Singing is not back. But we don’t know why.

I have written to my MP (James Cartlidge, South Suffolk), to enlist his help in understanding why the return of group singing was so unexpectedly cancelled late on Monday. Here’s the letter:

Dear James

I am writing to ask for your help with an issue that has arisen unexpectedly from new government guidance issued on Monday evening; namely that singing groups have been limited to 6 people indoors. The new guidance singles out singing specifically – whether that be at organised choir rehearsals in Covid-secure venues, or even informal singing at parent and toddler groups (unworkable in that context, I’m sure you’d agree!). This decision to prohibit organised singing for groups of more than 6 is not only inconsistent with previous communications (including the answer given by the Minister for Culture on 27th April to a parliamentary question), but also with other freedoms that have been permitted. It also has a direct impact on my ability to work.

I appreciate that the research commissioned by DCMS last summer identified risks associated with aerosol production from singing and some instruments. That is why it was followed by guidance about how to sing (or play) safely, taking appropriate action to ensure social distancing, ventilation and so on. The issue here is not whether groups can work with this guidance to plan and deliver choir or group sessions in ways which are as Covid-secure as possible; like choir leaders across the country I have now spent weeks visiting venues, preparing risk assessments and communicating with members of my groups about the actions and approach required for a return to live singing this week. The issue is that we are being barred from putting this work into practice, but it is not clear why.

As of Monday, we are permitted to take part in dance classes, group exercise or other indoor sport. Such activities involve exertion, and therefore, one would assume, the production of aerosols. The new guidance suggests that such activities have been deemed less risky than socially distanced singing. But it is not clear how this decision has been arrived at, or what evidence it is based on. I appreciate the concern about the new Indian variant, and that this may lead to changes to the roadmap or local differences. But that alone does not explain why singing should be considered more risky than dancing.

The DCMS appears to believe that the non-professional world is somehow a nice optional extra, that exists on its own and can wait for some future relaxation of restrictions. Amateur singing (which the UK is generally considered to excel at) is facilitated by self-employed musicians like myself, and generates income in turn for venues and for musicians to work alongside us. Participants are people from a whole range of life experiences, who come together to sing and through that, to experience a shared sense of belonging, of endeavour, the safe expression of emotions from grief through to joy, and to enjoy the sense of creating something beyond ourselves. And yes, it’s fun. But singing for wellbeing is not a new idea, it is simply a new way of expressing what people have been doing for centuries. Permitting people to exercise indoors for their physical health whilst depriving them of the opportunity to sing for their mental wellbeing seems perverse, when considering the impacts of the last year.

Group singing, like dancing, does not readily translate to the online world. After 14 months of silence, I and many thousands of other choir and singing group leaders and participants are keen to understand the basis of the recent and unexpected decision to exclude singing from the list of permitted activities, and to know when we can plan for a return. Please can you raise my concerns with the DCMS.

Coronavirus and the creative industries: letter to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Dear Secretary of State

I am emailing as one of the 5 million self-employed people in the UK, to urge you to push for support from the Treasury to the creative industries and self-employed during this national crisis.

I fully appreciate that government is working tirelessly to contain and manage both the virus and its impact on our economy and the social fabric of the county, and that this requires effort and intervention on a scale we have not experienced before in peace-time. I understand that this involves prioritising certain actions and measures.  But I am dismayed that the government’s messaging about the self-employed so far is that it is ‘operationally difficult’ to find ways of providing financial assistance to those of us whose income has literally disappeared overnight. It is, after all, just as ‘operationally difficult’ to be a freelancer with no income as it is an employee. Given that other countries have succeeded in doing It also makes the decision seem a political one, not one borne from governing out of necessity.

This is not just about paying our own bills, essential though that is.  It is also about protecting the skills that individuals hold and supporting the places and institutions which are key to our cultural identity, sense of wellbeing, and status. All of our concert halls, churches, local theatres, pubs and arts centres have fallen silent. These are places that usually ring with the voices and sounds of people coming together – whether that is for an international concert, a local band, entertainment at a children’s party, or a singing group for people with Parkinsons. Crucially they are also the places where we are paid, as freelancers, to use our skills. They are also a vital part of our local economies. Not for nothing are they called the creative industries.

Creative industries are dependent on people and their skills, usually built up over years and years.  The decisions government takes now about how to support those individuals are likely to have ramifications for the creative industries for years to come, and for the population as a whole.  The creative industries, in my case music, are where we experience joy, hold the capacity to share and express grief, gain purpose, share a sense of endeavour, and come together. As and when we all emerge, blinking, from this crisis, we will collectively need to do this more than ever.

Please take action now, to protect those of us who are self-employed and the industries we work in.  I look forward to hearing from you

Splitting the village

The full impact of Suffolk County Council’s new home-school transport policy is becoming clear. As reported in this week’s East Anglian Daily Times,  families in my village and many others are being punished by the council for no other reason than living on the wrong street. The new policy (which calculates distances to school to the nearest metre, using home postcodes), will divide primary school classmates by providing them with transport to different schools, against their parents’ wishes.  Last week I attended Suffolk County Council meeting to ask a public question about the new policy.  I asked whether the council was aware that their new policy was creating splits in some villages, where children are now being offered free transport to different schools. (This is a particular problem for children going to secondary school in September). The response of the councillor responsible (SCC Cabinet member for Children’s Services, Education and Skills) was that there might be some short-term increase in costs where it will result in two buses going to different schools instead of one bus going to one school, while the policy is phased in. But he also said that because some parents already choose  to go to non-catchment schools, split villages weren’t considered an issue. He suggested that parents and schools might come up with ‘local solutions’ for the ‘two-school’ problem including parents doing lift-shares and schools offering their own transport.

He seemed to be either conflating or confusing different things, so I asked again, pointing out that parental choice and the county’s legal obligations to provide school transport are separate issues, and outlining the problem in Nayland. (After all, parents only choose to send their children to non-catchment schools when they can afford to do so.) It so happens that two of the county councillors live in this village. According to the Council’s nearest school checker, one lives in one of the streets now designated for Hadleigh High School (with which our primary has no links and to which there is no bus service). The other lives in the part of the village still designated for Thomas Gainsborough School in Sudbury (our historical catchment school, with good links to our primary school and on a public bus route). The split occurs at our primary school, which for historical reasons has two postcodes; one is now apparently ‘nearer’ to Hadleigh and one to Thomas Gainsborough. Yes really.

You’d think the sensible response to this kind of inefficient and unfair situation would be to say “we need to look at that unintended consequence”, yet the councillor responsible merely reiterated his view that because some parents choose to send their children to grammar schools over the county border, we are already a ‘split village’ and that by implication, the resulting chaos is not a concern.

The result of this policy is that in villages like Nayland, some parents will be forced to pay upwards of £750 per child per year in order for their child to do nothing more unusual than moving up to secondary school with their classmates. For these families, the policy amounts to an opportunistic extra tax. The alternative is that children in families for whom this is unaffordable will have to go a different school from their classmates – child and family effectively being discriminated against for having less money than others.  It has to be noted that the council seems to have little understanding that £750 (minimum per child) is a significant sum of additional money for young families to find. Either way, the council’s new policy amounts to a postcode lottery. And all of this was both predictable, and predicted.

There’s a further complication for the schools concerned. If pupils end up going to schools they did not choose to go to instead of the school they already have secured a place in, those schools won’t get the budgets they are expecting this year. And relationships with feeder primaries are totally disrupted, making it much harder to plan smooth school transitions for children moving to secondary school in future years.  (Schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, and schools are organising their provision around the numbers of pupils they are expecting to receive come September.)

I was astonished by the lack of interest – let alone sympathy to the affected families – shown by the council in response to my questions. The councillor responsible for schools should be aware that schools don’t have spare management time or budget to put on buses. And the council should surely be more interested in what happens IN schools – and therefore be wanting schools to use resources on education, not petrol. If the county council was actually planning to review school catchments and admissions, including for schools still in LEA control – it should do so based on some actual analysis of the need for school places relative to the locations and types of schools, not just redefine school relationships as an unintentional consequence of reducing access to school buses. And it ought to consult with schools themselves.

I don’t know whether the council is wilfully confusing parental choice with its legal responsibilities for school transport,  or simply doesn’t understand the policy framework.  Either way, it shows little regard for the wellbeing of children anxious they won’t now go to the same school as their classmates, for their parents, school budgets, or the environment. It couldn’t be clearer that councillors are hoping parents will just pick up the bill for a responsibility that sits with the council.

Several years ago, the county council set about the contentious and messy process of closing all the county’s middle schools with the goal of smoothing the transition from primary to secondary school, because, they said, this would help them to achieve better educationally. It seems they no longer care about the pupils, given the indifference they are showing to parents and pupils caught up in a policy blunder brought about by the poor implementation of a bad policy.  Please, Suffolk County Council, there is still time to pull your head out of the sand. Postpone the implementation of this policy and go back to the drawing board.

The wheels on the bus are grinding to a halt

Suffolk County Council has approved a new school transport policy. In essence, they’ve abandoned traditional school catchments in favour of transport zones around schools, in the hope of cutting costs (or at least, making someone else pay).  The result doesn’t look very likely to save them much money. Instead, it’s created chaos, stress and confusion for parents, children and schools. Plus no doubt a lot of extra work for the already-beleaguered council officials trying to administer the new policy.


Why school transport was a problem (even before the Council meddled with it)

In fairness to the council, some of the problems with school transport weren’t of their making. Education policy is developed in an urban environment, so how children actually get to school in more rural areas is an afterthought for the DfE. Which means 1) it’s not adequately funded and 2) it’s dealt with separately from other education services provided by councils (school admissions and school improvement). Plus there are two national policies creating problems locally: the government obsession with pushing schools to be academies (which can control their own admissions) and the development of Free Schools. These policies have left Suffolk with a big surplus of school places in some areas, and schools competing for enough pupils to make budgets add up.

Not a good starting point. Then there’s the problem that most of the (Conservative) councillors in Suffolk, like in so many of the county shires, are not representative of the majority of parents with children in the school system. (Here’s an example: according to their Registers of Interest, more than half of the council’s cabinet are members of the National Trust.) So 1) they don’t appear to appreciate the financial impact on young families of paying for travel to school and 2) they promote the dogma of School Choice over the practicalities of family life.

What the council decided

Some things are obvious to anyone who thinks about them. For instance:

1) Promoting links between primary and secondary schools creates smoother transitions for pupils. Pupils who feel safe and supported are better able to learn. Children, and their parents, typically want to move to secondary school with their current friends (even if they then go on to form new friendships). So for decades, secondary schools have had catchment areas and designated ‘feeder primary schools’.  Communities are sustained and develop around these arrangements (which is why, for example, people from my village go to the Park Run based at our local secondary school).

2) School buses are a cost-effective way of ensuring pupils get to school.  Without a bus, parents would have to drive their child to school – putting more cars on the road, costing parents time they could spend at work (there’s a Conservative policy irony). Despite the best efforts of the Council to promote parents buying wellies and torches, the likelihood of children walking to school, in all weathers, is pretty minimal. How many parents would be happy for their 8 year old to walk two miles or more twice a day, crossing A roads and trudging along muddy (unlit) public footpaths through fields? (And yes this is the countryside, so some of those fields will have cows in.) We no longer live in the nineteenth century. Yes kids need to exercise, but this isn’t the way to make that happen.

So the council prioritised short-term budget savings (and, presumably, a desire to be seen to be able to enforce their own policies, however naively developed) over the basic responsibility of getting children to school in the safest and most efficient way possible. They decided that from this September, children  will now only be offered free travel to school if it is to their ‘transport priority school’ (in other words the nearest school, calculated by the metre on what they call the “shortest available route along which a child, accompanied as necessary, may walk with reasonable safety”. Out go school catchments, in come footpath maps (a peculiar way to go about improving pupil attainment, never mind anything else). The result of this is that children in neighbouring streets, in the same village (Nayland being an example), can be allocated transport to different schools. Anything else has to be paid for.

The Outcome 

Will this new policy save them any money? I doubt it. The solutions in my village, for instance, rather than using the bus which is already available (and subsidised by the Council), will quite possibly see children put in taxis to get to  school, or the council paying for two buses instead of one. Alternatively, parents will be forced to pay for what the council calls a ‘spare seat’ – a seat on the bus that is going to their preferred school already. This year that pass will cost them £750.  In two years time it will cost £930 – per child!  (And bear in mind parents with a child at sixth form are already paying the £750 because free travel for over 16s was taken away years ago – at about the point when children were required to stay in education until the age of 18). Or parents will be forced into cars – an arrangement the council euphemistically refers to as “parents arranging informal solutions themselves”. (As residents in villages like Boxford and Nayland know, traffic problems for some of village primary schools are bad enough already.)  Or schools resorting to deciding between funding a bus to get their pupils to school or a teaching assistant for them once they get there. The Council clearly don’t mind which of these so-called ‘solutions’ parents or schools opt for, as long as it’s no longer their problem.

A pretty sorry failure whichever way you look at it.

The Department for Education: 2018 in review.

I’m a core member of the parent campaign group Rescue our Schools. We campaign for changes in our education system so that our children can be equipped with the skills and attributes necessary for life in the 21st century, and their schools and teachers have the resources and respect required for this to happen. We have a six-point manifesto for change in our education system, and I spent a couple of days this week reviewing just how the Department for Education has fared against these in the last year. Caution: it makes for unhappy reading. But it is also a call to action. 2019 is the year we must see positive change for our schools, our children and our future.

  1. Invest in all our futures

Requires improvement. The Department began the year with a new Education Secretary, Damian Hinds. Unlike his predecessor, Justine Greening, he came as a supporter of grammar schools  (presumably one of the reasons he was appointed). Other than occasional announcements like the recent ones that children should climb trees (there’s an idea we’d never have thought of!) and that schools should reduce single-use plastics (they have, after all, nothing else to do), little else has changed. Education policy continues to be dominated by three things: a refusal to acknowledge that schools and early years settings need more funding to do the job asked of them, the desire to push testing to extremes and in doing so prioritise the able over the less able, and the continued marketisation of schools achieved by the ongoing push of schools away from local authorities and into academy chains. The recruitment and retention of staffing in schools, meanwhile, remains at crisis point.

Our Christmas message in 2017 focused on funding and the rising pressures on schools seeking to accommodate the increase in cost pressures affecting our schools. How depressing, then, to still be leading on this a year later. And this despite the unprecedented sight, in September, of 2000 headteachers protesting ‘relentlessly reasonably’ on Whitehall, followed in October by a campaign organised by our sister campaign group Save our Schools in which pupils directly addressed MPs in parliament.   After months of campaigning there was, in December, one important and welcome announcement: an increase in high needs funding for children with special educational needs and disabilities. This will help some children, but it isn’t enough. And it doesn’t begin to address the core funding problems facing schools across the country, many of which are having to ask parents to fund pencils and paper (the kind of thing Philip Hammond presumably had in mind when he talked about schools needing those ‘little extras’!).

2. Promote inclusive education for all

Fail. Changes to funding for local authorities, combined with funding pressures on school budgets, have made it extremely difficult for schools to meet the needs of children with special education needs – a situation which not only discriminates against children with additional needs and their families; it potentially harms all children. Yet the level of need is clear; as of this year, 14.6%  of pupils are on the SEN register. They are failed not only by inadequate levels of support (cost pressures reducing access to teaching assistants, for example), but also by the increased focus on exams and testing. Our own survey  about the new GCSEs highlighted the punitive and emotionally devastating impact of the new exam regime for pupils with special educational needs such as autism.  Meanwhile some parents are having to crowd-fund legal action in order to secure the required specialist support for their children from local authorities. The playing field is now so far from level that it is ceasing to offer many children an opportunity to play at all.

3. Promote education over exam factories

Hard to know where to start, in the year that pupils sat the new GCSEs and A levels which are based almost exclusively on exams designed to favour those with good memories and high literacy skills, and in which primary schools started piloting baseline testing in reception.  RoS had a busy summer surveying parents and teachers about the impact of the new GCSEs, and in ongoing campaigning with fellow organisations as part of More than a Score, seeking to reform SATs and end the link between test results and school accountability. (Have a look at this video about the #BigSATsSitIn – you can also sample the tests for yourself!) The impact of testing on pupil wellbeing has been questioned over and over again, in a year which also saw independent evidence of the rise of mental ill-health and poor emotional wellbeing in children and young people. RoS’ petition to address this was endorsed by Natasha Devon,  former government mental health champion, amongst others.  As the year drew to a close, the former head of the civil service added his voice to those concerned about the long-term impact on our children’s wellbeing. We will continue to campaign loudly and vigorously on this in 2019.

4. Develop Creativity in all its forms

Another fail. Not surprisingly, given the pressure on resources and the perpetual drive from ministers to prioritise testing in traditional academic subjects (in SATs and by use of the Ebacc) over giving pupils a broad educational experience. Over the year, we have been able to highlight on social media work done in some of the most creative – and successful – schools bucking the trend, both in terms of access to arts subjects and activities, and creative approaches to teaching and learning overall.

The UK has traditionally excelled in the creative industries. Yet 2018 saw another year-on-year reduction in access to arts subjects throughout the curriculum, in GCSE entries for subjects such as music, drama, art, design technology and more, and consequently in employment of teachers in these subjects. In 2019 we need your help to promote this message all the more, before the situation becomes irreversible.

5. Let expert evidence inform policy

No progress. There are many experts. There are many policy makers. But the one rarely seems to inform the other, except occasionally when referring to evidence that supports ideas currently in fashion in the DfE (those that support the use of synthetic phonics, for example).

One of the areas in which the evidence is overwhelming clear is that grammar schools do not improve attainment overall. Yet this year we have seen funding prioritised to expand grammar schools  on the grounds that these schools will justify the increase in funding by widening access to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Meanwhile, organisations such as the Education Policy Institute have published more evidence on the attainment gap for pupils on free school meals, and NHS research documented an increase in mental ill-health in young people  While the government prioritises resources on pursuing a grammar school agenda not backed up by evidence, some schools are having to team up with local charities to provide breakfast clubs for children in poverty.

6. Ensure local accountability for all schools

Again, there have been no shortage of concerns and failures in Multi Academy Chains, and both the Parliamentary Accounts Committee and the Education Select Committee have been increasingly critical of the problems with the Academies model. Stories range from the failure of a whole MAT, the rise of fixed-term exclusions, prescriptive teaching, high levels of executive pay, and significant concerns about misuse of funds. Thanks to BBC’s Panorama programme, the pitfalls of the Multi Academy Trust model and its associated lack of oversight are now much better understood. We will continue to provide a platform on social media for local campaigns fighting forced academisation. But we also must acknowledge that local authorities are now considerably under-resourced to support schools, even where those schools remain in LEA control.

As the new year approaches, so does a new Ofsted accountability framework  The headlines suggest they want to change the current focus on data, involve teachers and assess the breadth and substance of the curriculum in schools. We at RoS are parents – we understand the value of meaningful, robust and consistent assessment of how schools are meeting our children’s needs, and want to be sure our teachers and school leaders are appropriately supported. But changing the framework alone doesn’t give schools the resources, creative freedom and evidence they need to develop the education Ofsted claims to want to evaluate. Moreover there are worrying signs that the inspectorate may be moving towards directing schools ‘how‘ to teach – with an emphasis on memorising rather than acquisition of skills. Such a narrow view of education would only let children down and, if introduced, must be emphatically resisted. As we have done with previous consultations, RoS will be asking for your thoughts to inform our response when the consultation on the new framework is published in early 2019.

Overall Assessment

Throughout the year, the Department for Education has plunged deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, in a constant bid to find its own alternate reality universe in which school budgets really are at a record high and standards really have been raised equitably with a meaningful impact on pupils’ futures. Whilst it has being doing this, the UK Statistics Authority has found cause to write to the DfE no fewer than FOUR times in 2018 about misleading use of education statistics. With all government stagnating due to Brexit, the DfE appears to find its own version of the Mad Hatters tea party quite a comforting place to be. But schools, pupils and parents do not.

Our Rescue our Schools message for 2019 is clear: the children and young people in school now cannot afford to wait another year for the government to wake up to its own responsibilities. We must join together, and act.



The class of 2006

This morning, my eldest left school. The occasion was marked with a graduation ceremony in a marquee, complete with lovely performances from the school choir and soloists, a round of applause for every student, and a speech by our local MP. Graduation is a term I still can’t readily associate with being 16, but the sun shone, no-one (despite the array of heels on offer) fell over on stage, refreshments were tasty, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

At the beginning of the event, the headteacher reminded us that this group of year 11 students started school in 2006, when amongst other things Tony Blair was prime minister, North Korea carried out its first nuclear test, and more locally, five women were murdered in Ipswich. He could have gone to say that in 2006, education spending totalled £87.8 billion (in real terms) – the seventh of twelve successive years of increased spending on education.

For the first four years of my son’s education, spending increased year on year. And things were looking good: education was moving up the policy agenda. Then, in 2010, Michael Gove got the job he’d been pitching for, and things took a turn for the worse. Funding has been decreasing every since, but that’s by no means the only change  our schools have been battling with over the course of just one cohort’s progress through school. Here are just some of them:

  • Out of favour went Local Authorities, academics, parent governors and communities.  In came business, Chief Executives, and branding.
  • Up went testing, the priority given to core subjects, and the link between test results and school accountability. Down went teacher morale and staff retention.
  • Up went “rigour”. Down went freedom in the classroom and creativity.
  • Down went specialist support for those with additional needs; Up went exclusions.
  • Down went access to the arts and counselling; Soaring went the numbers of young people needing support for mental health problems.
  • Up went school leaving age. Down went the number of schools able to afford to offer ‘less common’ subjects (like languages and music).
  • Here in Suffolk, Up went the number of secondary schools (but, crucially, not the numbers of people needing school places). With the paradoxical consequence, just this week, that Down goes the school bus service. The only silver lining here is that we stopped another one opening up the road and distorting what our catchment school could offer.
  • Out of fashion went education as the means by which children gain the motivation to learn for life, and the skills to do so.  In came schooling as a transactional and time-limited process.

To cap it all, the 2006 cohort have just endured what are commonly being referred to as “the toughest ever GCSEs”. Not only are they tough, but what they test seems increasingly irrelevant. Acquisition and recall of facts are prized above critical and interpretative skills, and above the interpersonal skills of the workplace. Inevitably, to prepare them for this, primary school tests have got harder too. And – just to prove the point – so have A’levels. (All despite the very obvious statistical truth that making exams harder doesn’t in itself raise exam results, no matter how many times schools ministers might say so on Women’s Hour.)

Whilst much of this chaos has been released since 2010, some of it was set in train before that, as a consequence of the rise of neo-liberalism generally, and because of our consistent failure as a society to debate what education is actually for.  In his mercifully short speech, our MP spoke this morning about changes to the world of work – the advent of automation, and the implications of this for the jobs the young people sat in front of him might be doing in a few years time. Which does rather raise the question: if we don’t know at this point what jobs people will be doing, why are they being educated now for the jobs of the last century? In a world where we may not even need to learn how to drive a car, wouldn’t an education that prioritised the understanding, appraisal and application of knowledge be rather more useful than one that is more obsessed with testing acquisition and recall of facts? And if young people are to be deprived of work in the sense that we now know it, wouldn’t it be useful to help them develop their passions, promote their wellbeing, and nurture their capacity to share in and sustain their communities?

Speaking personally, we’ve had a good ride so far. But that’s because the schools my children have attended have bucked the trend, and kept smiling against the odds. They have valued – and promoted – music, the arts, personal wellbeing, sport, access to the out-of-doors, creativity in the classroom, and sought to build rapport with the communities in which they are based. They talk of resilience, of respect, of happiness. Their primary school, in particular, has never lost sight of the value of joy.

So what beckons, for the ‘cohort of 2018’  starting school this September? Schools are facing a crisis in funding, in morale, in staff recruitment and retention, in freedom to act in the interests of the pupils that teachers go into teaching for. All things considered, my eldest has been lucky.

What price democracy?

Earlier today I received a phone call on behalf of Babergh District Council, asking for my views on the proposed merger of Babergh with Mid Suffolk district council. Sadly I only got to answer the preliminary questions, as it turns out that they have already filled their quota of people in my age group. (A shame, I’d welcome the chance to give Babergh some feedback on this particular issue.)

As regular readers of the Suffolk Free Press (Sudbury edition) will be aware, Babergh’s Tory council has got its knickers in a twist. Late last year the council’s cabinet discussed proposals to merge with Mid Suffolk council, in order to make further cost savings.  Given that merger must involve the dissolution of a council (and the loss of council seats), you might reasonably expect that this issue would have been discussed robustly and widely. Oh no. The council’s cabinet (just seven out of 42 councillors) discussed it, apparently of the view that at this stage the proposal didn’t need to be discussed by anyone else (who might, presumably, disagree with them).

There’s a back story. This isn’t the first time Babergh has talked about merging. 

In 2011, the council put the merger to the vote in a local referendum, and lost. In 2014, Babergh, which until then had a proud history of returning independent councillors, became a Tory authority for the first time. To celebrate, the Tories adopted a cabinet model of working (which gives a minority of councillors more control) and proceeded with what they might like to term a ‘radical agenda’ which included, of course, revisiting the proposal to merge with Mid Suffolk. Unlike much of the rest of their agenda, merging to form a bigger council may or may not have merits. But it’s impossible to tell.  The rules have now changed and Babergh are no longer required to hold a local referendum on council mergers, or to tell us very much at all.

(As an aside, the change in the rules since 2011 must be a rare example of forward planning from our Conservative governent. The plan goes something like this:

  1. get rid of the requirement for councils to consult residents about getting changes to their council
  2. more councils (or more specifically, more Tory councils in the shires) merge with each other
  3. merged councils have fewer councillors overall. That brings some small cost savings (savings have already been made from sharing services and staff, after all).
  4. fewer people feel connected with their councillor, as they cover a wider area (residents are less likely to see them let alone know them in rural areas). So fewer residents see the point of voting in local elections or know who to complain to when things aren’t going well
  5. More councils return a Tory council for evermore.

At least, that is I presume the intention.)

I do find it baffling, in a country that prides itself on its democratic processes, that our councils can dissolve themselves and merge at whim. In behaving in this way it’s as if the only thing that matters is how cheaply the councils can deliver a set of basic services, rather than demonstrating what it means to be the local part of our democratically elected system of government (though the question ‘what are councils for?’ is beyond the scope of this post!). Thankfully in this case Labour and other opposition councillors applied council rules to ensure that the issue was properly debated and scrutinised by full council. The consequences of all this are 1) that Babergh commissioned ComRes to carry out a phone survey of a representative sample of residents about the merger (the reason I was called), 2) the council leader was deposed, 3) a new leader was installed (who now insists he is in favour of a referendum) – and the Tories are in complete disarray. And all the while, they are distracted from doing something that might actually be useful.

I can’t help thinking that they get away with all this because few of us know what councils do – unless or until we happen to need their services (or at least services other than refuse collection). And of course what councils do isn’t at all the same as what councils could do if they properly exercised their strategic leadership role in their locality (and, of course, if they weren’t continually subject to funding cuts by central govenrment, which is what has ultimately caused all this trouble).

Back to the phone survey. Now it doesn’t take much effort to realise that the easiest way to get the desired answers from any survey is to ask questions that don’t allow for any other kind of answers, as a number of local residents have already found out.  When I asked the ComRes caller what he would have asked me, had I been eligible to continue with the survey, he said ‘what I like’ and ‘what I don’t like’ about the area, as well as my view on the proposed merger. Not exactly seizing the opportunity to inform residents of what the council does, what they might like it to do – or even how to make sure they are registered to vote. A letter in last week’s Suffolk Free Press suggests this survey is costing Babergh £20,000 – the price to be paid for this pretense of democracy. Even if Babergh were to recover their democratic sensibilities and afford a whole referendum, real democracy is well beyond the current council’s reach.

Some stories are real

There’s a group of lively and engaging teenagers in my sitting room. Eating pizzas, cake, watching random stuff on the television and generally making a lot of noise (some of which could be called singing). They are celebrating with my eldest, who turned sixteen this week. Those sixteen years have gone in a flash, as they do for most parents I know. And like most parents of sixteen-year olds, we’ve negotiated ‘wants’ versus ‘needs’ many times so far.

On his birthday, as has become my habit over the last sixteen or so years, I fell asleep in front of the television. This time, I woke up to the BBC programme Exodus, a series which follows individuals on their journey as migrants and refugees. The BBC describes it as a “terrifying, intimate, epic portrait of the migrant crisis”, and they aren’t wrong. On this particular episode we met young men living in disused train carriage in Serbia, whose daily reality it is to live in the kind of dark, inhospitable conditions used to portray fear and lawlessness in western TV dramas. Many of these young men huddled around a makeshift fire to combat the ice on the ground were not much older than my sixteen-year old. But they were fending for themselves with no kitchen, toilet or lightbulb in sight.

In the same episode, we also met a couple and their two children, living in a container in a refuge camp in Greece. It’s hard to imagine a container made to look more homely. But it was still a container. In a camp with no school, and no future. The mother, Nazifa, was six months pregnant. Her goal was to reach Germany, so that her third child could be born there. In this episode she was agonising about the possibility of having to make the journey alone, as they couldn’t afford to pay the smuggler for her to take either or both of her children.  Her choice: to leave her two children behind and make the uncertain journey alone, to split the family and take one child, or to remain with her family and give up the chance to change their lives forever.

We watched Nazifa sing her toddler to sleep. Watching her made me smile, and made me cry. Singing a child to sleep is the kind of intimate everyday act most of us parents have enjoyed – and taken for granted – countless times. But unlike Nazifa I’ve never been forced to choose between my children.  I’ve never had to fear them living alone in a dark disused railway siding in the snow. And I’ve never had to consider leaving my children behind.

The BBC describes Exodus as epic. ‘Epic’ is a strange word. We use it of films, of drama, of stories. To mean a story beyond what is normally contemplated or imaginable. And generally, of course, to mean something made up. But Exodus isn’t made up. It’s about real people, who but for a bit of luck or a change of circumstance could be living lives just like mine and my son’s. I cannot imagine having the courage to do as they have done, but then I haven’t had to flee war, hunger, oppression and daily violence just to stand a chance of staying alive.

Exodus tells the story of just a few of the people caught up in the refugee and migrant crisis across the world. Underlying these stories is a huge, unravelling crisis with no end in sight.  I don’t know what the answers are to the refugee and migrant crisis. But I do know that leaving people to fend for themselves in unheated train carriages in the snow, or depriving young children of their mothers, is wrong. Watching programmes like Exodus doesn’t of course address the problem, and also runs the risk of turning the lives of real people into epic stories we can observe not actively participate in. But it is a story that needs to be told, if more mothers are to have a chance of meeting the basic needs of their children as they turn sixteen.

Talking to power?

Last week I sat in the public gallery at Suffolk County Council, together with local childcare providers and parents, whilst the county council debated a motion on the problems with the 30 hours childcare policy locally. The point of the motion was to get the Tory council to be more supportive to providers, to apologise for operational problems (like late payment) that have  added to the difficulties faced by providers, and to be transparent about how much early years funding is being retained by the council and what it is used for.

Suffolk has particular problems with the 30 hours policy, partly because our early years funding has been cut by central government, and partly due to poor and opaque implementation of the policy compounded by operational problems.
So did our Tory councillors  take the opportunity  to help our providers? (as let’s face it, some will  be forced  to close  due to this policy). No  chance. What we got instead was a display of cheap political point scoring by the Tories, rudeness from the council leader, and no attempt at resolution of the problems. The best to be had  was confirmation  that the council are  lobbying central  government about the funding  cut. (Whilst Suffolk Tory MPs are busy wagging their fingers at Suffolk for not passing more of the funding to providers, and things just go round in circles.) Members of the public aren’t allowed to speak at council meetings, and how the childcare providers kept their cool I don’t know, especially when, as people whose businesses are threatened by this underfunded policy, they were treated to a lecture by one councillor on how the council must operate sound business practices.

The council leader, blatantly putting dogma before service provision yesterday poured oil on troubled waters by  declaring on the radio  that some providers will flourish and some will struggle as a consequence of the policy. Not the strategic response from a major provider of public services one might hope for for our children, their parents or the childcare providers.

Roll forward to today and I’m now on the way to the #School Cuts  mass lobby of parliament. In one of life’s little ironies (if there is such a thing as a little irony with a potentially life-long consequence), the Suffolk funding rate for early years has gone down, at the same time that the government has proposed a welcome, though insufficient, rise in the funding rate for schools. To give an example of how inadequate the proposals for school funding are, my children’s school faces a loss of over £140,000 by the end of the parliament. And that’s better  than most.

My MP has declined to meet me today, though hundreds of other MPs are meeting concerned parents, students and teachers from across the country.  The story in schools and childcare settings across the country is that at the moment, education from early years to sixth form is undervalued and underfunded. The solutions aren’t hard. Let’s  hope someone in power  today is actually listening. Preferably the Chancellor.

Top of what, exactly?

In the space of a week, the Guardian has done more to promote the future prospects of a group of pupils than their school has. Last Tuesday the Guardian revealed the pernicious practice by St Olave’s grammar school of discarding students at the end of year 12 if they look less than likely to achieve an A or B grade. By this morning, in the face of persistent negative headlines and a legal challenge, the Guardian and the BBC led with the story that St Olave’s had had a change of heart and invited those students whom they recently asked to leave, to remain at the school. So far so good. But whilst St Olave’s has taken the biggest hit, what’s become clear in the response to the Guardian article is just how many schools – including comprehensives – engage in similar practice, in order to keep results high.

Criticism about the practice of discarding students at year 12  has been strong, along with condemnation of the obsession with league tables that drives it. But despite all this, the Guardian and the BBC have continued to describe St Olave’s as “the leading grammar”, a “top school” and so on. This kind of language is borrowed directly from the league tables the news story is decrying. Our collective understanding of these words in relation to schools is that they have the highest results (not hard to achieve if you select students in the first case like St Olave’s do, of course). But demonstrating how to destroy the self-esteem of 17 year olds isn’t my idea of showing leadership. The students concerned might be top of the discard heap, but that doesn’t make their school ‘top’ at anything other than protecting its own exam rating. Continuing to use this kind of language just perpetuates the idea that ‘top’ schools are those with the best results, not those best equipped to meet the needs of their pupils.

There’s talk of government having performance targets around retention in the sixth form, to dissuade schools from discarding students  they don’t view as up to scratch. But that’s a sticking plaster, not a cure. (After all, Government aren’t minded to do anything other than pretend that all students will achieve A grades in schools kicked into gear by a dose of (un)healthy competition. Policies such as sixth form retention targets are just a defence in case of voter backlash when inevitable injustices occur.) What I think we need instead is a  fundamental rethink about the purpose of education in the 21st century, with a concomitant change in thinking about how school success should be measured, and of the language used to do so.  Here’s a start: my idea of an exemplary school is one which aims to demonstrates the capacity to respond to its pupils educational, emotional and social needs, and set them up for adulthood. A school requiring improvement would be one focused only on a single domain at the expense of others: that is to say, one not unlike St Olave’s.