write his speeches.

Rod also praised Les Quennevais staff and the head teacher for coming up with innovative ways of dealing with the problem, and told me that sometimes a bit of pressure can be a good thing because it forces us to look more closely I’d concur with that, and think that Les Quennevais is doing a good job. But might they not be able to do a better job if the staff had more time to think ahead, and less to cope with planning for overcrowding?

Regarding thinking ahead, he thought that possibly more should be done to encourage learning of languages like Chinese, looking to the overseas market. On the subject of Highlands, he noted that the new principal had expanded the number of degree courses which could be taken locally.

I mentioned, as it seemed a good time to do so, that this academic year the accountancy degree course 2nd year was dropped for lack of numbers, and take up on the Financial Services degree was not brilliant, perhaps around 15. I asked how we could address the problem of needing immigration for the finance sector if we could not train enough people locally?

He said that we couldn’t force people to take up degree courses, which is of course true, but we can make it more attractive and visible as a career path, and less costly that an overseas degree, where people may well not return to Jersey and seek more lucrative jobs elsewhere. But apparently, perhaps following Mark Boleat’s comments on the matter, local Jersey businesses are getting more involved in the careers path in schools, which may help.

He also intimated that he didn’t see the financial sector as the future, but possibly a declining industry and thought the future would come more from other sectors such as IT. I don’t wholly share his confidence, because it all depends, as C.E.M. Joad was wont to say, what you mean by IT. A lot of the local IT course are very good on hardware and software, and the local market in those skills may actually be near saturation point.

However, while the courses cover programming, it is not a major part of the course, and yet if there is a room for an expanding market, it is there rather than other IT skills that there is, I think, better opportunities for growth. The recent initiatives in Schools regarding coding are a good start, but there is definitely a gap in that market.

I’d also like to know, but forgot to ask, how well courses take up matches the opportunities in the local market. There may be a high take up in media studies, for example, but what opportunities are there to use those skills locally? Over saturation of the market will not help unemployment.

On this he mentioned was again a point also made by Mark Boleat, that the finance sector were also interested in people with “soft skills”, and that these are transferable.

Soft skills, for those who don’t know, are skills such as communication, initiative, interacting with customers and team working. I’d leave out “emotional intelligence” which is often included in the list, as quite frankly it has about as much scientific substance as the Rorschach inkblot test.

But “soft skills” can and must go hand in hand with hard skills as well, with expertise in the job. While I accept that “soft skills” are important, I do wonder if they have been given a prominence rather greater than they deserve. They assume different degrees of importance depending on the kind of work someone is doing.

This is well stated by Nidhi Bhatnagar, Human Resources, Fidelity Info Services who said:

"It is always important to be really good at soft skills. However, the weightage of this parameter actually depends on the role that one is appearing for. For instance if one has appeared for a HR job, soft skills will be given high weightage along with the other prerequisites, lack of soft skills might even result in elimination/rejection, since a HR professional needs to cater to the aspirations and emotions of human capital, it is important that one has excellent soft skills.”

“On the other hand, if one applies for a sales job, soft skills need to be modified in a way where the person is able to crack a deal, the conviction required over there will be slightly different, the weightage of soft skills parameter might differ/might be less as well, however it will carry its due importance".

In fact, the best way of getting “soft skills” is the work placement that forms part of local degrees, but often not part of UK degree courses. Not only does it help acclimatise the student to the workplace far better than the few weeks of Trident (good though that is), it also helps them learn to interact with other people and get used to the work environment before getting a job. Soft skills are sometimes best learned on the job and work placements provide excellent training for this, which is probably why the number of local degree students in finance related courses do manage to get jobs locally in the industry.

One thing which also cropped up with my talk with Rod was a question I had about recruitment and training of local nurses. He told me that there was excellent work being done locally, and I asked why this was not more prominent and visible, because I keep my eyes and ears open, and I had not seen much evidence of this.

In fact, looking further in depth, I can see that it has been happening

In October 2013, there was a press release that “The Pre-Registration Nursing Programme in the adult field of nursing is provided on the Island by the University of Chester and has been endorsed by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).”

In April 2013, a press release noted that: “Around 80 pupils from Island schools will be finding out about a new university-standard nursing degree which they could be able to study without leaving Jersey.”

And Julie Mesney noted that: “HSSD hope to offer 15 students the opportunity to access the three-year adult field of nursing degree programme with smaller numbers of students being able to access the mental health field of nursing programme from September 2014.”

And on 7 November 2014, the press release noted that:

“Two open days will take place later this month to allow potential applicants to find out more prior to the 2015 intake of student nurses, who will begin their training next September and are guaranteed jobs once they have graduated. The 2015 intake will be the third successive group to embark on a degree course in Adult Nursing. Both the practical and academic elements of this course are delivered on the Island.”

So apologies now to Rod Bryans for myself not noticing these releases, and I am pleased to see that this has taken place.

This is an excellent degree course because it is addressing an urgent gap in Jersey’s job market, and also by training local nurses, it means less of an impact by immigration.

But I do notice (by way of mitigation) that apart from one report on the BBC local news website in 2014, and one in 2015 in the Jersey Evening Post, all the information I have gleaned has been from, and I do hope that there is wider coverage of this fantastic opportunity – surely a local success story – in the future.

Rod intimated that I may be able to get some more information about the course from Julie Mesney which I could put on my blog, and I will certainly be following this up. Anything which could help address nursing shortages is good.

The question I forgot to ask, of course, but only thought afterwards: given the projected shortage of local doctors, will any degree courses be set up so that doctors can train at least in part locally?

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