9 July 2015

Worst Political Leaflet I've Seen in Ten Years

In my many years of Liverpool political campaigning, I’ve seen some poorly judged political leaflets, but the latest Liberal Democrat literature to come through my door is by far and away this decade’s winner for the worst.

In September, 120 children are due to start at Dovedale Primary School. The Liberal Democrats are asking for objections to the expansion. What they are proposing would mean 30 children would have to find alternative provision this September. Do they want to contact those parents, to tell them to search desperately, at the last minute, for alternative provision?

For some context, it is a double sided A4 leaflet, solely about Dovedale School and its proposed expansion. Now I’m not responding in a political capacity here on behalf of my party, but the way in which this leaflet communicates on the issue of expansion is awful.

I’ll quickly make a statement of first principles. I believe that children should be entitled to a good education, in their local school. I don’t support the Academy or Free School model as the way forward. I think the current problems in Sweden illustrate the dangers in a society that fragments its education system.

In Liverpool we are facing the loss of green space at various points around the city. The idea that we don’t renovate and renew our existing schools, on their existing sites, is likely to mean the loss of further green space. The Liberal Democrats are arguing to prevent the school expanding and arguing against building on green spaces. This is a little like having your cake and eating it.

Liverpool needs new school places. In 2013/14, the furthest any pupil in the new intake of 90 would have to walk to school would be 0.342km. The demand for school places is right here, in our part of the city, and to me the answer is to expand an existing good local authority school (and I’m not just talking about the narrow OFSTED snapshot) to provide those places.

It is obvious that there will be challenges in any renovation and expansion, but let’s break down the Liberal Democrat claims, and let’s do that in the knowledge that 120 new pupils are due to start in September. So the Liberal Democrat position demands that 30 of these pupils are now told to go and look for a new school? How would those 30 be selected? What do you think the reaction of parents would be to that decision? On this point alone, the Liberal Democrat position is untenable, but the leaflet needs to be deconstructed.

The leaflet begins with the massive “33%” expansion in the school. Over a six year period that will happen but the annual growth in the school will be by 6%. This makes the “problems” they subsequently identify far less daunting.

The suggestion is that traffic and parking is already a nightmare, and it will be even worse. That isn’t my experience as a parent. The majority of parents walk their children to school. 44% currently drive. An expansion of 30 pupils each year would mean 13/14 extra car trips, all other things being equal. However, given the short walking distance for the vast majority of pupils, it’s not beyond the wit of local councillors to work with the school and the community to get people out of cars on the way to school. This is entirely possible and achievable. Can the community manage to reduce the 300 or so pupils at Dovedale who are dropped off by car by 15 per year? Yes. At that point you’ve got a benefit for the community, for children and the environment (noting that if Dovedale doesn’t expand, parents would probably be travelling further to alternative schools with more likelihood of using a car).

The leaflet makes the claim “most parents and residents”. Now Richard Kemp retained his seat in 2015 and did incredibly well to do so, but it was not a referendum on Dovedale expansion. The leaflet claims to speak for the majority of parents. According to the Liberal Democrats, residents and parents collected 388 signatures opposing the plans. The Change.org petition shows 342 signatures. Neither figure would constitute a “majority” of either parents or residents.

Now I certainly think that there was a lot of uncertainty and opposition before the plans were put on display, but since that has happened, we’ve spoken with other parents who previously opposed the expansion, but who are now no longer concerned about it. I think there may be lessons to be learned about the process and timings of proposed changes and how that is communicated in future instances of school expansion, but the major concerns about the building required have been cleverly addressed.

The one issue that may concern parents is less playground space. There will be some impact due to the increase in the space of the main buildings. This will largely, but not entirely, mitigated for by the removal of the temporary classrooms currently occupying part of the grounds. Most important will be about how the school structures its lunch periods. If lunches are staggered as the expanded cohorts rise up the school, there is no reason for the number of children sharing the playground space to rise.

The Liberal Democrat leaflet suggests a kind of “Dovedale School – Apocalypse Now” scenario, but the truth is that this is about providing an education for all the children of our city in the best way possible. It is base level political campaigning and it won’t be forgotten. Parents value their school and the increased resources that expansion will bring, at a time when school budgets are under pressure like never before, will in my opinion bring benefits to all the children studying at the school over the next few years. I’m proud to send my children there and reject the tone and much of the content of a very, very poor political leaflet.

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