Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Column, December 11, 2007

WHY would anyone want to become a councillor?
There may have been a time when the burghers were men (because it was predominantly male) of position, respect and influence.
Now, it just looks increasingly like a thankless task, balancing ever-decreasing budgets against spiralling demand.
But I guess if you asked most councillors to cast their mind back to their original decision to seek civic office, an awful lot will use words to the effect that they wanted to make a difference, to be of service, to help their community.
Of course there may be a little political ambition mixed in with those laudable aims, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
But I’m also sure that not long after they take office they find that their desire to serve and make a difference has to be compromised when faced with the harsh realities of limited budgets and massive demand for services.
The books have to be balanced and to them falls the unpleasant task of wielding the axe to make sure they do.
I am sure there are more than a few sleepless nights among those who try to keep the wheels of local government on track, as they wonder whether they have done the right thing, sometimes in the face of heartfelt protest by those opposed to their plans.
I am sure they try to do the right thing. I’m also sure that years immersed in the bureaucracy of local government blinds them to the effects of what they do.
Sometimes they may wonder if they are still making a difference to the lives of those they represent.
On Thursday they have a chance to do so.
Then the councillors of Gwynedd will consider the plans to close 29 small village schools.
The problem is that if you look at a small school on paper it makes no sense whatsoever. Economically it would always seem much more sensible to put children into bigger schools with better facilities and more teachers and have them taking advantage of economies of scale by teaching larger classes.
But that analysis only works as long as you’re looking at the balance sheet and not what goes on in the classroom.
Small schools serve their pupils better than large ones. They also serve their communities better, in fact they may be one of the few things keeping a community together at all.
The proposal to close the schools is being justified by, among other factors, demographic changes in the communities that serve those schools – falling pupil numbers in other words.
What does not seem to have been taken into account is the fact that the closure of the village school might well hasten such demographic changes.
A low-wage economy couple with rising house prices has made bringing up a family in rural Wales a tough choice for many people. It has accounted for a drain of young families over the border where a house is certainly no cheaper but well-paid jobs are in more plentiful supply.
One of the few advantages Gwynedd had was the quality and size of its schools. This would persuade some to stay and some to actually move there
Take away the school and you remove one more reason to build a life in that village. And that will inevitable mean more houses in Gwynedd’s villages being snapped up as holiday homes and so the demographic change is accelerated by the council’s own actions.
Pupil rolls might be low now, but this can change, and one thing is for certain, if you close a school its places will never fill up again, it is lost forever.
Any councillor sitting in the meeting on Thursday should dispel any doubts they may have about how much difference they make.
On that day they have a real chance to serve their communities. I hope they put that above all else and reject this plan to close Gwynedd’s small village schools.

INTERESTING to see that police officers incensed by a miserly pay award are seeking to strike over the matter.
That will make a fascinating dispute.
Of course the policemen will have a bit of an advantage in this. After all, if they’re on strike, there’ll be no drafting in cops to protect strikebreakers.
This does not bode well. There could be a breakdown of law and order. The last time there was a policemen’s strike – in Liverpool, would you believe it – the government of the day had to send a gunboat up the Mersey to keep the peace.
What would we do now, where would we get the able-bodied men to stop criminals running riot?
I have a bit of a plan, which I’m willing to share with the Home Secretary free of charge.
Coal miners. Or rather, ex-coal miners.
Alright they might be a bit long in the tooth, but they’re tough as old boots and one of them standing on every street corner, pickaxe handle in hand would deter even the most hardened criminal.
And after all, it would be payback for the coppers who were bussed up from London to break the miners’ strike back in the ‘80s. Revenge, as they says, is a dish best served cold.
The main challenge to my, I must say, brilliant, plan, is persuading the miners to cross a picket line. I think most miners would never let themselves be used to break a strike. Whereas police officers would, and did.

THE demise of the school nativity has been halted in at least one corner of the country, Banks junior has his first role.
Quite why schools have decided to abandon this wonderful occasion can only be guessed – lack of time, commitment, resources and possibly, a misplaced desire not to offend those of other faiths (it has to be said that whenever this is suggested to Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus, they immediately respond by saying anyone who thinks they would be offended is barmy)
But in our village school young Banks will take to the stage as the innkeeper’s assistant. Admittedly I wasn’t aware that innkeepers had assistants, but I’ll be there filming the whole occasion for posterity – and no, that hasn’t been banned either.

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