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The education of Ms Brigid Jones

The education of Ms Brigid Jones

🕔19.Dec 2012
Brigid Jones

Signs of rebellion among Labour backbenchers over a £110 million cuts package for 2013-14 are beginning to become more apparent almost by the day, leaving Birmingham City Council leader Sir Albert Bore facing an almost impossible task in attempting to placate his group.

Most concern has been focused on the Children, Young People and Families budget, where savings of £23.8 million have to be identified. Protests by Labour councillors who are not in the cabinet have a familiar ring to them – of course cuts have to be made, but not to services for vulnerable people, they insist.

As Sir Albert has pointed out, the scale of savings required, which amount to 50 per cent of the core budget over six years, are such that it is inevitable children, the elderly and disabled people will to some extent be hit even if the impact can be lessened.

And if backbenchers don’t like next year’s cuts, they will simply hate the 2014-15 budget where Sir Albert has said services will have to be decommissioned.

Two weeks ago the council’s ruling Labour group refused to accept Sir Albert’s plan to save £9.5 million a year by closing about 40 children’s centres in ‘wealthy’ parts of Birmingham.

Today, the education scrutiny committee asked the cabinet to think again about a proposal to save just under £1 million by cutting free home to school transport for a range of children, including those with special needs.

It has to be said that Cllr Brigid Jones, surprisingly appointed education cabinet member in May, did not give a very impressive performance at the committee. Questioned about how many children would be denied free transport to school, surely a most pertinent question, Cllr Jones waffled about the figures being buried in a report. Asked to clarify matters after the meeting, she was unable to give a figure.

It became clear from the voluminous report that between 1,200 and 1,800 children could be affected by the proposals, although the figure might be higher because no one is quite sure how many special needs children will actually be affected.

The changes proposed by Cllr Jones include:

  • Reverting to statutory qualifying distances for free transport, ending Birmingham’s more generous provision. Eight-year-olds would be expected to walk up to three miles to school.
  • Removing completely free transport for children attending faith schools.
  • Removing completely free transport for pupils aged 16-plus.
  • Free transport to remain for special needs children, but only if they are attending the nearest school to home.

There are also proposals to introduce personal transport budgets for parents and carers, effectively handing over a lump sum of money and relying on families organising school transport themselves.

Quizzed by the scrutiny committee about how she arrived at her proposals, Cllr Jones could only say that it was all very difficult and she really didn’t want to cut anything. She noted that home to school transport costs the council £17 million a year, but as controversial as her cuts are they will only raise about £800,000.

On the subject of special needs pupils, many of whom are disabled, Cllr Jones said: “We are not going to ask people who can’t walk to walk. That’s not going to happen.”

However, committee members made the point that most children with special needs do not attend the school closest to their home and would therefore lose free transport.

It was left to Labour councillor Barry Bowles to express the scrutiny committee’s displeasure: “I don’t think the answers were in depth. I’m certainly not convinced that this is the way forward.”

Scrutiny committee chairman Anita Ward, once seen as one of Sir Albert’s staunchest allies, expressed her frustration: “We haven’t had the answers we were seeking.”

She will now attend a special cabinet meeting to plea for the home to school transport proposals to be re-worked. Whether they are will probably depend on the amount of pressure the Labour group is able to exert on Sir Albert.

Cllr Jones’s baptism of fire was hardly unexpected. Attempts to save money by cutting free home to school transport have been kicking around at the council for about four years, with little sign of progress so far. It seems inevitable, given the scale of savings the council has to make, that the school bus service will have to be reformed – whether Cllr Jones can deliver the goods, remains to be seen.

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