The Government’s commitment to ‘put children first’ is “imagery” and more needs to be done to create genuine “tangible change”, the former Education Minister has said.
Today, Senator Tracey Vallois is officially making the leap from the Ministerial world back to Scrutiny, with intentions to join the Education Panel, if her political colleagues agree.
Ahead of that, Express spoke to Senator Vallois about the key lessons from her experience as Education Minister, in the first in-depth interview since news of her resignation broke last week.
Triggered by the Government’s refusal to adopt a “more cautious” approach to the return to school after Christmas, Senator Vallois’ resignation came at the end of a long line of concerns and frustrations, which she felt were at best “not heard” or, at worst, “ignored.”
She took on the role of Education Minister with a desire to shake up the Education system and ensure that children and young people can progress and enjoy a range of academic and skills-based opportunities regardless of background.
Pictured: Senator Vallois became Education Minister after topping the polls in the 2018 election.
But Senator Vallois told Express that she was met with difficulties at nearly every turn of trying to execute that plan.
Despite the Government having pledged to ‘put children first’ in the wake of the damning Care Inquiry, she said she found herself “having to fight’ to stop her budget being slashed amid a Government-wide drive to secure £100m in efficiencies, and safeguard funding for areas like Early Years.
“My view was, if we are making efficiencies [in Education], why aren’t we doing more rather than less?"
Last year, she was also disheartened to find her bid for funding for devices to help children with virtual learning through the pandemic turned down by the Treasury Minister - a request based on feedback from headteachers, who had explained that some students came from households with one or very few devices that had to be shared with parents and siblings.
Not only was the argument a socio-economic one, but one that touched on the need for Jersey’s education system to “move into the 21st century.”
“It’s a whole different world now and technology offers so many different opportunities - there are teachers in schools biting at the bit to improve what we can offer.”
In the end, charity Every Child Our Future, stepped in with £200,000 to purchase over 700 computers and smart devices for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Pictured: Senator Vallois had argued that the Government, rather than charities, should be funding digital devices for children, but the plan was rejected.
Aside from this, the charity plays a vital role in education in Jersey with its reading programme, for which the Minister obtained grant funding.
Another successful charity partnership has been with Caring Cooks on a hot meals pilot in local primary schools.
While many have lauded such partnerships as a positive step forward, the former Minister says that they have led her to question whether the island is currently striking the right “balance.”
“The one thing that I worry about - and I don’t know whether we see too much of it or whether it’s the right thing – is the reliance we have on charities for services like we have in Health and Education. From my point of view, the main reason I pay taxes is to keep our population healthy, give them opportunities in life to move on and upwards in the world through education… It’s absolutely amazing what Caring Cooks have done and their work in schools with the growing programme – they’ve been fantastic support to the schools they work with. But you do think to yourself, should it be a charity? Where is the balance between the Government’s responsibility and charities’ responsibility?”
Other ‘wins’ of her term as Minister included putting in intensive French language learning for Year 5s and, perhaps most significantly, securing an Independent School Funding Review - the first of its kind in almost 30 years.
Pictured: Caring Cooks is a charity that provides hot meals and runs a nutrition programme in local schools.
It paved the way for an £11.6m package to provide motor support for children with special needs, from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with English as an additional language. It also included hard-fought equal funding for all students aged 16 to 18.
However, while the outcome was positive, Senator Vallois likened the process of achieving this progress as “having been to hell and back” and recalls how many of her suggestions and proposals during her time as Education Minister were met with “tumbleweed.”
A long pause follows when she is asked, given that her experience within Education seemed to be characterised with “struggle” to secure funding and new provisions for the island’s young people, whether she truly believes the Government is ‘putting children first’ in line with its commitment.
“I feel like it’s imagery,” she explains. “I’ve taken time to speak with the likes of Jersey Cares. I’ve sat on the Corporate Parenting Board – it’s extremely questionable how many boards you have to actually do something. How many times do you have to talk about the same thing to get something done? These are really vulnerable children at the end of this, why do you have to have so much bureaucracy inbetween?"
“The phrase ‘putting children first’…. How that’s reflected in action and the tangible feel of something, that’s where the public get annoyed. They’re not seeing it they’re not feeling it they’re not touching it. It doesn’t feel different."
She notes the concerns around the "landmark" Care Leavers Offer - which the Government attempted to cut by 40% and which was criticised for not being promoted enough to those who stand to benefit most - as an example of the Government's actions failing to match the image it puts out.
Pictured: Senator Vallois sees the Government's attempt to cut the Care Leavers offer as an example of how its messages differ from its actions.
While the creation of policy nowadays is expected to go hand-in-hand with Child Rights Impact Assessments and analysis of how far it fulfils the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), this does not directly create “tangible” change for children, according to the Senator.
“You shouldn’t have to write a big paper that says you’re doing something to make it look like you’re doing something,” she observes.
For the former Minister, training for every single States Member – and every civil servant involved in developing and delivering policy – could be part of the antidote.
The idea isn’t new, she acknowledges – ‘corporate parent’ training (in other words, teaching decision-makers how to embed genuinely ‘putting children first’ policies, particularly for vulnerable ones, into their thinking) was recommended by the Care Inquiry, but is still yet to be carried out.
“It’s alright to do a bit of paper to say you’ve addressed UNCRC… but actually, is it not just more bureaucracy? If you have the training, if it’s ingrained in yourself, no you’re never going to get it 100% right, but all of a sudden you’re sitting in a meeting and can say, ‘Hang on, what does the child say about this?’
“…You can put in all the new protocols, all the new governance, all the new bureaucracy that you want to, and actually you’ll find this in many [Comptroller and Auditor General] reports over the years – if you do not train people as to what that governance looks like, then it will never fulfil the requirements of the whole organisation.”
Pictured: Doing the best for children is about more than paperwork or bureaucracy, the former Minister argues.
Within the civil service, such training may help dissolve “reluctance to change” when the status quo is challenged – “it’s a huge barrier and it’s too easy for those barriers to be put up.”
For Ministers, she believes such training would help cut across silo thinking – “it’s too easy to be focusing too narrowly on your one area as a Minister rather than working across the board.”
Take the deferred North of Town Youth Facility project, for example, which has been deferred due to the pandemic, much to Senator Vallois’s frustration. As she points out, the centre is not just a ‘nice to have’ for young people, but could also generate health and policing benefits by instilling positive behaviours during formative years.
Advancing such arguments has very much felt like swimming against the tide – a feeling that ultimately led her to step down following contentious discussions over the post-Christmas return to school.
Having already decided to delay the start of term, uncertainty surrounding the more transmissible UK variant led Senator Vallois to suggest that secondary students return ‘virtually’ for the first few days of term – physical teaching time she says could have been made up by subtracting from the holidays.
Having observed the chaos of the class closures that dominated December, she says her priority for the New Year was to ensure that schools could “continue to operate” properly if new covid cases cropped up, and that children could still gain a consistent and “high quality education.”
Pictured: Senator Vallois wanted to prevent the chaotic school closures of December from happening again.
It was also about avoiding the “domino effect” as far as possible – the impact of contact tracing and class closures on working parents and guardians, and teacher welfare.
But the Senator, who would have liked there to be a specific schools strategy outlining how heads should respond to different, said that there didn’t seem to much of a plan in place to address these issues.
The only sentence in the Covid Winter Strategy regarding schools was an assurance that the Government is “doing everything possible to keep schools open”.
When Senator Vallois raised concerns, she said she was repeatedly told that schools were the “safest place” for children from a wellbeing perspective. Repeated requests for the data upon which that assertion was based were met with silence. She has still not received a response to date.
Concerned that the ‘Reconnection Plan’ was equally lacking and baffled as to how Jersey was “different” to the UK, which had opted to shut schools in response to the new variant, she did not feel comfortable with the approach being taken and subsequently tendered her resignation.
As well as explaining her reasons for dissent in her resignation letter, Senator Vallois spoke of making way for a Minister “who will hopefully be more closely aligned to how the government wish to continue to work through these stormy waters” and the Government standing “with one voice.”
The lines reflect her view “Ministerial government can only work if you’ve got party politics” – though it’s not something she’s “100% sure” she would fully support personally.
Pictured: The Covid Winter Strategy did not set out a detailed plan for schools.
“There is absolutely no doubt about it. To be fair, and to be respectful to [Senator Le Fondré], he has tried to bring a lot of people together who don’t necessarily politically see eye-to-eye…and that’s to a certain extent quite refreshing.
“But when you’re the one that’s arguing against the majority position and have to go out and defend and answer for it, you think to yourself sometimes, ‘I can’t do this.’ How can you with every fibre of your being say that you support this? People have always said my face says more than what I say. I can’t help it, that’s just the way I am. I think I’m too truthful.”
With the benefit of hindsight, the Senator says she still wouldn’t change her ‘vote of no confidence’ decision.
With the Chief Minister having failed to answer a number of questions during the debate, including a challenge to bring forward HR reforms, she felt an abstention was the appropriate choice – something that drew criticism from some.
“It’s a valid voting tool… I don’t think making a point was my intention – I think the point in a debate is to have a debate and it’s quite right for people to ask questions and expect answers,” she explains, adding that, if she’d had to choose, she would have voted to save the Chief Minister.
“We still had a Government Plan to get agreed and I fought so hard for that money for Education and it worried me to see that go down the Swanee. I also think the vote was probably at the wrong time, as you’re going into your second wave [of covid] scenario.”
Pictured: Senator Vallois says she would not have voted to oust the Chief Minister.
While some might relish the moment of pause after one of the most challenging years any political figure has faced, it has been little over a week since Senator Vallois’s resignation and she is already readying herself to return to the frontline of politics – this time, on the other side.
Today, she hopes to officially become a member of three Scrutiny groups tasked with probing the Government:
If States Members allow her to join following today’s Assembly meeting, it will almost be a homecoming for the Senator, who previously penned reviews on topics ranging from university funding to the golden handshake paid to former Chief Executive Bill Ogley.
Currently in her sights are the “meaty” Public Finances Law, which governs how taxpayers’ money is spent and who is accountable, and the States of Jersey Employees Law, which binds all public sector workers and the bodies that hire them: the States Employment Board and the Jersey Appointments Commission. Both, she says, “need to be overhauled.”
Does she have any regrets about becoming Education Minister? “None. There’s no other role I would have wanted to go for, it’s the reason I stood for Senator, she says, smiling in a way that suggests none of her enthusiasm for change has dissipated.
“I loved learning at school, and I can really see the benefits that we as a community can get from Education, but I think it’s stale. Just following what England do all the time isn’t giving us the opportunities that we could have,” she says, noting that it took Finland, which managed to “reinvigorate” its system, “40 years to get where they are.”
Pictured: Senator Vallois is intending to join the Scrutiny Panel to which Chief Executive Charlie Parker is accountable.
“But it requires culture change as well. We can make changes with the right people in place and the passion to do it. One day, I think,” she says, adding that she still feels “glass half full” about the future for the island’s young people.
She hopes her successor – as yet undecided, though Acting Education Minister Deputy Jeremy Maçon looks a strong contender after throwing his hat in the ring – will share this feeling and be equally willing to “fight” for Education, even if it sometimes means going against the grain.
One of the key items in their in-tray should be making the case for accelerating Rouge Bouillon School’s upgrade – allowing them to use the former Police HQ, which was itself once Rouge Bouillon secondary school, would be “common sense”, Senator Vallois says.
Looking at the bigger picture, she would also like to see a continued focus on creating a fairer education system for young people from lower income backgrounds. “They tend to go into vocational work, which you must pay for, when going down the academic line with Hautlieu is free,” she notes.
Senator Vallois’s key lesson after nearly three years as Minister?
“Always go with your gut. It always serves you well and only you know who you are, why you’re there, what you’re doing it for.”
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