Now is the time for protests

24th February 1995 at 00:00
I recently went on my first organised protest for more than 20 years. In 1972, I was a long-haired student bawling "Thatcher out! Thatcher out!" round the bedraggled streets of Barnsley. This time, with other sober-suited headteachers and the support of many governors, I was lobbying our education committee about serious cuts in the delegated schools budget.

When the committee voted for cuts anyway no one was surprised. In those far-off days when Margaret Thatcher was trying to curb student union membership after snatching milk from primary children, the target was obvious. Now the culprit is equally clear, but less simple to attack. "Increase the SSA" or "Remove the capping limit" lacks the punch needed for a good slogan.

One of my colleague heads had a try, though. "Make no mistake", he said, "Our Children Will Suffer." And that's what had brought him and many others to the lobby.

Whether through larger classes, fewer books, deteriorating buildings or less support for children with special needs, all schools will be affected. Some with rising rolls may be able to cushion themselves from the worst effects. Others, such as mine, where pupil numbers are dropping or in a trough, will have to abandon their previous survival plans and cut staff.

Ironically, this will occur against a background of rising standards and improved efficiency. Since local management we have learnt to manage better and improve value for money. But now staff are inclined to say "What's the point? We do what 'they' want and then we get chopped." "They" is always the Government. LEA staff feel just the same. They have seen administrative and support costs slashed in the past four years and now face further reductions.

Headteachers are generally pragmatists: we have to be. Producing better results with fewer resources doesn't allow for too much idealism. But we are principled and the rock on which our faith is based is "the good of the children". When we can't see our way to keeping that faith then hackles rise and normally mild men and women get angry.

And that was last week's main emotion: anger. Not just at the inevitability of reductions but also because heads and governors are obliged to carry out policies they know to be damaging. Many governors talked of resignation; they find the redundancy process distasteful and demeaning.

There was distress, too, for heads who know that they and their colleagues will strive to minimise the impact of the cuts in classrooms, but at the cost of overwork and stress for the staff who remain. "We keep the system going, " said one head. "but the cost is very high."

Staff in all departments now face a lengthy period of uncertainty as schools trawl through budgets to find savings, LEA redundancy panels consider submissions; union officials traipse from one school consultation meeting to another, and governors grapple with naming names. And while doing it, we all know the obscene amount of money set aside to meet redundancy costs could, in a different scenario, be used to much better effect.

While all this is happening, parents are bound to feel confused as well as worried. In one part of the media they read that funding for education is up; in another that their head is protesting about cuts.

What they make of it may depend on the specific information their school gives out. In this context, parents will act self-interestedly. "Will my child be worse off?" is bound to be the first question. But part of the reason for our lobby was to ensure that "Why is it happening?" shouldn't be far behind.

The arcane rules which govern local government finance are not easily explained. Nor is the logic of having to make financial year savings which don't coincide with the school year, so that a cut which has to be achieved through staffing will be heavier than it need have been because of commitments already made to summer-term spending.

Parents will understand, though, in September when some children in my school are in classes of more than 30 for the first time in our recent history. But by then it will be too late. The protest is needed now. Which is why headteachers and governors, who usually leave political representation to the appropriate professional and pressure groups, will continue the campaign.

Mike Fielding is principal of The Community College, north Devon.

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