School places: A primary and secondary concern

NATIONAL OFFER DAY: Secondary School decision is an important milestone for every child 

YESTERDAY was an important day for thousands of parents and children across Oldham.

‘National Offer Day’, as it is now known, is when mums and dads find out which school their child will be starting their secondary education at next September.

In our borough, like everywhere else, we’ve seen a significant increase in the numbers of school age children needing places in recent years.

We take our responsibility to ensure that each child gets a school place very seriously, but it is no easy task.

Putting aside the reality that it is never possible to grant every parent’s preference, this legal duty (as the cross-party Local Government Association has warned this week) could soon become “undeliverable” in many areas.

Significant population growth means many secondary schools are now already at or above capacity nationwide.

Last year local authorities had to provide around 2.75m secondary school places, but that is set to rise to 3.28m by 2024. These are huge numbers and pressures.

Under the Government’s rules, all new schools to help cope with this demand must be “free schools”, created outside of local authority control.

And – to be clear – we are fully committed to working with Vicky Beer, the Regional Schools Commissioner for Lancashire and West Yorkshire, to help to find good quality local sponsors for new schools in our area.

But I also agree with the LGA’s call for councils themselves to be able to open new schools, and to require academies to expand to meet local demand, where necessary.

There are now fewer and fewer schools under the direct control of councils.  It’s surely common sense that local authorities are well placed to act to ensure school places can be created on time – and in the right places. If we are to be tasked with ensuring sufficient school places we need to have more flexibility and influence in the system to have any realistic prospect of delivering that capacity.

Here in Oldham we’ve been seeing a significant increase in demand for places for some time and we have taken the necessary actions.

First, we put a better forecasting method in place looking at all available data on births, housing and new arrivals so we can plan ahead.

Secondly, we got on with an expansion programme to provide extra capacity. That includes plans to boost primary places with a new three-form entry school on the former Grange School site, plus the expansion of places in Failsworth, Hollinwood and Lees.

Last week we also saw planning approval granted for a new Saddleworth School that will increase pupil numbers from 1,350 to 1,500 – and plans are also about to go out to statutory consultation to double the capacity at Greenfield primary with a new build two-form entry school.

So, how have we done this year with the provision of secondary school places?

Out of 3,468 applications received some 2,773 (80 per cent) of applicants got their first-choice school preference and, in total, 93 per cent of all applicants got one of their first three (from six) choices.

These figures are not unusual and pretty static as a trend. The number of parents applying for certain local secondary schools as their first choice exceeds the number of pupils they can take every year.

I’ve said from the outset that the education and skills offer here in the borough is a key focus for my leadership, and every bit as vital to our future as physical regeneration.

So I was interested this week when Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools, warned Greater Manchester that the region’s poor performing secondaries could “choke” the Northern Powerhouse vision.

I do hope that this was at least a recognition that local authorities need to have a strong role in school improvement, whatever the type of school, because we actually have less influence than ever before.

This is not about councils wanting to directly control academies or free schools, we know that’s not going to happen, but it is about being able to intervene for the good of local communities when schools are not performing.

It cannot be right that all the responsibility for performance can fall upon councils without us having the appropriate powers to act.

COMMISSION: Estelle Morris chaired the OESC which delivered its vital report in January.

I welcome the calls now for discussion about us having a specific GM Schools Commissioner who would work with a Further Education Commissioner to give more focus on local need and deliver closer coordination between schools and post-16 education.

We are, of course, doing everything we can to meet the challenge of ensuring no child is without a school place in Oldham – but that’s only part of the battle.

The bigger picture is to implement the recommendations of the Oldham Education and Skills Commission report so that every child can not just get a place, but can get one at a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ local school – and have the best chance of fulfilling their full potential.


Educating Oldham: Shiny shoes, faces and hopes

WELCOME BACK: ‘Back to school’ can be a very tense time for children, parents and school staff.  

MY THOUGHTS always turn to local families at this time each year as so many of them start adjusting their lives for ‘back to school’.

With A-Level and GCSE results revealed over the summer, the focus now shifts to those thousands of school children – all kitted out in their fresh gear – who are about to join new classes and schools across the borough.

I know from personal experience that this can be a very tense time for children, parents, staff and governors alike.

That’s not just about the challenges of dealing with new changes to daily life that are getting underway – or learning new faces and building new relationships.

There’s also the very natural nagging hopes and fears that the correct choices have been made for the long-term prospects of a child and that everything will work out right.

Here in Oldham we all want the very best possible start to life for all our children and last year we recognised that there are many education issues which all parties can work on better together to ensure a brighter future.

So as those shiny new shoes are taking those first steps and those smelly new textbooks are being opened by their first readers this week, it felt like the right time to ask Estelle Morris – who is chair of the Oldham Education and Skills Commission (OESC) – to guest blog for me as the body prepares to unveil its final recommendations in October.

Over to Estelle now to explain more…

CHAIR: Estelle Morris of the Oldham Education and Skills Commission

Many families throughout Oldham will be getting ready for going ‘back to school’ right now.

For some, it will be a big change – starting school for the first time, moving to secondary school, college or university – and for others it will be returning to a familiar place.

Whatever the situation, education is one of the things that we share in common.

Every parent wants their child to do well, children dream of what they might become, adults want to update their skills, people learn because they want to know and understand more.

Although that personal commitment to learning is at the core of achievement and progress, we also need other people to help us achieve it.

That’s the importance of schools and colleges and those who work in them and why, in so many ways, the future prosperity of Oldham and its residents depends on the quality of what they deliver.

Jim McMahon, the Leader of Oldham Council, asked me to chair a commission to consider how we might improve the education system in the borough – for children and adults and for learners and teachers.

The OESC has been meeting for the last year and will present its report in the next few weeks. Our membership has included school and college leaders as well as teachers, university lecturers, business people and governors.

Oldham has some excellent schools and some outstanding teachers and many young people develop into confident adults with the qualifications they need.

However, if you compare the overall results in the town, particularly in secondary schools, they are not as good as they should be.

Making sure that more schools deliver a high standard of education has been the main focus of the commission.

We need to make it possible for schools to work together so they can learn from each other and so that we can spread the good practice that exists in the town to all our schools.

Investing in the skills of our teachers and making sure we attract and retain the best in the profession will be part of our recommendations.

However, although we all know the importance of teachers they can’t bring about the improvement we need by themselves. We have to harness the energies and skills of others in the community.

LEARNING: Estelle Morris on a fact-finding trip to Stoneleigh Academy in Derker. 

Parents are key partners. Not only are those first years before a child starts school so vital for their future education success, the support and encouragement they continue to give can make all the difference.

There are other partnerships that are also important.

The hundreds of residents who volunteer to be governors, local businesses who offer work experience, cultural institutions and sporting facilities that can work with schools to deliver a more exciting curriculum – all make a difference.

Most of all, Oldham has to believe that more of its residents can achieve at a higher level; it has to be ambitious for the town and for all its people.

One of the reasons, I was eager to take on the role of chair of the OESC is that I know that the leadership of the council shares that ambition and is determined that Oldham should have an education system that will help deliver transformation across the borough.   

All of us on the commission hope we can play a part in making this happen.      

We’re due to deliver our final recommendations next month, but if you want to find out more about the work the OESC has already been doing, then please visit our website by clicking here.

Estelle Morris
(Baroness Morris of Yardley)
Chair of the Oldham Education and Skills Commission

Thanks for listening,


Education – Raising standards and aspirations in Oldham

Oldham Education and Skills Commission launch
AIMING HIGH: Estelle Morris with Carolyn Wilkins, Chief Executive of Oldham Council, and Jim McMahon launching the new Oldham Education and Skills Commission at Stoneleigh Academy.

MONDAY WAS a big day for the borough as we launched Oldham’s new Education and Skills Commission.

Chaired by former Education Secretary Baroness Estelle Morris, the Commission will help to raise local standards and aspirations – and it is absolutely vital to our plans to secure future prosperity for Oldham and its young people.

It’s important to be clear that young people have made great progress in educational attainment across the borough over the past decade – including closing the gap on the national average in the key GCSE performance indicator.

And it’s not just the older children who are making great strides.

Attainment at Key Stage 2 for both English and maths in our primary schools has risen approximately 12 per cent over the past ten years and now either matches or outstrips the national average. This bodes well in terms of future attainment at GCSE level.

Unprecedented investment has also been made in state-of-the-art new school buildings, upgrading existing facilities and expanding to accommodate growing pupil numbers.

Over the past five years there’s been around £230m of investment in schools, much of that coming from the Building Schools for the Future programme and PFI schemes.

We’ve also seen the landscape of education change with the growing number of academies and a soon to be opened University Technical College, for example.

The role of the council in that mix has changed. Whether that’s for the better or not only time will tell, but it does require a whole new way of thinking, operating and working cooperatively.

Although we believe bricks and mortar are important, successful education is about so much more than that. It’s about leadership in schools, sixth forms and colleges and from parents and the wider community.

Flagship schemes like Junior University, Enterprise Hubs and Primary Engineer get attention for all the right reasons, but each and every day sees something wonderful happen. Often it’s the smallest thing that can set off the spark in our young people.

IMG_6732So, we are making progress, and given those advances, you could be forgiven for asking why Oldham Council and its partners are spending time and money on launching a Commission.

Well, for me the answer is simple.

A good education is the essential foundation of a fair society and – as the national education system and the regional jobs market continue to undergo great change – we must ensure we’ve got the right skills and knowledge here, plus the right benchmarks, focus and vision to inspire and enable all children to fulfil their potential.

Put simply, future success is not guaranteed and we cannot be complacent.

I’m a politician and I have a drive to ‘change’ things for the better.

I want to end predetermination. I get angry that professionals can track a child born into an Oldham household today and be able to predict what results that child will have, what experiences, what social networks, what job, illness and what age they will be when they die, and probably even the likely cause of that.

What makes me angry isn’t that the professionals dare to predict, but that history tells us they are pretty likely to be right.

And you don’t have to be a parent to feel that anger. It goes against fairness and hits at the heart of our aspirations for our borough.

Setting up this Education Commission now is about showing the leadership necessary to ensure all partners take part and buy into a process that challenges us all to look closely at our standards and delivery.

Our ultimate aim is to define a new ‘Oldham Education Standard’ that all partners will aspire to achieve so that young people can meet the challenges they will face in future years.

As well as looking at how we can help young people get better results, the Commission will focus on the economy and unemployment. It will link closely to Get Oldham Working and see how that fits with our education offer, how we can help young people move into Higher Education or prepare them for meaningful employment and the job market of the future.

By 2023 around 100,000 jobs are forecast to have been created in Greater Manchester and almost 200,000 additional jobs created in the North West over the same period. We need to give Oldham’s children the best possible chance of securing these jobs.

IMG_6790Figures also suggest that an increasing number of roles in Greater Manchester will be created at the higher and lower ends of the skills ladder, which means there will be fewer at intermediate levels. We need to ensure our young people are educated to the appropriate levels needed to make the most of these opportunities.

The Commission will submit interim findings in January 2015 before delivering a final report in June 2015.

I want to welcome and urge input from anybody who wants to get involved. To find out more about the Commission, please visit the new website at:

This is about putting in place strong foundations to build on.

If we want a better Oldham we must fight for it.

We have a good story to tell, but we can and must be better.

Thanks for listening


Back to school – Lessons learned

LOCAL ELECTIONS: It’s not just crosses in boxes that matter – it’s about listening to what people tell you.

LAST WEEK’S local elections provided plenty of food for thought – and learning points for politicians from all parties.

Every candidate will tell you the campaign is a frantic and draining period – I have been on literally hundreds of doorsteps talking to people – but it’s also absolutely vital that all politicians have listened to what they were told.

Whilst you ultimately hope to secure the votes you need, the intensity of the engagement and the experiences of an election campaign are a crucial insight into what local people are really thinking – and whether your arguments are ‘real world’, and where you must improve to serve them better.

From an Oldham Council perspective I was pleased with the end result.

The new composition of the chamber now stands at: Labour 45, Liberal Democrats 10, Conservative 2, UKIP 2 and Independent 1.

Labour won all but one of the seats that they were defending and, in fact, increased our representation by three seats.

In terms of context, our share of the popular vote was maintained at a healthy 45 per cent and the result means this is the largest Labour Group on Oldham Council since the borough was formed in 1974.

Without making party political points here – as you know, this is not the place to be doing that – I do think there were a plenty of hard facts for all to digest.

Who locally, for example, would have called that Ukip would win in Saddleworth West and Lees? That result certainly came from leftfield to all concerned – perhaps even including the victors.

That was the shock local result and there was indeed much talk nationally about the ‘earthquake’ of Ukip’s performance and its impact on the long-standing major political parties.

I personally wouldn’t see it so much as having irrevocably transformed the landscape, more as Ukip having made a breakthrough at this stage. Turnout, for example, did not significantly increase at all, so that doesn’t tally with the idea of a seismic shift that encouraged previously disenfranchised and disconnected people to go out and vote.

Much of the national campaign debate focussed around the questions of Europe and the economy and – underpinning that all, of course – the need to provide more decent jobs, housing and opportunities. These, for me, remain the key issues that all mainstream parties must now step up to address.

The Government claimed credit for falls in unemployment but the evidence in Oldham highlighted a more worrying reality that simply cannot be ignored.

Around a third of people here no longer claiming JSA (Job Seekers Allowance) are not in work at all – they have simply been shifted onto Universal Credit.

Of those which remain the evidence suggests many are in low-paid, low-skilled employment with little job security. Nationally the number of zero hour contracts has risen to more than 1.4 million. In Oldham the weekly wage has fallen to £417 a week – down from £437 – at the same time as the cost of living continues to rise.

The average working week in the UK is now just 32 hours with full-time employment reducing and more than 1.2 million people working fewer hours than they would want to. In Greater Manchester 22 per cent of workers are earning less than the living wage, which means they rely on top-up benefits just to cover the bills.  

In low-skilled and temporary work, British workers do see pressure from European workers. The ‘race to the bottom’ for cheap and accessible labour is clearly driving down employment security and wages in some companies. Put simply, more people are chasing less-secure employment.

That is a failure that everyone in politics must address because some local people here on the doorsteps  – both white and Asian – do blame economic migrants from Europe.

That might make uncomfortable reading for some – and it should. But if we fail to address the underlying driving concerns that are affecting people then those fears can be played upon by others with ulterior motives.

It’s wrong that the blame often falls on people who are simply working hard to make a better life for themselves. In my view, having a positive immigration and free movement of labour policy isn’t a failure at all – but to kneejerk towards the extreme opposite as a reaction clearly would be.

The failures needing to be addressed are about government policy and investment in public services. If jobs and decent housing were plentiful and there was genuine economic optimism across all levels of society then I suspect there would be no need to ‘blame’ anyone.

And if we funded that by a fair taxation system where everyone paid their bit into the system, the burden also wouldn’t be falling on those at the bottom end of the pay scale.

But the reality is that’s not where we are in 2014.

What we have is a situation where people frustrated by standards of housing, education, public services and low wages are tempted to look to blame someone.

A narrative about benefit culture in the national media has pitted poor people against poor people and, at the same time, some have sought to focus the anger of those trying to make ends meet against those people who are coming here to make a better life for themselves.

Make no mistake, this is a serious moment for all mainstream parties – and it will require a serious response.  

I have said all along at Oldham Council that we are not in the business of managing decline.

On a local level I’m more determined than ever to continue the hard work underway to help our local communities define for themselves the future they aspire to and deliver schemes that will bring the regeneration, inward investment, better education and housing they need and deserve.  

The challenges are legion – and the pace of work and change will be unrelenting.

It feels very much like being ‘back to school’ at my desk today and we’re here determined to remember the lessons from last term.  

Last night the finishing touches were put to our new-look Cabinet, and today I am carrying out interviews as part of the Selection Committee for our new Chief Executive.

Tough challenges lie ahead. We can not shirk from taking the tough decisions that will be needed.  

Thanks for listening,


Education: Learning to Co-operate

EDUCATION: The Oldham Co-operative Learning Partnership aims to bring everyone involved in learning, education and employment together to ensure residents are supported as they climb each rung of the ladder.
EDUCATION: The Oldham Co-operative Learning Partnership aims to bring everyone involved in learning, education and employment together to ensure residents are supported as they climb each rung of the ladder.

LAST WEEK we launched the new Cooperative Learning Partnership to an audience of more than 100 head teachers, principals and business leaders.

The aim of this initiative is simple: to have a collective responsibility between all of us for self-improvement and lifelong learning from the cradle to the grave.

At one time that would have been the responsibility of Oldham Council, but the world is moving on at a rate of knots and our ambition to ‘fix Oldham’ means we need everyone to step up and say ‘it’s my job’.

Enscribed on the foot of the statue of Failsworth born Lancashire dialect poet Ben Brierley in Queens Park, it says: “If we wanted to climb we had first to build our own ladders”.

Well, that’s exactly what we intend to do.

For once here through the Co-operative Learning Partnership we can have a true partnership of equals where everyone involved in learning, education and employment will come together to ensure that – regardless of institution or organisation – Oldham residents are supported as they climb each rung of the ladder.

For too long the system has, to be honest, promoted insular behaviour.

We judge people on attainment and exams but there is not enough recognition for where people actually end up in life.

Each organisation will look at its own ‘follow on’ rates, but when people leave them it then becomes “‘someone else’s” responsibility.

If, say 80 per cent of students leave school to go into further education, training or employment that’s good news – but then what next? What if just 70 to 80 per cent succeed from that original 80 per cent?

I think that’s partly why we have so many young people unemployed because as they pass through the system those left behind end up with nowhere else to go.

I could very easily have been one of those young people.

Careers advice in my school amounted to little more than a threat that if we didn’t pass our exams we would be destined to ‘Pandora Pickles’: the location pickle packing factory. Hardly inspiring stuff!

That is simplistic and clearly we need to ensure job and training opportunities are made available – and that we enable individuals, parents and communities to make a conscious choice about their own futures.

And it is wider than education too.

The value of hard work, being trustworthy and taking responsibility for yourself is also vital to creating a solid employment base. Coupled with higher skills the town’s offer to potential employers could be fantastic.

That’s why the link to the Oldham Business Leadership Group “Enterprise Trust” is so important here.

Already they are establishing Enterprise Hubs in schools and youth centres as well as leading the Primary Engineers programme and bringing together more than £1.2m in funds to help establish new business ventures in Oldham.

When you put this together with the fantastic Junior University, which aims to spark interest in the sciences, you can see how – by joining all those interests – we’re beginning to present more and more opportunities to young people in Oldham.

Mark my words. There’s absolutely no reason why the next world-changing invention or innovation could not come from Oldham.

It’s time to aim for the stars!

Thanks for listening,


Museum threat is threat to our future

WONDER: MOSI has an incredible capacity to inspire youngsters and expand their horizons. Can we really afford to close it?

WHEN I HEARD the news that funding changes could see Greater Manchester lose the Museum of Science and Industry I had to double-take in astonishment.

As a key part of our region’s social and educational fabric, MOSI – as it is now known – has been much more than a traditional museum.

In fact, there is very little that is traditional about it at all.

Growing up, I had found a lot of my own schooling and education experiences boring, to be honest, with one or two exceptions.

I loved art and design: perhaps, I’m a frustrated architect or town planner now, who knows? But I was also fascinated with engineering and science, in particular the solar system.

MOSI was one of two places where I felt truly engaged and inspired; the other being Jodrell Bank.

Last week we were told that the Science Museums Group which runs MOSI – together with the Bradford’s National Media Museum and York’s National Railway Museum – is citing Government cuts to its budget as the catalyst for a review that could see closures.

Government funding currently makes up around 65 per cent of the group’s funding so any cut will clearly be painful.

Here in Local Government we have become so used to funding cuts now that it is simply an accepted part of our day job (albeit the worst aspect, I should add).

So far, however, many other areas of Government funding have been left comparatively unscathed by cuts.

So you might therefore think that a Council Leader like me would say that every area of Government funding should share the pain. But I don’t.

I disagree that cutting the public sector, plus the arts and culture is the right response because it fails to understand the economic impact that this will have.

Increasingly the major UK towns and cities which thrive do so because they have a good mix of retail, entertainment, culture and the arts, together with good transport links and good quality public spaces.

Britain is struggling to find its way in the global economic race in 2013.

We have lost ground to many emerging markets and we’ve lost huge parts of our manufacturing and industry sectors.

For some people, investment in a museum like MOSI may thus appear to be a misguided ‘nod to the past’ and fail to see its real value: its ability to inspire.

If we want to be a player in that global race we simply can’t afford not to invest in understanding where we have come from and, even more importantly,  helping to inspire that next world-changing inventor, engineer, scientist or pioneering thinker to have their ‘Eureka’ moment.

The closure of MOSI wouldn’t just be a setback for Manchester, it would be a blow for the whole country.

In the past, Greater Manchester has led the world in many fields of science, engineering and industry, but we also haven’t given up on producing the next world-changing innovation – and nor should the Government.

By sheer chance my 11-year-old son spent yesterday on a school trip to MOSI.

Afterwards I listened to him excitedly explain what he had seen and learned.

I remembered feeling just the same way at his age about the potential of discovery and having an awareness that our world – our universe, even – was so much bigger and boundless than we could even conceptually grasp.

It would be absolutely criminal if he isn’t also able to have the same discussion in the future with his own son, my grandson, because of a short-sighted decision now to save a few pounds.

As I write more than 40,000 people have already signed an online petition urging the Science Museums Group to think again and save MOSI.

If you get the chance, please take a few moments to visit the online petition here and add your name to those fighting to keep this inspiring and vital facility open for generations to come.

Thanks for listening,


One idea: One million reasons to be upbeat

Get Oldham Working
INSPIRATIONAL:  Norman Stoller CBE donated £1 million at the launch of Get Oldham Working to support and develop opportunities for youth employment and entrepreneurs.

THIS IS a very important year as Oldham Council joins forces with partners across the public, private and voluntary sectors to ‘Get Oldham Working’.

The aim of this new campaign is create 2,015 employment opportunities by 2015 and to deliver our flagship ‘Youth Guarantee’ which will see every young person who wants to move on in life given an offer of a job, training, further education or supported into self-employment.

As part of our push to become a ‘Cooperative Borough’ we recognise that this cannot just be an Oldham Council project. It has to be an ambition that is shared by the whole Borough with everyone ‘doing their bit’.

Last Friday night’s ‘One Oldham Business Awards’ was attended by around 500 people and was the ideal opportunity for us to launch Get Oldham Working.

This event is the best of its kind in Greater Manchester and that’s testament to the hard work of the Business Awards Steering Group who give up their time to organise everything so brilliantly, plus all those people who nominate, sponsor and attend.

I explained to the audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall that our town is regenerating at a rapid pace. At a time when many others are simply managing decline, we are leading growth.

No one project in itself will regenerate our town, of course, but the sheer scale of our ambition should not be underestimated.

However, there are challenges. Chiefly, we have a large number of young people leaving school with little hope of going on to further education or employment.

We must be conscious that the difference between development and regeneration is that you are not simply building a shiny new building: you also need to take care of the social and community side too.

We need to get Oldham working: to take us off the top of the Greater Manchester unemployment list and give a ‘hand up’ to the more than 8,000 local people currently out of work.

That challenge is significant – so the response must be equally substantial.

We can’t wait for someone to sort this out for us. We can’t sit here in hope that the UK economy will pick up and Oldham then simply gets a share. If we do that, we will fail again.

When the last boom came, Oldham flagged. Much money went into the public sector without creating the environment for growth so that – when the tough times did come – we simply weren’t able to withstand the force of the blow.

We’ve embarked here upon what I believe is the most ambitious town centre investment plan in the region. It will create jobs and breed confidence, but we need to do more to Get Oldham Working.

No one organisation, sector or approach can do this, so we need to marshal all the resources available.

It simply won’t do for us to stand by and see another generation cast aside, forgotten or left without hope or ambition. Our young people are our future. This isn’t just a nice thing to do – it’s essential for the long-term future of our borough.

By 2015 to Get Oldham Working we will have in place the Oldham Youth Guarantee. That will mean no young person will leave school at 18 without the guarantee of a job, education, apprenticeship or support towards self-employment.

We want to show young people that Oldham is town which believes in you – a town which once led the  world and hasn’t lost that spirit of enterprise.

We want to say to every young person – if you’re willing to roll your sleeves up and get on in life you will have the full support of your town behind you.

Now that’s a big ambition – unique in fact – and the first in the country. But it is possible. We can do it if we pool resources and everybody does their bit.
I asked firms at the One Oldham Business Awards to give us momentum and start by pledging their support to Get Oldham Working.

That can be a range of things. Businesses can, for example, help by taking on an apprenticeship with funding support for just £2,000 a year. They can also create a job, or commit to supporting local suppliers and producers.

I told them that our ambition for Oldham is big, and urged them to think big too.

I have already outlined these plans to one of our town’s biggest supporters – Mr Norman Stoller CBE, a Freeman of our Borough.

On Friday night he shared his vision for young people in Oldham to be the best that they can – and agreed to kick-start our plans with a staggering donation.

Norman has pledged £1 million of his hard-earned money from the Stoller Charitable Trust to support our next generation of entrepreneurs in Oldham over the next four years.

It was an astonishing gesture from an inspirational man.

From the bottom of my heart I wish to thank him again – not just for his donation, but for his belief in our town.

We can do this together – and don’t let anyone say that we can’t!

I would ask all local businesses to please visit our website and add their pledge to the campaign via this link Get Oldham Working – Pledge Card 

Thanks for listening,


Child poverty

Oldham Foodbank
OLDHAM FOODBANK: More than 700 local families have now used this facility in Clegg Street since it’s launch in September.

AS WE ENTERED the New Year my mind was occupied by the number of people forced to go to Oldham Foodbank for supplies simply to feed their families.

More than 700 local families have now used the Foodbank and with that will come a similar number of individual stories of struggle, desperation and need: and in most cases the responsibility to feed young children.

This isn’t an academic view of poverty; I’m like most people in Oldham and have seen firsthand the struggle.

Luckily my father was in work for most of my childhood and, although we lived in areas which some might consider to be poorer (maybe the name Tripe Colony – Miles Platting wasn’t the best address in town), we did have food on the table and were able to afford more than many including good clothes, toys and the occasional holiday to Pontins or Ireland.

And that begs the question which has divided policy makers and ‘thinkers’ (as oppose to doing) about what poverty actually is.

For many people the strong belief is that if you have food on the table and the basic essentials then you aren’t living in poverty at all. For many that is a state of mind from the war years perhaps – when very little was plentiful and you made do.

For others poverty is when a person isn’t able to ‘live’, to enjoy life and take part in society in an active way including socialising.

And poverty – the causes and circumstances – divides politics.

Is poverty self inflicted? Does society keep some people in poverty? Is the gap between poverty and a better standard of life too big for most to make the leap? And what are reasonable wants and needs?

I don’t have a defined answer to any of those questions but I do have a view I’d like to share about Oldham in 2013 and the challenges and opportunities we face.

For the purposes of comparisons and use of available data I am using official figures in this blog which express poverty as households earning less than 60 per cent of the median income, which in Oldham is £32,000 a year.

As I write this 15,865 children are living in poverty in Oldham, that’s 27.4 per cent of our young population.

That, of course, isn’t evenly spread across the Borough where significant pockets of poverty exist with stark contrasts. In Coldhurst almost half of all children live in poverty (47.2 per cent) and Hollinwood (40.6 per cent) compared with Saddleworth South at 4.2 per cent.

Those figures don’t just tell a story solely of income and the “haves and have not’s” they highlight the vast differences in life chances on housing, education, job opportunities, health and life expectancy.

In 2010 the Child Poverty Bill was given Royal Assent with an ambitious target of eradicating child poverty by 2020. That bill also gave Local Authorities the responsibility to carry out a local needs assessment.

Marginal progress was made between 2007 and 2010 with a 5.6 per cent reduction in the number of children living in poverty in Oldham, a larger decrease than the average in England.

Clearly the Council can make some changes and work to improve the circumstances and life chances of young people. The huge investment in education from Children’s Centres to adulthood will begin to pay dividends in time, although it does feel as though we could be facing a cliff edge.

In April this year thousands of people in receipt of benefits will see major changes come into force. For the vast majority that will mean a decrease in income and, for some, by a great deal.

Whether you believe in the need to reduce benefits or the need to reduce the national deficit isn’t for this blog, but the question which needs to be asked is how can the Government hope to meet the target of eradicating child poverty when all the signs say even more families are living on the breadline – and that’s before the changes take effect.

Impact Residents Affected Loss to Oldham
Disability Living Allowance 4,000 lose entitlement £11m per year in DLA
Work Capability Assessment 1,665 move from Incapacity Benefit to Jobseekers Allowance £2.1m per year (once transfers complete, assuming jobs not found)
Housing Benefit/ “Bedroom Tax” 2,637 social tenants lose out due to under occupancy £1.7m per year
Council Tax Benefit (devolution, 10% cut) 16,814 households potentially directly affected – subject to consultation £1.7m per year
Benefit Cap-interim 124 households with children have housing benefit reduced. (£351k per year)
Benefit Cap-full Not known. Occurs once transfer to Universal Credit. £464k per year

It is self evident that the best way out of poverty is work – but the answer isn’t to make benefits send more people to the Foodbank.

Going to work has to pay and that will only happen if we tackle unethical work practices such as zero hour contracts, payments below the National Minimum Wage and work towards a living wage.

If all we can hope for as a society is just to get by then what does that say about us in 2013?

Surely quality of life and life chances with the opportunity to do better than the last generation is the hallmark of a civilised society and unless we assert that as our starting point we would have failed those 15,865 children who deserve better.

So what are we going to do about it?

– Regenerate Oldham and create quality job opportunities – the best way out of poverty is work which pays fairly;

– Give every child growing up in Oldham a route to success through further and higher education, training, work placements and apprenticeships;

– Review our agency and procurement contracts to ensure we promote quality jobs and take out unethical work practices including zero hour contracts and positively promote the Oldham Living Wage;

– Continue to invest in education as the best route into quality employment;

– Continue to invest in quality housing and environmental standards – quality of life;

– Ensure public health focuses on education and prevention to stop the cycle of poor health in a way which meets local variances and issues at a district level;

– Continue to campaign on issues which have a disproportionate effect on poorer families including Fair Energy, Fair Fares bus ticket pricing for affordable travel;

– Continue to campaign against unethical or unfair practices across financial services, welfare and social exclusion;

– Invest in welfare and benefit advisors to link income with expenditure and promote financial education through the Credit Union.

Thanks for listening,


Leadership in today’s economy

Councillor Jim McMahon
ECONOMY: Councillor McMahon believes investment by Local Authorities must be focussed on job creation and schemes that can attract additional inward investment.

AS SEVERAL EU countries, including France, see their credit rating downgraded it does focus the mind again on economic matters – and in particular here in Oldham.

Expert assessments are that it will take until 2032 – that’s another 20 years – to return to our 2008 economic position.

The problem with that for Oldham is twofold.

Firstly, 2008 might have been better for us – but it still wasn’t great.

Secondly, waiting another 20 years just to be back at a standstill simply won’t move our Borough forward.

In that context the challenge for all Council leaders is to understand their local economy, understand the national direction and assess the UK’s position in the global economy – not an easy task.

We can learn a lot from the last decade.

At a time when the rest of the UK was growing significantly Oldham stood still.

Worse still, when you unpick our numbers, it tells a tale of private sector decline and public sector boom with roughly the same numbers of private sector jobs lost here as were created in the public sector.

That’s all well and good but we’re also now experiencing massive public sector cuts that affect the Local Authority, NHS, Police and Fire services to name but a few. A rapid increase in public sector jobs simply isn’t going to happen.

As political leaders we naturally also might become more cautious about embarking on ‘big ticket’ projects when finances are tight. But at the same time, our aspirations for the future of the Borough shouldn’t diminish. Our challenge is to marry these two instincts and get the big decisions right.

Even when times are tough there’s usually some money to invest, but clearly less. It’s therefore vital we focus on any investment on job creation and schemes that will attract inward investment.

We must also be clear that at times it is not best for us as a Council to deliver development. What we can do though is provide leadership, corral resources and ensure any effort or investment is used to the best effect.

We must also accept that although we aspire for and demand high-quality jobs, for many people ‘a job is a job’ and we shouldn’t be snobbish about new jobs being created. Clearly there needs to be a mix.

We should also recognise that growth might not now necessarily mean a shiny new building: it might mean using what facilities we already have in a better way.

We also need to recognise that the type of jobs available is changing across the UK, which also competes in a global market. Science, new technologies and creative industries will grow, but not at the rate needed in Oldham – so what else is going to help us expand?

Investing in education has paid dividends for Oldham and this surely cannot be faulted. We have an outstanding College and Sixth Form, for example. We are also home to a University Centre and schools that are improving across the board. These factors will undoubtedly assist in attracting investment in higher skilled jobs in the future.

As a Council we also have a large land bank which we can release for investment. This might be for housing or commercial properties and without a doubt will make an investor look at Oldham with interest.

Improving our infrastructure – to which Metrolink is central with routes to Manchester Airport and Media City – will also aid recovery, as will pursuing an investment strategy that is focused on job creation.

We must ensure too that when we talk about development plans they are real opportunities. For instance, if we say we have a development site, it has to be just that: not simply a vacant piece of land. Planning permissions, other formal permissions and associated infrastructure should be in place now so that any would-be investor can get going straight away.

Ultimately the recovery will be private sector-led. We can’t fight against the way in which Government funding and policy leans towards that, and nor should we.

But that also does not mean the private sector will simply ‘sort it’ for Oldham.

For us to defy the critics and prove we can do better than 20 years of drag we have to show clear leadership and – most importantly – provide real opportunities for growth; not just warm words and artists’ impressions.

Thanks for listening,