Thursday, January 27, 2011

Diversity at Chelwood - a cuts non-story

By devolving responsibility for making cuts to local Councils, the ConDem government is clearly hoping that people will get stuck into local arguments while they wash their hands and say 'well we didn't tell them to close libraries/nurseries/old people's clubs' (no they just pulled millions of pounds from local authorities in some of the poorest parts of the country). While it is inevitable that the current stage of anti-cuts protests are focusing on local council meetings where decisions are being made on cuts, it is important not to be confined to standing outside Town Halls. The anti-cuts movement needs to take it to a national level, in the same way that the local Town Hall anti-poll tax protests twenty years ago were followed by the huge anti-poll tax demonstration in central London in March 1990. With enough pressure even this Government could be forced to revise its funding allocations for future years - indeed they are already signalling that they might modify the proposed rise on fuel duty in the March budget.

The biggest dead end for anti-cuts campaigners locally is to get into the don't cut this/cut that instead mode, rather than challenging the national austerity measures themselves. Fair enough to scrutinise Councils wasting money on vanity projects, but get real - tens of millions of pounds withdrawn by the government aren't going to be saved by stopping printing a few leaflets or cancelling a Christmas party (not that most public sector workers ever get a free lunch from anyone - unlike many bankers). Cuts on this scale cannot be implemented without job losses and services closing down, and indeed that is exactly what the Government wants to happen.


A classic example of a misplaced response to cuts was a brief Twitter flurry last week - London Historians tweeted 'While libraries are axed, Lewisham Council advertising for an "Early Years Diversity Manager". #madness'. The source of this seemed to be a tweet from right wing blogger Old Holborn which said: '£45,000 a year for an "early years diversity manager" at ONE single school in Lewisham. MAKE IT STOP'. The subtext is pretty clear - Daily Mail-style outrage 'oh my god they're wasting money on politically correct brainwashing of our kids' (enter Melanie Phillips stage right).

So what is the truth of this story? Lewisham Council's website was indeed advertising for a Diversity and Inclusion Manager (incl. SENCO) at Chelwood Nursery School in Brockley - I have to declare an interest, my daughter went there and it is one of the best places for young children in South London.

The post being advertised was a senior teacher post, not a random consultant. All schools are legally required to have a Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator to make sure they cater for the complex needs of children with SEN and disabilities. They are also rightly required to make sure that children from different backgrounds all flourish in schools and don't get left behind because, for instance, their parents don't have English as their first language. It is entirely routine for schools to have one of their teachers combine the SENCO role with leading on some of these broader inclusion responsibilities, and in a school like Chelwood this is a key role. According to Chelwood's last Ofsted inspection - which incidentally judged it to be outstanding - 'Children come from eighteen cultures and a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and eleven languages are represented. About a third of children have learning difficulties and/or disabilities, and the largest group of these have speech and communication difficulties'. Providing specialist teacher support for these children is exactly what Council funding should be used for - but clearly the mention of the word 'diversity' is enough to prompt the Pavlovian call to cut this very important job.

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