It must be difficult being a council these days. To do anything major – such as close a school, say – they have to “consult” with the pesky public first.
Then they get flak because, whatever the results of the consultation, they often do what they wanted to do in the first place and, goodness me, we all think that’s a bit off.
It’s the law, of course, which says they have to ask the public what they think. In the case of Leicester City Council closing down Riverside Business and Enterprise College, they predominantly asked the parents, the governors and the teachers. And in a sign that they really did want to listen, they even asked the pupils.
And, as you can see below, the response by the council to the outcome (90% of respondents said the school should stay open) was, well, “School closures are seldom popular [so] this outcome is not surprising.”
I think that might be something of an understatement. But it does beg the question: If that’s your answer, what was the point of asking?
Because it’s also “not surprising” that it didn’t make a jot of difference. Leicester City Council is still going to close the school.
You cannot deny there are very strong reasons to do so. But it does make you wonder whether there’s something not quite right about “consultation”. Many people who responded to the consultation will wonder why they bothered.
This is an extract from a council paper dated May 11, 2009, before the consultation began:
Riverside is a vulnerable, underperforming school with an extremely low pupil intake, high operating costs and a high risk of continued decline…
Following a review and analysis of the above it has been concluded that there are strong educational, financial and business reasons to close this School as soon as practicably possible.
And this is an extract from a council paper dated September 15, 2009, once the consultation had taken place. Did anything really change?
In summary the majority of respondents did not agree that there are strong educational, financial and business reasons to move to close Riverside Business and Enterprise College as soon as practically possible. School closures are seldom popular and given the balance of responses (344 out of 422 declaring an immediate connection with the school) this outcome is not surprising…
Cabinet is recommended to note the outcome of the recent consultation and officers’ response to issues raised; and agree to move forward proposals to close Riverside Business and Enterprise College.
In answer to the consultation’s second question: Do you feel there are aspects of Riverside’s performance that the business case for closure has not adequately addressed, 74% said yes, it is inadequate. But the council’s reply?
Once again this response is not surprising given that the high proportion of respondents are associated with Riverside School.
Strange that really. You would have thought, wouldn’t you, that if you’d asked the people associated with Riverside School (sic) what they thought about Riverside School, a high proportion of the answers would come from people associated with Riverside School. If only, they’d not been associated with Riverside School and therefore didn’t really mind one way or the other about Riverside School. Then their views might have been taken more into account.
Quite understandably, once the results were revealed the council had to come up with a reason why an opposition of 90% is not enough.
It’s because not enough people joined in.
Or, as Trevor Pringle, divisional director of planning and commissioning at Leicester City Council, told the Mercury last week:
The consultation attracted a relatively small response. Although most of those who responded did not feel that the case for closure had been made, the response rate from Riverside parents was less than 14%.
Again, this is a fair point. But I would have been interested in knowing what “response rate” would have triggered the city council taking any notice of them. (Incidentally, a turnout of just 12% was enough to elect a city councillor in a by-election this month. It should also be noted that the response rate overall, ie not just parents, was nearer 50%.)
This is the nub of the issue. There are huge changes about to take place in Leicester’s education system. Schools are closing down. Others are opening. Some could have their management handed over to the private sector.
The people this will affect the most are those who live in exactly the type of areas Riverside serves. They are our most vulnerable children, many growing up in families that, for more than a generation, have not seen the importance of education. These schools find it hard enough to persuade some parents to turn up to parents’ evenings. Yet, we’re surprised that these parents don’t fill in a questionnaire based on a complicated “business case” to close their school. It might also explain why parents in the area believe historic myths about the school, refuse point blank to send their children there, and send them to nearby Fullhurst College, a school in special measures, instead.
And that’s the reason why, without enough pupils, Riverside is in this mess in the first place.
No, school closures are seldom popular and, yes, they are, it seems, sometimes necessary. Even teaching unions seem to have agreed that Riverside needs to close, based on low pupil numbers and the cost of keeping it afloat. And quite clearly problems with consultations are not Leicester City Council’s alone.
But it is a threat to our democracy to leave the public feeling they’ve been, at best ignored, at worst treated like mugs.
The bitterness I’ve witnessed among parents and staff at Riverside in the last few days is palpable and you can understand why.
But who cares?