The issue produced by far the largest ever number of entries, 514, on a Medway Messenger blog although this was just one of several of their blogs highlighting different aspects of the problems. Parental anger was fanned by the chronic mishandling of the responses by Medway Council, which at one of the centres, Rainham School for Girls, attempted to put the blame falsely, onto parents and at Chatham Grammar School for Boys pretended there had been no significant problem. These conclusions were based on a Briefing drawn up three days after the Tests, to brief Medway Officers and Councillors. Mr Les Wicks, the then Cabinet Member of Children’s Services, promised a thorough investigation of the problems, which produced a one page superficial document adding nothing to the original Briefing (so what did he investigate?), but mainly focused as so many official enquiries do, into what should happen to avoid the problems in the future. Oddly, Mr Wicks’ Investigation Report has now vanished from Medway Council’s website.
I had been approached by many parents, angry not only be the Council’s mismanagement, but also their attempts to falsely blame then for the problems at Rainham School for Girls, the refusal to acknowledge what had happed at Chatham Grammar and the dismissive approach to their complaints to the council. This anger has translated into a complete lack of confidence in a Council that boasts it is “Serving You”.
I put in a Freedom of Information Request on 22 October 2011 to see the council’s documentation, which was initially refused on 2 March 2012 after unacceptable delays including one where the different departments each “thought the other was dealing with the request”, and a drawn out internal review of my request. I have reached this position before with Medway Council and decided that life was too short to pursue it further but on this occasion, given the level of anger from parents, decided to continue my pursuit through the Information Commissioner. This proved a slow process itself, compounded by further delaying tactics by Medway Council, possibly in the hope that by the time I had go the end, the story would be history (I suspect it is, especially now Councillor Wicks has lost his Cabinet role).
On 19 March 2013 I received a decision from the Information Commissioner which told me that I was not entitled to see emails between officers and councillors. However, it had earlier conceded that I should see reports of the moderators at the test centres, and now instructed Medway Council to release their Briefing to Councillors which had been issued immediately after the test.
These documents shed new light on the calamity and confirms that important information was not reproduced (was it ever considered?) in Councillor Wicks’ thorough investigation.
For me the most significant new evidence comes from the reports of moderators who visited each test to check all was well.
Chatham Grammar School Centre (run by the Council not the school)
At this Centre, Medway Council, whilst accepting that a piece of paper had been initially left out of those issued to candidates, denied it was important, claimed that staff noticed it during the briefing and that the re-test started some ten minutes late. This is untrue. The Moderator’s report states unambiguously that the Test started 24 minutes late. Medway Council then claimed that no breaks were cut short and no papers were given short time, with the test finishing about 10 minutes late. So where did the missing 14 minutes get made up? We are not told. Amongst other allegations made by parents which have been summarily dismissed by Medway Council was that the missing answer paper was not noticed by staff but by an examinee who put his hand up to report this after the start of the test (although Mr Wick’s thorough investigation does not appear to have extended to questioning him); that breaks were cut short; that children were given reduced time for this test. Some or all of these are surely true if the missing 14 minutes are to be explained.
Whatever, all this palls behind the underlying reason for the problem as identified by the Moderator, which was that there was no Administrator at the Centre, as required by Medway’s own rules. Why was this not mentioned in any of Medway’s many attempts to explain away the problem? One of the Administrator’s main functions is to deal with the paperwork relating to the Medway Test and it is surely obvious that it was his absence that led to the problems. Interestingly, the Test Day Report by the Invigilator which has a section “were there any issues during the registration period” has a phrase at the end which is clearly added later: “throught (sic) this the children were very calm”. A room full of 10 year old children very calm for 24 minutes after a major cock up. Amazing and certainly contradicted by parents reports to me!
I have been sent several illustrative complaints and responses. One states: “....took the test at Chatham Grammar School for Boys. He went into his exam at 08.30 very confident and looking forward to taking his 11 plus. I collected him at 13:14 and he wasn’t the boy that went in. After receiving information, I now know why. The very first paper to be sat by the students was to be the English paper, which had been given out and started. After several minutes .... raised his hand as he had been told to do, as to not distract others if he had a problem, to explain to the invigilator that he did not know what to do The response he was given was to open his booklet and read it!! His comment was to appreciated by the invigilator.....so he decided to ask again, by this time other students were raising their hands, she then took notice..... was left deflated”.
Oddly, the moderator who confirmed that the test started 24 minutes late, prepared the briefing paper three days later stating the paper started only 10-15 minutes late.
Rainham School for Girls
Medway Council has conceded that its initial explanation of what went wrong at this centre, an even bigger disaster, was false. Here the moderator, employed by Medway Council to make sure that the process was being conducted properly turned up at 9.15 and left at 9.40 a.m. before the Test was started, so no chance of seeing if procedures were operating correctly! His description of some of the major faults he identified before departing: the registration area was too small (not mentioned in the Briefing); the organisation of children into classrooms tied up the 8 staff so there were only two left for registration – he noted there were too few staff allocated (not mentioned in the Briefing); he saw that registration labels which had to be issued to candidates were not in order – this is far more important than it sounds, as just two staff trying to find a label for each child in a large box took an inordinate amount of time and was a major cause of the delays, as recorded by parents (not mentioned in the Briefing); by 9.40 he had noticed that the shortage of toilets meant it took FAR TOO LONG for children to visit toilet -according to the Briefing, the toilet shortage only became apparent during the day -not true.
Surely if the moderator could see there was a shortage of staff he had the authority to contact Medway Council and arrange for more staff to be sent in in an emergency.
To cap it all, the Information Commissioner has recorded a breach of Section 10(1) of the Freedom of Information Act because of the delays in providing information. An investigation by the Medway Messenger which shows that I am just one of many people making requests who have been similarly treated. Indeed I have even had to complain subsequent to thiscase of failure to provide information (request sent to wrong department by Council). The Medway Messenger article explains that the Information Commissioner has a minimum standard of 85% of FOI requests responded to within the time limit of 20 working days. Medway Council is only achieving 52%. Even more remarkably, Medway Council took 104 days to respond with a standard rejection letter to the Messenger's request for information on FOIs, although the Council also claim that its longest reply had taken 49 days! The latter of course was my own initial request for the above information, which was only answered with a rejection letter after I pressed them for a response.
If you have troubled to read this to the end, I thank you. A previous news item on delays in FOI requests was headed "Medway Council - Serving You" and began: "It is my belief that Medway Council is trying to hush up a number of unpalatable facts about its appalling management of the scandal. As a result,I sent in a Freedom of Information Request in November to try and ascertain the truth". This article describes the early tribulations of my attempt to find out the information. Another is headed “What Can I do about Medway Council - A Remarkable Coincidence”. Perhaps the question should read “What can anyone do about a Medway Council that shows such contempt for its residents?”.