John Bald, an independent educational consultant, and blogger says cuts should not be focused on small libraries in rural areas
Linton library issued over 8,000 books to children in the last year, and is under review, with thirteen others that have been recommended either for closure or for catastrophic budget cuts in a review by consultants that was originally kept secret, but has been forced into the open. At a public meeting to discuss this, I was pushed towards a front seat beside our Lib Dem county councillor, who was in a most courteous and affable mood. He would have been more affable still if we’d had elections this time round, as Conservatives would have taken a hammering. Like many councils, Cambridgeshire has used a formula for cuts based on social factors that could have been designed by Harriet Harman herself. It leads to cuts in areas most likely to vote Conservative, and in services most likely to be valued by Conservative voters.
A figure of 48% in cuts over five years was repeated to us by the two library officials, who played a very straight bat in difficult circumstances for them. Virtually all of the smaller libraries in Cambridgeshire are under threat, and some visits from mobile libraries have been reduced to 15 minutes a month – certainly not enough time for a child to choose a book. We can only hope that the changes in the county council last week will result in some changes to priorities within the budget, and above all that the council will stop playing by the previous government’s rules. In particular, the “Socialism in one clause“ of the Equalities Act must not be allowed to displace other criteria for making decisions. What should a Conservative council do? The answer should not be “the same as a Labour council, but with less money”.
Finding answers will not be easy. Prescott’s changes to local government did a great deal to make it less responsive to local needs – for example by his restrictions on the freedom of speech of councillors that make it much harder for local concerns to be directly reflected in the Council Chamber. Our recent campaign against a disastrously misplaced windfarm, for example, could not be campaigned for during local elections, as the councillors could not then have spoken and voted against it. Within the Chamber, a respect agenda prevents the expression of honest opinion. Most local officials have a vested interest in the status quo, and can put a wall of words round anything they want to protect . Hence Cambridgeshire’s education department has protected its own castle from cuts, and can continue to churn out its “guidance” and “training”, without notable benefit to schools.
A middle school has just been failed by Ofsted in spite of these services, and in circumstances very similar to those surrounding a similar decision that I had to make myself some years ago. These services don’t learn – they protect their own. To tackle them, councils need advice from people other than their own officials. If councillors don’t have the skills themselves, they need to find people who have.
Schools are no better – inflated salaries and featherbedded management abound. When comprehensives were formed, jobs had to be found for the heads of the smaller schools that were amalgamated. These people were usually made deputy heads, and so a system emerged of schools having more than one deputy – the private sector usually has one deputy, often with a quaint title such as “Sub-master”. Under New Labour, two deputies soon became 3, even in schools that had no sixth form. Every primary school has a deputy head, and some have two – in France, no primary school has a deputy at all. (The head doesn’t even have a secretary, though I think this goes too far.)
No school has real work for more than one deputy head. Deputies typically cost £75k or more each. (The new Assistant Head grade provides much better value for money, as well as promotion prospects for bright young teachers.) Governing bodies should, therefore, move towards having one deputy, and make new appointments at AHT level. Anyone suggesting this will routinely be accused of not understanding the work, and if possible marginalised – but this is in effect allowing New Labour’s agenda to define the work. This kind of review needs to take place throughout every Conservative authority – anyone not providing a direct service, eg as a teacher, librarian, social worker, should have the kind of review undertaken in the private sector by company doctors.