This week with Brian 4 to 11 April 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including a look at a diary, recruitment and retention, underpaid or not, an illusion, low on the agenda, a time of transition, cutting the deliveries, environmentally insolvent, a five-fold rise, true blue, location tracking, a look at the polls, nailing down Easter, vertical ibexes, a late blast, flood grants, another leaflet, only £66bn, Scottish inventions, barenaked ladies, Duran Duran and a flying lesson.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).

If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

Every month, the Head of the secondary school in Hungerford writes a diary for us which we add to one cumulative post. Richard Hawthorne of John O’Gaunt has been doing this since his appointment in June 2020 so you’d be right in thinking that the words “Covid” and “pandemic” appear pretty frequently (79 and 36 times respectively). This inevitable backdrop aside, his thoughts range over half a dozen matters, from the stresses of organising school events to the challenges of grappling with the latest set of government guidance. “Some days,” he said in February 2022, “I find myself being everything from a classroom teacher to a health and safety expert, from a mentor to a report writer.” That probably sums up the job of a Head teacher pretty well, although these four examples may not be in descending order of the time they take up. Overall, it’s a lively, candid and engaging look behind the scenes of a busy school.

[more below]

• A crisis?

This month, Richard breaks with tradition and looks at just one issue which has recently been in the national news. This is the matter of staff recruitment and retention. The word “crisis” is bandied about pretty freely these days – cost-of-living, climate, social-care, NHS, housing and planning all frequently have this applied to them. And now teaching staffing seems to be earning its place on this list.

Having looked at some of the evidence, his sombre verdict is that “the findings are bleak to say the least.” Referring to a recent National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) report, he said that it “concluded that the recruitment crisis showed ‘no signs of abating’ and that teacher supply is in a ‘critical state’. The report predicted that, whilst secondary recruitment will improve, it will still miss its target by about 40 per cent, with ten out of 17 secondary subjects likely to have shortfalls. Last year, the target was missed by 50 per cent.”

• Salaries

On the face of it, the profession doesn’t seem to be underpaid. This article in Politics.co.uk suggests an annual average salary of £39,000 (the UK average is about £33,000) with mid-range (M1 to M6) teachers earning between £32,000 and £39,000 outside London. This puts teachers in the same sort of average-salary bracket as that of solicitors, software engineers and mechanical engineers. The entry level, though, is closer to £19,000. The article also looks at the arguments both for and against the proposition that they get a good deal.

One of the arguments it cites that all is well comes from the Taxpayers Alliance which, perhaps not surprisingly given its stance, “noted how the standard academic year commits teachers to just 38 working weeks a year, whilst offering them comfortable salaries, job security and secure pension schemes.” On the other side of the ring, the piece refers to the NUT’s concerns that public-sector pay freezes have led to a real-terms cut in salary, while changes to the pension arrangements have eroded this as an appeal to those seeking to enter the profession.

• Something else

The matter of whether money is the main issue is, however, slightly kicked into touch by the assertion by The Guardian’s Education Correspondent Richard Adams that teachers are leaving the profession for lower-paid jobs. The long-holiday trope is, he claims, dispelled by the suggestions that “at 53 hours a week, teachers work more than the average adult in the UK. One leaked study found that a quarter of teachers were working 12-hour days and another found that two in five teaching staff in the UK worked 26 hours for free each week.”

A number of other professions would also claim the same. What sets teaching apart is the raft of compliance and safeguarding measures that now must make any engagement with pupils – particularly those who display what John O’Gaunt’s Richard Hawthorne called “tricky behaviour” – a journey across eggshells. The administrative work seems pretty fierce as well, which is probably not something that many new teachers signed up for.

I also suspect that, unlike some other similarly-paid professions, there’s nowhere to hide. If a software engineer or a solicitor is having a bad day they can shut the door and take the phone off the hook for a few hours. Teachers are constantly expected to be cheerful, assertive and knowledgeable pack leaders. I remember teachers at my schools turning up with all the symptoms of what I now know to be awful hangovers and getting us to sit in silence for an hour learning French irregular verbs or the order of the kings and queens of England while they fitfully dozed in their chair. I don’t imagine this can happen now.

Rich countries like the UK can plug this gap by recruiting from overseas, The Guardian’s article pointing to Jamaica being particularly targeted at present. This, like deforestation, is a very mixed and short-term solution, however: the article suggests that this brain drain will not only impoverish the country’s education system but also make it a less fertile hunting ground for the UK’s recruiters in future years. In any case, the global shortfall is estimated to be 44 million teachers. We’re clearly dealing here with a problem, whatever its complex causes, that exists on an international scale.

• Further education

Wondering if this recruitment and retention issue also applies to higher education, I put in a call to a friend who’s a science professor at UCL. He felt that the problem at that level was less acute, partly because those entering academic life were still under the illusion – which on some occasions was matched by reality – that the profession provided an ideal opportunity to perform research. The usual reality, however, was more likely to be a similar mixture of teaching and administrative work which school teachers face, although with better pay.

He also suggested that there was a cachet to being a university lecturer which a teacher can not command. A teacher, like a mechanical engineer or a solicitor, probably doesn’t expect much in the way of a genuine “how interesting” when they announce their job title at a dinner party. A university lecturer might. In the same way as a judge or a surgeon, they’ve reached the pinnacle of their profession. Many professions can also agree rates to match what the market can afford and, as they get more senior, arrange matters so that the most irksome parts of the job are done by others. In general, a teacher can’t.

• Respect

Opinions differ as to whether the profession is respected, some claiming that it is, some that it hasn’t been but it’s getting more so and others that it’s not. Societal respect only gets you so far, however. There’s clearly a deeper problem at work. The amount of administrative work and the stress of all the safeguarding issues perhaps make it unique, along with the relentless pursuit of the demands of the national curriculum. We haven’t even mentioned Ofsted inspections, the issues surrounding which merit a separate article on their own.

These are, however, what society and the state now demands. Some people who are or could become superb teachers are perhaps feeling unequal to the demands that this most demanding and important of professions places on them.

• Politics

On 3 April, I spoke to Heather Codling, West Berkshire Council’s portfolio-holder for Education, about this issue.

“We’re aware that schools are under a huge amount of pressure, ” she told me. “In some cases, this is made more acute by pupil numbers increasing. Here, we tend to have the reverse.” This can cause problems as well, particularly for already small schools where teachers would have to spread themselves even more thinly across the mandated tasks. She also added that there are also now an increasing number of pupils with identified special needs.

“Sadly, there’s very little that West Berkshire as an education authority can do about the problem,” she concluded,” as we’re not in control of recruitment or setting national salary scales. However, that’s not to say that we’re unaware of the challenges and we’re doing everything we can to give schools in the district the help and support that they need.”

Richard Hawthorne in Hungerford, however, has another message for the politicians. “Unless I’ve missed it,” he wrote, “the recruitment crisis (like education generally, in my opinion) feels like it is very low down on the agendas of all the main political parties. In an election year, I for one will be asking any candidate who knocks on my door about their plans for education and, particularly, about recruitment and retention. The future of our young people is too important for us to stay silent.”

• Transition

Thirty years ago, life was in many ways very simple. If you wanted to speak to someone you phoned them. If you wanted to send them something you posted or perhaps faxed it: email and the web was just coming into people’s lives but wasn’t the go-to thing like it is now. If you wanted to see a physical response someone had to a piece of news or gossip you arranged to meet them and told them face to face. That was pretty much it.

Now – well, you tell me. Texts, Zoom, Snapchat, Instagram, emails, Facebook, Telegram, TikTok, WhstsApp, whatever Twitter is called this month and a lot more than that all bring us into instant communication with just about everyone in the world who has access to electricity and a suitable device.

Before you think that this is just another rant from an angry old man who’s fighting against the rising tide of change as evinced by a welter of digital platforms he can’t understand or remember the log-in details for, think again. This is the dilemma that’s faced by many organisations every day in how to communicate.

It’s certainly one which is acutely felt by Royal Mail. By its name and nature, it exists in the non-digital world. In an effort to stay afloat, it’s recently suggested to Ofcom that second-class post be delivered only every other weekday. Many would say that this would represent an improvement to the current service.

This is only a symptom of the problem. We live in a time of transition. Most people under about fifty use digital communication as a matter of course: as do many above that age though this drops probably quite sharply after about seventy. Culture Hive suggested in 2021 that 10m people lack basic digital skills, that 15m people have very low levels of digital engagement and that 1.5m UK households have no access to the internet at all. This poses problems for perhaps as many as 20% of the population – also for the organisations who’re trying to reach them.

The pandemic provides a good example. Although much of the government advice was confused and contradictory, it had to be got out there (and we played our role in that in partnership with West Berkshire Council and other bodies). The problem was and is the group defined as “hard to reach” who are just that. We added exhortations that people who know of a friend or neighbour who might not receive such messages digitally might like to pass a print-out, or at least the gist of the message, on to them: but this is an inefficient way of proceeding.

The people at West Berkshire Council we were dealing with were fully aware of this challenge. They know that perhaps 20% of the population wouldn’t receive a digital message no matter from where it was sent. The problem was that that they didn’t know who these people were. Writing to everyone about every change of pandemic advice would have bankrupted the council. They had to rely on digital communication and the goodwill of local groups, which had already been amply demonstrated, to pass this information on. What else could they do?

None the less, this period of transition is awkward for many people who feel that they have been betrayed. This is exactly the generation that paid their NI stamps and income tax and were assured that they’d be looked after by the state. To a large extent this hasn’t happened. To make matters worse, the state can’t even afford to communicate with them through the medium of the once regular-as-clockwork postal service that some still rely upon.

We’re all growing old. However, I’m glad I’m not ten years older than I am right now. The digital transition will take another generation to work through but right now there are a large number of people who’re being excluded. Penny Post is entirely digital so perhaps we’re part of the problem. However, as we said with the Covid information, if you think anyone who’s not online will benefit from what we’ve told you, please pass it on to them in whatever way you think works. Ditto for any other digital information you receive that might affect them.

• Environmentally insolvent

The continuing problems of Thames Water are constantly being documented. For many, certainly here in the upper Lambourn Valley, they’re being considered against the backdrop of very real evidence of the problem in the form of raw sewage in the streets and the river. Everyone agrees something needs to be done, though options are divided as to what.

An excellent article posted by Richard Murphy on the Funding the Future blog on 29 March says that a look at the accounts (something he’s qualified to do and I am not) suggests that the underlying financial situation is even more parlous than we might have thought. Looking at all the privatised companies in aggregate, not only does about 20% of the income go on servicing their debts but also all the profit that’s been made has been paid out in dividends. There was, he concludes, “nothing left for reinvestment.”

He then looks at the balance sheets and concludes that the investment that’s been made has all come from borrowing or operating income. None of it has come from the shareholders at all. This seems, to me, to leave wide open the question of what the purpose of privatisation was. It did appear to produce a flurry of shareholder investment in the early years but, since Macquarie bought TW in 2006, the result has been an increase in debt. As was widely covered last month, the company is now in such a weak position that it cannot raise any more funds unless it propitiates the investors by raising its bills by perhaps 40%, something that Ofwat has said is a no-no.

In fact, as Richard Murphy points out, the £500m or so that TW urgently needs barely touches the sides compared to the amount that actually needs to be spent on fixing the problem nationwide. Opinions differ on how much this would cost but he quotes the House of Lords as suggesting that £260bn will be required; and further suggests that this needs to be spent in the next ten years. This is in stark contrast to the government’s estimate that £56bn is needed over the next 37 years.

“Why” he asked, “has the government set such a low investment target that still leaves us with polluted water? The only possible answer is that they wanted to make sure that the private water companies would not go bust by having to spend too much.”  In short, the government believes that saving the water companies is more important that our having clean water. If true, this is an interesting reversal of the priorities that we might reasonably have expected.

This leads, he finishes, to an inevitable conclusion. If the water firms are forced to spend £260bn they’d go bust. They are therefore “environmentally insolvent.” This term, he explains, “applies to any business that cannot adapt to make its business environmentally friendly – as climate change and ending pollution requires – and still make a profit. What it means is that its business model is bankrupt.” The only solution for the industry is nationalisation.

All of this presents an interesting dilemma for the government. There are now so many people shouting constantly about the appalling state of our sewerage system and waterways that the matter can’t just be dismissed as a niche or a passing concern. It’s clear that serious and immediate decisions need to be taken by the government. Even so, the market may make its own decision first in the shape of one or more of the water companies failing. Pouring more money into the companies seems to be rather like filling up a leaking bucket. It would certainly be interesting to see a Conservative government embarking on an election campaign with a massive nationalisation plan as one if its main campaign pledges.

Whether the matter is fessed up to publicly before we go to the polls or not, it’s increasingly hard to see what the other options are. Whoever’s in Number Ten after the vote, this matter will certainly be in the in-tray. Given that it concerns water, which none of us can do without, it should be right at the very top of the pile.

• And finally

• The BBC reports that the Nuffield Trust has concluded that the NHS is unable to meet the increasing demand for autism and ADHD diagnoses which have, the Trust claims, risen five-fold since 2019. A spokesperson said that “”We’re at a really critical point as a society, where we’re actually understanding neurodiversity and the fact that it’s a much greater spectrum for the whole of society than we’ve ever had before.” There are now a lot of such spectrums and we’re told that all of us are on each one to some extent or other. Fifty years ago, none of these spectrums existed in the public’s mind. The world was broadly divided into two groups: those who could cope with modern life and those who couldn’t. We’ve now established that everything’s a bit more subtle than that and that different treatments and approaches are needed. The question is whether we can afford to pay for them.

• The Conservatives have, of course, long been fans of privatisation. Recently, it appears that they were also considering privatising their own membership list. This Guardian article refers to a rather dismal scheme to monetise their supporters through a “True Blue” app which would be run by a crypto-currency tycoon. One of its features would, it seems, have been to pinpoint supporters’ locations and then target them with “big brand” advertising. The plan “did not progress beyond the pitch stage” a Conservative spokesperson assured the Guardian. However, the newspaper said it has seen emails that “reveal officials worked through last summer on the project, tailoring the proposed app’s content and requesting paperwork, including a draft contract.” The app was never launched, though the party has not explained why.

• if there’s going to be any location tracking organised by Tory HQ, it might want to start with its own MPs. That way it might give a heads-up as to whether any of them are frequenting locations which might lead to sexual impropriety or falling victim to newspaper stings. This was the fate of Scott Benton, until recently the member for Blackpool South, who recently decided to resign rather than face a recall petition. Another by-election looms as a result.

• The polls continue to paint a grim picture for the party. All the evidence shows that the situation is getting worse and not better for Sunak. Reform UK seem to be the chief beneficiaries of the current waiting game. If Sunak has any sense, he’ll call the election before it’s support increases to the point where it might actually win a seat.

A recent post from Full Fact refutes the social-media claim that HS2 will cost £100bn. In fact, about a quarter of that has been spent so far and the whole thing (London to Birmingham) will cost £66bn. So, still not that great.

Easter fools me every year. The Royal Museums in Greenwich summarises its date as being “the first Sunday after the full Moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox,” three conditions that your average person can’t predict and which can lead to its being any time from late March to late April. The event it commemorates – if it ever happened at all, of course – is no more fixed in time than is Christmas, which doesn’t move. So why should Easter? Maybe it’s just the church’s way of reminding us that it still retains a little bit of power to mess with our heads…

Across the area

• A late blast

Anyone picking up our local paper this week might have been forgiven for thinking that a “council boss” had recently blasted their “own officers” regarding CIL charges. Front-page story so it’s got to be breaking news, right?

Wrong. This all happened a full three weeks ago. The statement was read out by WBC’s Acting Leader Jeff Brooks just before the start of the Full Council meeting on 14 March 2024. We received the text of the speech from him and published it the following morning. You can read it here. This is, moreover, the full text, rather than the lengthy but selective extracts in the article. Although it’s true that Councillor Brooks did criticise the officers, he was in no doubt where he thought the real blame lay. He put this “firmly at the door of the last Conservative administration. They agreed the assessment process; they agreed and supported the collection regime; they doubled down time and time again as people protested; they ostracised their own backbenchers when they resisted this unfair and entirely inappropriate process.”

This is a rather important point and its omission puts a very different slant on the speech. In general, and technically, the members set the policy and the officers administer it. Whether there was any suggestion here that the officers were setting the policy and the members just going along with it is a separate issue and certainly not the one Councillor Brooks was addressing.

His statement moved this divisive issue, which has been rumbling on for about eight years and which we’ve been closely covering for about four, into a new phase. As we reported last month, the next important stage is likely to be reached at the Executive meeting on 16 May. This will not only consider the report that Councillor Brooks requested be produced for that but will also probably define the composition and remit of the group that will be set up to hear appeals. If this is agreed then, it’s expected that it will start looking at cases from early June: and about time too…

• The election leaflets

This week, we take a quick look at the one for Labour’s Olivia Bailey who’s standing in Reading West and Mid Berkshire.

One side has a very brief biography of her followed by the usual claims that she’ll be a hard-working MP and that the other side have let the district down. Her main planks are the NHS, policing and local jobs and investment. On the other asde, she goes into a bit more detail on these and also adds her support for more funding for teachers, for a publicly-owned energy company and for economic stability. regarding the last point, she stresses that all of Labour’s plans are “fully costed and fully funded”. I find the second of these slightly confusing as Labour isn’t currently in power and so can’t allocated funding for anything.

She adds that “the best way to beat the Tories at this election is to vote Labour”. As this is a new seat, no such assertion can be made. Her comments about having “come close” to winning in 2017 are thus doubly irrelevant: not only is she talking about a different seat but also in any case the political landscape has changed a fair bit since that year: back then, all we really had to worry us was bickering about Brexit (not that we still aren’t).

• Flood grants

West Berkshire Council would like to remind everyone that many of the grants have timescales for applications to be made. One has now closed (business recovery grant) with others closing this month including Community Recovery Grant which closes at 5pm 12 April 2024 and Property Flood Resilience Repair Grant Scheme closing on 30 April 2024. The details of the grants are available on  Flood Grants – West Berkshire Council.

WBC has received a number of applications already but would like to ensure all who wish to apply have had the opportunity to do so – “so please do share this information within your community.” Any queries relating to these grants should be sent to floodgrants@westberks.gov.uk.

• Clearing the backlog

West Berkshire Council has been successful in its bid for £90,000 in government funding to help clear a backlog of planning applications.

“The funding will be used to clear around 150 applications,” a statement says, “many of which have been awaiting allocation to case officers for some time. The delays have been caused by capacity and capability challenges felt across all involved in the wider planning sector. The fees we charge developers, which are set by the Government, only cover about three-quarters of the cost the Council incurs as a Local Planning Authority.

“Work to clear the backlog will begin soon, with the Council commissioning Capita to support the process. As a result of clearing the backlog, the planning application process should soon return to normal with planning applications considered within normal timescales.”

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes smart roads, heritage assets, the Lido, home upgrade grants, air quality, public meetings, Marjorie Heather, a bunny trail and autism acceptance.

News from your local councils

Most of the councils in the area we cover are single-tier with one municipal authority. The arrangements in Oxfordshire are different, with a County Council which is sub-divided into six district councils, of which the Vale of White Horse is one. In these two-tier authorities, the county and district have different responsibilities. In all cases, parish and town councils provide the first and most immediately accessible tier of local government.

West Berkshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to sign up to all or any of the wide range of  newsletters produced by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to see the latest West Berkshire Council Residents’ Bulletin (generally produced every week).

Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Vale of White Horse Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by the Vale Council.

Click here for latest news from the Vale Council.

Click here for the South and Vale Business Support Newsletter archive (newsletters are generally produced each week).

Click here to sign up to any of the newsletters produced by the Vale’s parent authority, Oxfordshire County Council.

Wiltshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Wiltshire Council.

Click here for the latest news from Wiltshire Council.

Swindon Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Swindon Council.

Click here for the latest news from Swindon Council.

Parish and town councils

• Please see the News from your local council section in the respective weekly news columns (these also contain a wide range of other news stories and information on activities, events and local appeals and campaigns): Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area

• Other news

• Councillors have backed a motion at the recent Full Council meeting to give people who’ve been in care greater protection.

• A reminder that grants are available for those who’ve been affected by flooding.

• West Berkshire Council has backed a bid to pick litter from streets and public spaces and is calling for residents across West Berkshire to “show their pride in their community by taking part in the mass action litter pick.”

• The Let’s Get Active Fund (LGAF) is back, with £40,000 available to improve access to physical activities in West Berkshire.

Click here for information about help available with the cost of living crisis in West Berkshire, the Vale and Wiltshire.

Please click here for information about what local councils are doing to help support refugees from Ukraine and how you can help.

• The animals of the week are these ibex scaling a near-vertical reservoir wall in search of salt.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• Time once more for the Song of the Week. In any list of songs, this one will be at the very head of the list (assuming they’re arranged alphabetically). Mind you, it has other things to recommend it aside what might be called the aardvark factor: A by the Barenaked Ladies.

• And next is the Comedy Moment of the Week. Why not have a bit more Count Arthur Strong? In this clip, he’s going for a flying lesson: although, as soon becomes clear, there’s a terrible misunderstanding at work…

• Which only leaves the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: “What is odd, and possibly unique, about the band Duran Duran?” Last week’s question was: “What do fingerprinting, television, golf, the pneumatic tyre, penicillin and Dolly the cloned sheep have in common?” The answer is that they – and many more things besides – were invented by people from Scotland.

For weekly news sections for Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area  please click on the appropriate link

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