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Never mind who you voted for, where did you do it?

Never mind who you voted for, where did you do it?

🕔14.May 2018

They’ve become a standard feature of the election season – complaints about the complete or partial closure of schools selected as polling stations. Chris Game looks at where, and when, Birmingham and Britain votes. 

Some come from the actual children whose education is being potentially disrupted – though probably more from the minority told to come in for extra work for their approaching SATs exams than from the majority told to stay away and play.

More, certainly, come from heads of affected schools, who are informed, rather than requested, by their respective council Returning Officers, and feel they have little say, even over any financial reimbursement.

And, of course, from teachers, who have no leave entitlement but are expected somehow to make up lost teaching time.

Bitterest protesters, though, are surely and understandably working parents.  They face fines if they decide to take their children out of school for a day, even for something educational.

Yet they’re told by, in effect, their Local Education Authority that in this case they must do so; that, no, on this occasion it’s really not detrimental to their child’s education; oh yes, and they’ve got to find and pay for responsible childcare at pretty short notice.

This year wasn’t as irksome as it can be, when polling day is in Bank Holiday week itself, but for many it was still pretty unsettling: close on Thursday, reopen Friday, close on Monday, reopen Tuesday.

And last year, of course, we had Theresa May’s ‘snap’ General Election in early June, called too late to combine with the locals, thereby doubling the pain for many.

But for how many? To which the answer is that, in our almost completely localised ‘system’ of electoral administration, no one really knows. Local authorities are responsible for selecting the buildings they’ll use as polling places, and the Electoral Commission keeps no collated records.

So, all we really know is that it differs from council to council – greatly, as was illustrated by one of this year’s complainants – the independent campaigning group, Parents Outloud, as reported in the London Evening Standard.

Even from the group’s non-systematic comparison of London borough polling arrangements for this month’s elections, it was clear that practices varied widely. “In Tower Hamlets, 43 school buildings were turned into polling stations, in Croydon 33, Kensington & Chelsea 18, Kingston upon Thames 7 … and in Camden four schools closed.”

“Turned into” obviously isn’t the same as “closed”, but it seemed clear that Camden’s approach, for instance, differed markedly from that of some of those other boroughs. So I checked the council’s complete list of 60 polling stations, and there were in fact only 5 schools in total, or 8%.

The other 55 were community centres, council buildings, church halls and other religious venues, libraries, gymnasia, and, pleasingly, The Pirate Castle – which sounds like a pub, but which, from visits to Camden Lock, I happen to know is a children’s water sports centre on the Grand Union Canal.

Either way, though, it and Camden’s other 54 polling stations wouldn’t have involved children missing a day’s school and parents having to find child care.

I don’t know if it’s an actual Camden policy to avoid using schools where possible, and to ignore the Electoral Commission’s guidelines positively pushing schools as an easy and financially advantageous option:

Schools that are publicly-funded, including academies and free schools, may be used as polling stations free of charge, and the legislation allows Returning Officers to require a room in such schools for use as a polling station.

But I worked for a time with Dame Jane Roberts, a former Leader of Camden Council and also a Child Psychiatrist, and I’d be surprised if it’s accidental.

And, as my table shows, it contrasts strikingly with Birmingham’s practice.  I can’t pretend my life is so sad that I’ve done a complete count of all 460 polling stations, but journalist Anna Tobin evidently did do so in 2014 and found that 60% were in schools, whereas for Leeds’ 357 it was only a quarter.

My own not-quite-random illustrative batch to match one of Camden’s 14-station pages undoubtedly exaggerates the contrast, but not unduly.

Indeed, I was more disappointed by the absence of any of the more exotic locations that in my 39 years’ voting in Birmingham schools and community halls I have singularly missed out on: like the Hut in the Beggars Bush car park in Kingstanding, or the Allotments Pavilion in Bordesley Green Leisure Gardens (illustrated).

As Anna Tobin acknowledged, from Returning Officers’ perspective, schools tick all the boxes: disabled access, free to hire, generally tried and tested. In short, the easy option, but not necessarily the best.

There’s little doubt local authorities could be a lot more imaginative, if they chose, and examples are cited, like Cambridge City Council, that manage simply not to use schools as polling stations, because they have sufficient alternative facilities available.

Beyond that, one’s instinctive solutions depend a bit on perspective. Parents Outloud are clear that, if councils can’t or won’t find alternatives to schools, then one or the other should provide free childcare.

To which I’m instinctively sympathetic, but I’m not and never have been a parent.  My own preferred solution, therefore, would be to do what the great majority of countries do and hold elections at the weekend – whether on Sunday, which most do, or Saturday, or even both doesn’t particularly bother me.

I used to have a map of countries’ usual election days, which at a push – including explanations of why, say, Americans always vote on the first Tuesday after November 1st, and the Irish, as in this month’s abortion referendum, on Fridays – could be spun into a whole lecture.

My received understanding of our post-1918 choice of Thursdays, incidentally, was that it was the day furthest from either pay-day Friday, when voters might be unduly grateful to Conservative brewers, or Sunday, when more Liberal-inclined Free Church clergymen could get at them.

The last Labour Government, curious as to whether weekend voting might reinvigorate the democratic process, and – who knows? – maybe get more potential party supporters into polling stations, issued a consultation paper on Weekend Voting almost exactly ten years ago.

The evidence was mildly positive. Among responding members of the public a small majority supported weekend voting, and in an Ipsos MORI survey (p.22) 36% of self-identified non-voters said they’d be more likely to vote at the weekend, with just 2% saying they’d be less likely to. They weren’t asked for which party.

Unsurprisingly, like so many constitutional reform initiatives, this one came to nothing, and, with weekend voting being such an obviously entrenched Euro-practice, it’s not about to be resuscitated any time soon.

So, let’s get behind Parents Outloud: free childcare, or better still, the ears of some sympathetic Returning Officers.

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