Last night, I attended a meeting at the headquarters of the Croydon BME Forum (the umbrella body for community organisations that support the borough’s diverse black and minority ethnic community) about the decision of my colleagues at the Town Hall to drastically reduce the Council’s education community grants budget.
At the moment, this budget funds two main areas of work:
• teaching young people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds their mother-tongue language; and
• supplementary education - work outside school to improve the attainment of young people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds eg weekend classes in key areas of the curriculum.
The Council is proposing to abolish its budget for this work altogether apart from a small level of support for mentoring projects. Its argument for doing so is threefold.
First, like all councils it needs to save money because the funding it gets from the Government is being reduced as part of the cuts the Government is making to eliminate the deficit it inherited. No-one disputes that, but the Council has already cut this budget by 24% earlier this year when it reduced it from £123,000 to £93,000. All but abolishing it is disproportionate - why has this area of spending been singled out for such swingeing cuts?
Second, since this budget was introduced there have been changes in which ethnic groups are relatively under-performing at school. The latest evidence suggests that the focus should be on black Carribean and white working class boys in particular. Again, no-one disputes that there have been changes but this is an argument for changing the focus of the budget, not all but abolishing it.
Third, successive governments have reduced the role of local education authorities, putting power into the hands of headteachers - the latest example being the introduction by the Coalition Government of a pupil premium paid to schools for each child from a deprived background which they admit. Again, this argument has some force but the Council is not applying it consistently - it is not proposing, for example, to abolish the budget for the Croydon Music Service and leave that to schools.
In addition to these policy arguments, there are two political points I would put to my colleagues.
As a party, we believe that, while government has an important role to play, it shouldn’t seek to do everything. Charities, community groups and voluntary organisations - what the Prime Minister refers to as the Big Society - have an important role to play. This decision is contrary to that fundamental Conservative principle - the Council is removing support for the voluntary sector and saying everything should be left to state schools.
Finally, the decision doesn’t make any sense in purely party political terms. Black and minority ethnic communities are a growing section of the electorate. Historically, members of these communities have been less likely to vote Conservative. This decision is hardly going to make it easier for us to win people over.
At the meeting, I undertook to do two things.
First, to formally contact the Council to outline my concerns (I have already had informal discussions) and in particular to ask to see the Equalities Impact Assessment, whether some of the saving could be delivered by deleting a post to administer this area of work instead and, if the Council won’t change its mind, to enquire about transitional arrangements.
Second, to contact the Government about alternative sources of funding.
I will be doing both of those things this week. I am a strong supporter of the Conservative administration at the Town Hall. Among other things, it has done a lot to sort out the Council’s finances and improve educational attainment in the borough’s schools. But it has got this decision wrong. This budget can’t be immune from the need to make savings but to abolish it altogether is disproportionate and sends out all the wrong signals.