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Wordblog revived

incorporating New Life


Rattled government blames Trotskyists and Anarchists over work placement protests

You know the Government is panicking when a group of people is described as Trotskyist and Anarchist within a couple of hours.

David Cameron, in the Commons, defending eight week work placements for the unemployed, urged businesses to “stand up against the Trotskyites”.

A little later on the BBC’s World at One, the work and pensions secretary, Ian Duncan Smith, said it was the anarchists who were opposing unpaid work placements. A BBC report appears, from its Google summary, to have originally included this reference to anarchists but later changed to remove it. But I heard him say it.

I realise that many politicians have scant knowledge of political history but anarchists and Trotskyists are unlikely bedfellows.

But it was the sneering tone of IDS suggesting only extremists were against the schemes that really annoyed me. I think work experience is great. People taking part should also be given worthwhile things to do and should learn from them. If the work they do is of real value to the company, after the costs of supervision and support, they should be paid.

I cannot believe that eight weeks of stacking shelves in a supermarket is not replacing paid labour, so work experience people doing that should be paid.


Over 10,000 vacant secondary school places in Suffolk

Suffolk schools have more than 10,000 vacant secondary school places. This is nearly one in six of the available capacity, according to Department for Education figures.

Suffolk has the 17th highest proportion of vacant spaces out of 153 local education authorities.

My thanks to @placefarm, from whose Google map I drew the figure given in my previous post. That, I now know, was for one year only. The education debarment’s spreadsheet, dated May last year, with all the details can be downloaded here.

This makes it even more ridiculous that Free Schools are being planned to add to the 10,632 places already vacant in the county.

Perhaps some of Michael Gove’s cabinet colleagues would like to talk to him about waste in the public sector. His education department now funds directly the many schools which have become academies and free schools.

There is not a lot the local education authority can do now. The buck stops in Whitehall.


1,600 surplus places in Suffolk secondary schools, before new free schools open


A map of Suffolk schools, posted on James Hargrave’s blog but by someone else, reveals that there are over 1,600 surplus places in the county’s secondary schools.

That is before new Free Schools are opened. The idea that the Government should be behind a project which is clearly going mean more vacant places and cost taxpayers a lot of money without any proof of benefit, is shocking.

Figures like the one given above are only part of the picture, but they do show some over-capacity. There will always be some over-subscribed schools and some under-subscribed. Not only is there the relative popularity of schools but there are changes in population to be taken into account.

And in Suffolk the picture is further complicated by the policy of moving to a standard two-tier system, rather than the mixed two and three-tiers the county has had. And schools moving from local education authority control to become centrally funded academies makes the picture even more complicated.

In some places free schools are welcomed and in others fiercely opposed.

Personally, I find the idea of exporting any part of the ethos of a minor public school to other schools wrong-headed. But that is the what is planned with the Seckford Foundation, which runs Woodbridge School, behind plans for four free schools.

I went to a school like Woodbridge, although more than twice as old. The only happy year of my education was when I left it to enter the state system. I doubt the people running public schools have much worthwhile to bring to the state sector.

If you visit Hargrave’s blog take a look at the education section: he has a lot on free schools.

Feb 29. The figure in this post is for a single year only. The total vacant places is over 1,000. See comment below and following post.


Stealth version of Suffolk’s New Strategic Direction?

The idea that reports of the death of Suffolk County Council’s New Strategic Direction were greatly exaggerated is gaining ground. The language has changed but services are still be moved out of the council’s direct control at a pace.

James Hargrave raised the thought first in a blog post which I followed-up (previous post). Then today the Guardian’s Society Daily picked-up on what we had both written.

And this afternoon Mark Valladares, a leading Lib Dem blogger who live near Stowmarket, posted his view under the heading, Suffolk’s New Strategic Disguise: if at first you don’t succeed…

He concludes:

…you may be able to make a Conservative stop, but you can’t necessarily make them think. And the same people who either thought that the New Strategic Direction was a good thing, or were too feckless to question it, have now concluded that, for all intents and purposes, a somewhat pared back version is still fit for purpose.

So, what are they up to now?…

That is what we would like to know. NSD Mark II or the Stealth model?


Note: I read what I expected on Mark Valladares blog. His heading has been corrected above by changing “Direction” to “Disguise”.

Suffolk leader calls New Strategic Direction ‘a vision without detail’ but has it gone away?

Just over a year ago I heard Andrea Hill, then chief executive of Suffolk county council, make a presentation about the New Strategic Direction, and decided to revive Wordblog because I believed that what she was doing was wrong.

Her words were very similar to those she used in a controversial speech at the Guardian’s Public Services Summit at about the same time (podcast).

How attitudes seem to have changed. This year Mark Bee, now leader of council, spoke at the same conference. This account comes from Reform, a non-party think tank:

The prevailing mood was humble and reflective. Mark Bee, Conservative leader of Suffolk county council, talked through the painful implosion last year of its ambitious “big society”-style programme for achieving huge savings and service reform. Suffolk’s “new strategic direction” collapsed amid wide public anger, costing both Bee’s predecessor and the council’s chief executive their jobs. “We woke up and smelled the coffee,” said Bee.

At last year’s summit, Suffolk’s then chief executive, Andrea Hill, delivered a robust and in parts controversial prospectus for transforming local government through the new vision. This year, Bee was scathing about its failings. It was a “vision without detail”, a “blunt instrument”, a one-size-fits-all solution pursued too far, too fast, with scant notice taken of what local people wanted. “It did not connect with our communities,” he admitted.

That leaves unanswered the question of why Mark Bee and the bulk of Conservative controlled council voted unquestioningly for all the elements of this “vision without details” for so long.

Perhaps they have not really given up on the New Strategic Direction but are spinning it with soft words. James Hargrave in his blog last week  pointed out that by next year some two third of the staff employed by Adult and Community Services (ACS) would be moved to new employers.

His blog post quotes cabinet member Colin Noble justifying this change in words which closely echo some of those used by Andrea Hill a year ago.

The number directly employed in ACS by the council will come down from 3,557 to 895. Hargrave asks: “Have Suffolk County council brought back the ‘new strategic direction’?

Fair question.

In 1851 Suffolk libraries and eduction lagged behind: they still do

Somethings do not change. In 1851 educational standards in Suffolk were low and libraries were inadequate compared with many other places. One hundred and sixty years later the situation remains very similar.

Suffolk county council was ranked close to the bottom of the table for library spending by English counties in 2010 (latest available figures)  and GCSE results ranked the county as 121st out of 152 education authorities according to a report this year.

That, of course, was before library spending was cut further and the independent Suffolk’s Libraries IPS Ltd was set up by the council under a chairman, Clive Fox, who has yet to show the vision and leadership needed to provide a coherent library service.

I can make this 160 year comparison because of a remarkable book, Suffolk in the 19th Century, by John Glyde who had left school at the age of nine and, presumably, educated himself. He used the 1851 census as the basis for his book which includes a chapter on libraries. He wrote:

We have seen that Agricultural Suffolk is celebrated for Schools of inferior quality, and, as may be expected, institutions for carrying on the means of instruction among adults are neither numerouss nor flourishing in this county.

He echoes a correspondent in Bungay which had no library, who described it as a “dark region”. “That Dark region… extends a long way over Suffolk”, Glyde writes. (I should say that today Bungay library has people determined to maintain it and a community which has built a serene garden by its entrance.)

In the middle of the 19th century Glyde shows that in the West Riding of Yorkshire there was one Literary Institute for every 867 persons: in Suffolk there was one to every 22,481.

The gap has narrowed but the latest figures show that North Yorkshire (there is no West Riding county now) spent £16.60 per person on libraries. Suffolk spent £12.80, a quarter less.

Libraries were not a matter for local government until the 1850 Libraries Act. Norwich was the first place to apply it. aThe value Norfolk continues to place on libraries is deployed in the splendid Millennium Library.

The general system through most of the 19th century was that there were subscription libraries, which were really only for the middle classes, and mechanics institutes, a movement to bring adult education and books to poorer people.

Our library system at present is, despite cuts, considerably better than that.

More than half the libraries in Suffolk in the middle of the 19th century were mechanics institutes. Only one, Ipswich Institute, survives; look for the stone doorway next to the Body Shop. That is where I found Glyde’s book, but there are two Suffolk Libraries copies available and a digitise copy is on Google Books.

Giving everyone the ability to delve back in history is one of the glories of our public libraries.

Glyde was worried not only by the lack of educational books available in Suffolk libraries but by the paucity of good fiction. He would have been shocked by the pile of discounted chick lit I saw being unpacked to fill the shelves of one Suffolk library recently.

The hopeful sign for Suffolk Libraries is that none are scheduled to close — unlike in many parts of England where doors are closing. A library which is not closed can be revived.

The IPS has a hard task with very little money. It is going to take passion and the support which so many communities throughout the county are showing to ensure that we have a library service we need in an age of information.

In Glyde’s work we see something of the passion for libraries in the middle of the 19th century which led to more being  formed in the following years including one in Debenham.

Download John Glyde on Suffolk libraries in 1851 (zipped pdf file).

Babergh tax up, Mid Suffolk frozen as twin councils take different views

Twin Suffolk district councils Babergh and Mid Suffolk took council tax decisions yesterday which set them on different tracks.

Babergh decided to increase its council tax by 3.5% while Mid Suffolk chose to freeze its demands after a lively debate. Babergh has no overall political control and Mid Suffolk has a Conservative majority.

Last year a referendum on a full merger of the councils was lost (a majority of Babergh voters were against). But the integration (we have had joint refuse collections for some time) of services and administration goes ahead.

So both councils had similar advice on which to base their decisions. After a strong debate, Mid Suffolk decided to take community secretary Eric Pickles’s shilling.

The government has offered a one off grant, equivalent to a 2.5 per cent tax rise, this year to councils that freeze their demands. That means that a 3.5 increase results in a 1 per cent rise in spending power.

And any rise of more than 3.5 percent would trigger a costly referendum.

A report from the joint management board to the Executive Committee of Mid Suffolk in January suggested that accepting the Government’s offer could result could higher rises in the future.

Like all local government finance it is a complicated issue, but that report puts the issues as clearly as as I have seen anywhere. Here is the relevant section (full report):

• Earlier in the year, the Government announced its intention to offer local authorities a grant to enable council tax to be frozen again in 2012/13. The grant will again be equivalent to a 2.5% increase in council tax but will only be a one-off (whereas the 2011/12 grant is for 4 years).

• Unlike 2011/12, not all councils are likely to take the grant due to the ‘knock on’ financial implications in future years of only receiving a one-off grant. Although the main options appear to be to either take the grant or increase Council Tax by 2.5% (or slightly more), it is important to understand the impacts in future years of different percentage increases in 2012/13. A further announcement has been made that any Council Tax increase of more than 3.5% will be subject to a local referendum.

• A 2.5% increase equates to £3.78 a year for a Band D property (3.5% = £5.29). If the one-off Government funding is accepted, that will have the same overall impact on the 2012/13 budget as a 2.5% Council Tax increase.

The reasons for having a Council Tax increase in 2012/13 and not accepting the Government’s grant of £136,000 are as follows:

• As the Government grant is a one-off, that amount would then have to be added to the savings that are required in 2013/14

• A 2.5% increase in Council Tax just to stand still in 2013/14 would then be needed

• A 5% Council Tax increase would be needed in 2013/14 or subsequent years to ‘catch up’, but this would be subject to a local referendum, which would be costly

• Not increasing the Council Tax by 2.5% in 2012/13 would mean that there is a lower tax base for future years and the £136,000 is lost each and every year in the future – unless that can be recouped through higher than normal increases in subsequent years, either as indicated above or by gradual year-on-year phased increases e.g. of around 0.8% a year over 3 years.

Suffolk County Council and Suffolk Coastal District Council have also decided to freeze their taxes. But every council tax payer in the county faces increases because the police authority precept is increasing by 3.75 per cent and many town and parish councils are pushing up their shares (average rises of nearly 4 per cent in Mid Suffolk).

And the new name for Suffolk Libraries is… Suffolk’s Libraries

The Industrial and Provident Society which is to take over libraries in Suffolk has been registered this week with the name Suffolk’s Libraries IPS Limited.

There is nothing grammatically wrong with putting our libraries into the possession of an inanimate object, but it looks like a daft change. Perhaps it is a metaphor for the way they think in Endeavour House.

It is a unnecessary alteration, tinkering. It sounds uglier than Suffolk Libraries and how many people will be able to remember where to put the apostrophe? It makes designing logos and signs more difficult. And there is a mysterious law that says apostrophes are the first things to fall off signs.

I suspect the originators of the name were thinking that it suggested Suffolk’s People’s Libraries. It doesn’t.

But it need not be a problem. The board of Suffolk’s Libraries IPS Limited, which is to meet next week for the first time as a constituted body, can simply decide to trade as Suffolk Libraries. They are in the clear: the board had not been appointed when the naming decision was made.

Free School puzzles and why a £13k fees school wants to set them up

Three things puzzle me about free schools:

• Why are they any more free than other state funded schools?

• Why has the government embarked on a scheme which inevitably creates an eduction system with more places than pupils in a time of austerity? Surely, the money could be better spent on creating jobs for young people when they leave school.

• Why does a government apparently committed to “localism” centralise the approval and funding of these schools in Whitehall? If you want to know who is boss, just follow the money.

And another puzzle. Suffolk blogger James Hargrave has been scraping away to discover why the Seckford Foundation, whose main business is Woodbridge School (Fees: £13,524 or £24,150 for boarders), is behind plans for four free schools in the county.

Today he has a post headed Free Schools project to “rescue” private education. He repeats part of an earlier post where he revealed Woodbridge School had made a loss of £2 million over the last six years. He quotes this from the 2010 annual report:

The net loss for the year after tax and realised losses on investment assets is £543,610 (2009: £244,835) this reflects the fall in income as a result of the reduced numbers in the school; down from 983 in 2009 to 929 in 2010.

He has also looked at the role of Melanie Tucker — who runs MTM Consulting which works in education at Southwold, just up the coast from Woodbridge — one of the proposers of a Beccles Free School.

Mrs Tucker has given her services to the Beccles project for free but it is not unreasonable to assume that the Seckford people are aware of her wider work. And this may explain why they are so keen on establishing a chain of free schools.

An article on the MTM website which looks at the impact of free schools on independent schools. It points to its research showing that selective state schools attract pupils away from independents. And says:

We asked our survey respondents to judge whether the Conservatives’ plans for free schools would be implemented and attract pupils away from independent schools. 39% felt it unlikely while 36% thought it likely. We would side with those who think it likely, and in particular the smaller minority who believe there is significant potential for independent schools to lose out to free schools.

In quantifying this, our estimate is that “if the grammar schools are a guide, then there could be a reduction of about a third of pupil numbers over a period of 20-30 years”.

So the already loss-making Woodbridge School (the foundation has enough money to cope with this for years) is faced with the loss of up to a third of its pupils if they believe MTM consulting.

Establishing free schools, funded by the Government, looks like a very sensible strategy for coping with a main business in decline. Whether it is so sensible for the taxpayers and people of Suffolk is another matter.

The other three Seckford-backed free schools are at Stoke by Nayland,Saxmundham and Ixworth.

Further links:
Seckford Foundation
Woodbridge School
Stoke by Nayland Free School
Samundham Free School
Ixworth Free School

Government and Tesco conspire in ‘forced labour’ scheme

Which is worse, Tesco seeing unpaid employees to the Government for advertising the jobs?

This is the advert which disappeared from the Direct Gov site early this morning after a wave of Twitter protests:

 It offers a “permanent” position for someone who will be paid travelling expenses in addition to their Job Seekers Allowance.

To find out how to apply you would have to ring Jobseekers Direct.

No wonder some jobseekers are going to court claiming a contravention of the Human Rights Act clause which says, “no one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour”. (Guardian)

James Hargrave has more details on his blog.