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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.

When it’s Free, and Not Free

It’s the beginning of August. One month before working parents of 3-4 year olds (those who meet the minimum earnings threshold to qualify) will apparently be accessing 30 hours of ‘free’ childcare a week during term-time. Sounds good, doesn’t it! Ah, but look again. It’s another of those chimeras offered by the Government that Likes to Say Yes (but really means No).  With the net result that it isn’t looking very likely that many of those 3-4 years will be taking up 30 hours free childcare anytime soon. According to Suffolk Infolink, for example, there are only three providers (two school nurseries and one childminder) as of today registered to provide the 30 hours  (out of a total of nearly 500 childcare providers in Suffolk who could be signing up to deliver it). Not exactly a wide choice of handy providers for  working parents  to choose from come September.

The Department of Education wants to promote childcare. For good reason: good early years support and play can help young children to build good foundations in social skills, confidence, communication and so on before they get to school,  heading off educational inequality. There’s plenty of evidence to this effect (though it’s been studiously ignored by government and local authorities when it comes to continuing the funding for Children’s Centres, of course).  And childcare is expensive for working parents, so all in all it sounds a terrific idea.

You can hear the “but” coming…

To start with, there are problems with the policy itself. The ‘free’ childcare is only available to working parents who have enough income (but not too much, which is at least something).  Now it’s not a high threshold (to qualify parents have to earn the equivalent of 16 hours per week at minimum wage), but that does mean that many of the children who could most benefit, whose parents are out of work or too randomly employed to qualify, aren’t actually eligible for free care. I could go on. The message ‘you have to be the right sort of parent to qualify for our offer’ couldn’t be clearer.

The government is of course at liberty to make bad policy decisions. But it isn’t at liberty to expect small businesses, self-employed individuals and voluntary sector organisations to pay for them. Which is exactly what seems to be happening.

I became aware of this issue during the election campaign, when as a local Labour candidate I was contacted by local childcare providers who have set up a national campaign group called Champagne Nurseries on Lemonade Funding (CNLF). (And if only Labour had got in, childcare would be funded, with the funds being paid directly to providers so they could budget and plan properly. But I digress.) CNLF are rightly angry at being forced to pay for government policy, and even angrier at the mis-selling of the childcare as ‘free’. Many childcare providers are private nurseries, the kind of local enterprise that the Tory government is usually so keen on. But bizarrely, it looks as if government expects the private sector, along with not-for-profit nurseries (both types often providing longer days year-round to meet the needs of working parents), to take the biggest hit.

Childcare doesn’t come cheap: it needs staff (never mind rent, electricity, food etc). Preferably experienced and qualified early years staff, in sufficient quantities that they can do more than simply feed, toilet and keep the children safe.  In preparation for the 30 hours ‘free’ childcare, the DfE (with assistance from Deloitte) did a survey of childcare providers, their staffing ratios and cost, and found that (not surprisingly) on average providers use higher staff-ratios than the statutory minimum. (The word ‘minimum’ is used for a reason. Surely it is no coincidence that 85% of childcare providers have good or outstanding Ofsted ratings, yet average staff ratios are well above the statutory minimum?) And the DfE’s conclusion, of course, was not that parents and providers clearly prefer a staff:child ratio that enables staff to do more than make sure the children stay safe. No, the DfE decided that – despite the real-terms cuts in funding the National Audit Office had previously pointed to them –  it must be possible for providers to make savings and provide childcare more cheaply. The upshot? Providers are being paid less than it costs to provide care. Oh and they’re not allowed to pass the shortfall on to parents. So how might providers respond? One way, apparently, is to put staff on ‘more flexible’ contracts. (The kind of contract that could of course render them ineligible for the free childcare if they have young children of their own!)

The government, of course, has passed the buck to local authorities to sort out. But they are not equipped to do so. A quick glance at the Facebook page for the CNLF group shows you the kind of advice local authority advisors have been meting out to providers. It ranges from ‘ask staff to work voluntarily until the numbers build up’, ‘pay all the staff same regardless of (relevant and required) qualifications’ to ‘put out a bucket for donations’ to ‘take in the parents’ ironing to do whilst staff aren’t busy’.  You get the picture.  Advisors have been tasked to do the government’s dirty work implementing an un-funded policy, all the while having to pretend it’s Christmas for parents. Because the government aren’t so much providing free childcare as a free-for-all and a race to the bottom in the childcare market. You’ve got to wonder what kind of childcare MPs and councillors would choose for their own children: nurseries that open the hours the parents want, with qualified and motivated staff who work regular hours and can get to know their children, or providers open when they can afford to be, with minimum staffing levels and a donation bucket to pay for paintbrushes. So much for the value of early years education.

Dear Education Secretary, did your school offer arts subjects?

Dear Ms Greening

I am writing in response to the government’s consultation response on implementing the EBacc, which was finally published on Wednesday, 18 months (nearly five school terms!) after the consultation closed. As a supporter of the BACC for the Future campaign, I was one of those parents who had filed a response to the consultation arguing that there is no evidence to support the use of EBacc as a measure, that it is undermining a broad-based education across the curriculum, limiting access to creative GCSEs, reducing pupil choice and opportunity, and risking our creative industries.

As the government has been forced to acknowledge in this week’s publication, there is a great deal of unease amongst school leaders, teachers, parents, and creative industries, about the impact of continuing to use the EBacc as a performance measure for schools. As your document makes clear, there’s also a huge difficulty in actually implementing the EBacc at required scale because of the shortage of language and other teachers (a fact which is unlikely to be reversed by the government’s ongoing  refusal to end the pay cap on public sector workers). This is presumably why you have pushed back the targets on the proportion of pupils entering the EBacc by a few years, a welcome step. But that doesn’t alter the fact that requiring 75%, 90% or any other % of pupils to take the EBacc limits their school experience and their career choices.  Nor does it add anything meaningful to our understanding of how well schools are meeting pupils’ educational needs.

As you point out, 71% of respondents were concerned about the EBacc reducing curriculum choice. There are clear statistics from organisations – including Ofqual – about the steady decline (8% last year) in students taking arts and technical subjects at GCSE. Limiting GCSE choices makes creative subjects less visible (as is also happening at primary schools as the curriculum narrows to focus excessively on SATs). Less visible subjects quickly become less viable, across the whole curriculum. Looking locally, there are apparently three secondary schools in Suffolk alone who will not be offering music on the curriculum next year. And yet you continue to assert that the arts are important.

There is no shortage of evidence about why access to the arts and creative subjects matters, both for themselves and because of the impact access to the arts has on wellbeing and other areas of study.  But there is a distinct shortage of parents with the resources (whether these be funds, time or prior knowledge) to enable their children to access the arts and other creative subjects outside school, in ways which can help them fulfil their needs and desires. And they shouldn’t be asked to, as that is what school is for. Government is full of people who will have benefited from a broad based education delivered by schools whose curriculum was unimpeded by the EBacc – a performance measure so meaningless it is not valued by Russell Group universities. So please, let the next generation of children have the same experience.   “One system for me, another one for you” is not a good message for our children.

Given that you are faced with growing pressures on our schools and an overwhelming body of responses to the EBacc consultation which clearly opposed its ongoing and increased use, it seems extraordinary that the government didn’t use the last 18 months to quietly abandon the EBacc altogether. For our children’s futures and the future health of our creative industries, please review the decision to continue with the EBacc.

I look forward to your reply.

Pass the inkwell…

Last night I watched the year 6 play, which this year took us through periods in time, under the direction of a Time Lord. We visited Boudicca (and some Romans), Beethoven, a second world war kitchen, and even got as far as the ancient Egyptians, before landing safely back in the  village hall in the present day. Every child in the year 6 class (24 of them this year) had a speaking part. Every child sang and danced, albeit some more than others. And every child contributed to designing and selling tickets, painting the set, and so on.

The year 6 summer play has become a tradition here ever since the primary school has had a year 6 (until 2013 the school ended at year 4 and pupils then went to the middle schools which have now closed). It wouldn’t  happen at all, of course, without hours and hours of additional volunteering from teaching assistants to make costumes, source props and so on, teachers of the other classes being there to help, and significant support from the lighting and general backstage guru in the local drama group. It is put together in a whirlwind of activity which starts after the summer half-term as a kind of antidote to SATs.

Some of these children have been in village plays, been regular members of school choir or performed in other ways inside and outside school.  But most don’t have those experiences. The point about the Year 6 play is that, whatever their starting point, all the children are on stage. All collaborating, all memorising lines (even Mr Gove would be proud!). All supporting each other, whether that’s to remember what comes next, put on a costume or to get onto the stage in the first place. I can’t be the only person who derives enormous pleasure from watching children who are not the natural performers in the class grow in confidence, looking out at the audience and enjoying their lines, as the evening progresses. One can only presume that these are experiences our education ministers haven’t experienced for themselves. Why else would they think children will learn more from the precise positioning of the constituent parts of a semi-colon?

You read that last bit right. The government Time Lord, aka Nick Gibb the education minister (no-where near as entertaining as the year 6 Time Lord even when he tries), has decreed that these same children must leave school able to position a hand-written semi-colon not just in the right place but with the comma element of the semi-colon positioned correctly  “in relation to the point of origin, height, depth and orientation”. The reason this has come to light is that it turns out marking of semi-colons (and other punctuation) has been inconsistent. Some children get a mark, others don’t, for exactly the same answer. (This hasn’t just been an isolated incident; the headteacher who brought it to public attention received over 5000 tweets last weekend from teachers frustrated by inconsistent SATS marking). So these children, freshly exuberant from their year 6 play, are supposed to go out in to the world knowing that the system is pitched against some of them for no better reason than the whim of a government department which has forgotten to move out of the nineteenth century.

I’m not saying children shouldn’t learn grammar. (They should, it’s useful in learning how to write effectively.) And I’m not saying their learning of grammar or anything else shouldn’t be assessed. (It should – by their teachers.) Just that learning the precise alignment of a hand-written semi-colon isn’t likely to be something they make much use of in adulthood, or even in the rest of their schooling. Not now that we have exchanged inkwells for laptops and ledgers for spreadsheets. Nor is the precise alignment of a semi-colon – even when consistently marked – a sensible thing to judge schools by, which is what happens with the SATs results.  Whereas confidence, the ability to do things that at first seem outside their comfort zone, self-belief and collaboration are all necessary attributes for embracing the world of work and becoming healthy, engaged and active citizens. Which is what, in my view, education should be for.

These children are lucky. We have a village hall complete with stage in which the children can perform (the school hall isn’t big enough for the whole school let alone a play). And people willing and able to help.  But they are also lucky because they are at a school where the staff still have the  capacity to fight for what children need to learn as well as delivering what they are told to learn. The memory, the skills and the sheer enjoyment which the year 6 class displayed on stage last night will stay with them  long after they have forgotten the precise height, depth and orientation at which the constituent parts of a semi-colon must be drawn.