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Where Cambridgeshire should cut

Baldtwo John Bald is an independent educational consultant, a blogger and a Conservative, has some advice for Cambridgeshire, his local council, on where they should find savings

I decided to become a teacher – a proper teacher, not a dilettante – in 1974, when a boy truanted from my English class at Holloway Boys’ School, and the deputy head told me nonchalantly that he couldn’t read. I was shocked, both by the fact that he’d been in school for six years and couldn’t read, and by the deputy’s lack of concern. “Lots of boys in the first year can’t read”, he went on, with a pull at his John Cotton Cigarillo.

I found I could not go past this, and began a career that included work as head of a remedial department in the East End, a middle-ranking post in the Essex advisory service from 1090 to 1993, and a long spell as an Ofsted team inspector and lead inspector, during which I saw some of the best state education in the country – Maidstone Grammar School – and some of the very worst. I advised the late Emily Blatch on reading in the nineties, and gave Tim Eggar advice that led him to cancel a project called Links, set up to promote literacy, but wrecked by leftist infiltration.

I gave New Labour a fair chance in 1997, as I thought Blunkett was genuinely interested in tackling illiteracy (I still think he was, personally, but that he didn’t know how to do it), but grew to detest them as they began to fiddle test scores, dumb down GCSE A levels, and force schools to tolerate outrageous behaviour in the name of “inclusion”. I recently co-wrote a report for Policy Exchange on tackling extremism in the school system.

So, having, to my surprise, reached the age of 60, I’ve been round the block, and know the ways of the Left. They do their homework, understand the mechanics of politics, and have learned not to repeat Lord Kinnock’s error of showing his hand. They have been highly successful in stitching up Conservative politicians, locally and nationally, since the Staff Inspector for English rigged the membership of the Bullock Committee to defeat Margaret Thatcher in the early seventies, and are doing so still. The devil is in the detail, and they know both the detail and the devil. Over the coming weeks, this column will try to help Conservatives who have to deal with these people to recognise their tricks and tactics, to defeat them, and to ensure that Conservative policies prevail.

I will start close to home. At a Parish Council meeting last week, we were told that Cambridgeshire County Council was to make a cut of 48% in its library budget. Cambridgeshire was never a big spender on libraries in the first place – a little over £6m. Add the importance of children’s libraries, and you have a very damaging piece of publicity for the county council, and a cut in services that can fairly be described as anti-educational, anti-social, unfair and ignorant. There is another, smaller, but no less damaging cut to the services for children looked after by the local authority, of which more in a moment.

Now look at what has not been cut, to wit:

Learning Professional Development Services £1.9m
Professional development centres £220k
Learning Standards and Effectiveness 3-13 £2.83m
Ditto, 11-19 £2.52m
Learning ICT service £440k
(Source: Cambridgeshire Integrated Plan, 2011-12, Technical Appendix A, 15.2.2011)

Professional development is in-service training for teachers, usually taking them out of their classrooms for the purposes of indoctrination rather than training and leaving the children to waste their time being supervised by people who don’t know them or, often, their subjects. Learning standards and effectiveness refers to local authority “advisory” services, which duplicate work that should be undertaken by schools themselves, or by Ofsted.

The learning ICT service does work schools need to do for themselves if it is to be of any use to them. These headings have all had a cut of around 9%, under a fifth of the proportion taken from libraries. They are precisely the areas that Conservatives are trying to devolve to schools, and yet here is a major Conservative council shoring up the Labour agenda of powerful local authorities telling professionals what to do. Eliminating these areas from the budget would have saved the libraries and given a tidy sum to schools to organise their own training. But hell will freeze over before officials will recommend that.

How did it happen?

Easy. Let the officials produce a package of “across the board” cuts. They can then protect their own priorities, as above, and make cuts that fit financial targets in areas that leave the council to take the blame.

The solution – go straight for the bottom line, cut from there, and only then listen to officials’ advice. Get independent, expert advice if you need it. Harold Wilson once remarked that it was important to write the first draft, as you got a better input that way than by amending someone else’s. The Council has either let the officials write the first draft, or else has not written a strong enough draft itself. Officials are not, for the most part, Conservatives. Neither are they, for the most part, corrupt.

But they are politicians, just as much as elected members are, and they have their own agenda. This package of cuts keeps their castle intact. If it makes the councillors look bad, well, the flack goes with the territory.

Two quick final points. Cambridgeshire has a “localities” programme that costs over £5m and duplicates the work of district and parish councils. This is more of a Lib Dem than a Conservative policy and should be scrapped. There is nothing more local than a local library, and it is paradoxical, to put it mildly, that a localities programme should be protected at libraries’ expense.

And finally, one good thing Labour did was to improve provision for children in care. The Cambridgeshire service is a national leader and its head, Sue Hains, the best in her field. They have moved this service to a supervisory role and away from the direct teaching that provided the backbone of its support for the children.

An ill-informed decision that will save peanuts and seriously reduce the quality of service provided to a group that can genuinely be described as vulnerable. Councillors don’t know enough about the detail of the work to see that this apparently attractive decision is in fact a disaster, similar in its own way to the disastrous changes to Ofsted in 2005. But that’s another story…


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