Thursday 1 July 2010

Hitting the excluded where it hurts

This isn't about social media. This is about Councils, cuts, and efficiencies. This is written, not as an employee of a Local Authority, but as a reasonably intelligent woman who didn't have the best start in life, and got here anyway, where here is with enough money to buy books, ride a mountain bike (and by association choose the kind of exercise I take), afford fresh fruit and veg and have an always on broadband connection.

Life wasn't always like this.

This is not a whine. This is a very personal plea which I know will fall on deaf ears, but I will write anyway in the vain hope that someone will read and understand the potential implications of the cuts which are undoubtedly coming our way in towns and villages across this country. This is about exclusion breeding exclusion, about cuts hitting people who have nothing even harder, about social mobility and the need for stabilisers. It is about me, and my experience of life.

I grew up in a very small village (pop. 400) in a rural area of Somerset, before Somerset was associated with 4 x 4's, Daily Mail columnists and Glastonbury Festival. We had no money - both my parents were on benefits for assorted reasons. I assumed, as I grew up, that everyone's first school class had 10 children in it. I assumed that everyone had a 10 mile round trip to middle school. I assumed that everyone had a 30 mile round trip to Secondary school - in the way that children do who grow up in a small little place with no access to newspapers, who weren't interested in watching the news, who didn't have access to the internet. We had no car and no telephone. There are still people in this country now, who do not.

There was no money for books, swimming lessons, gym memberships, piano or singing lessons, ballet lessons or educational visits at weekends. There was no money for educational toys to teach us how to spell, we learnt to count using dominoes and to spell using my fathers old printing press letters.

This is not unusual. Except, perhaps, that my mother bothered to teach us to spell and count before we attended our first school, but she came from a middle class background and despite leaving school at 15 to earn a wage to look after her elderly parents, understood the worth of an education.

I was what one might consider a bright child. I liked learning. I skipped Roger Red Hat et al and went straight to the books with pages full of text. Without a library to borrow books from, I would have been lost. Without a bus route funded by the local Council, I could not have reached the library. When there was no money for a trip on the bus to the library, I would use the mobile library service. It didn't help with homework, too limited a selection, but it did help my need to read absolutely everything and anything. When I was older, I cycled to the nearest library, 5 miles away and got my books that way, lugging the educational books for my homework back with me. I thought nothing of doing this, that's not the point.

Without the Council funded bus route, the Council funded library, the Council funded mobile library, where would I be now? How would I have learnt? School textbooks teach you much, but they can't teach you everything. Teachers, certainly more so now than then, do not have the time or patience to sit and listen to 20 questions on todays lesson. There is no time. So how, exactly, would I have learnt that the world is massive, intricate and beautiful, that the stars are things of wonder, that Istanbul was full of history and war or that China was only a recent addition to world politics or that math was used in the real world and there was a point to paying attention in class? Both my parents left school with no qualifications, the only place to learn was between the covers of a book.

Without input, minds grow stagnant. As has been proved by research, the value of keeping an active brain active cannot be underestimated, Alzheimers can be warded from by such a thing as simply thinking. If a young brain has nothing to challenge and expand, it will wither, interest will be lost, and eventually crime will be turned to - I know, I supervised one such lad when I was a Probation Service Officer.

Then there were the Council funded music lessons, and the Council funded loan of a flute. As a result of these, I learnt a lifelong appreciation and love of music, not just the music piped through the radio chosen by someone else. I learnt about having a hobby, something new to me. I learnt about practising at something, repeatedly, in order to get my body to physically do something it wasn't naturally inclined to do. I learnt about using something other than my brain to produce something worthwhile. It would have been impossible without that Council funded teacher.

Then there were school trips. There was no money for holidays for our family, never mind spare for school trips. But thanks to Council contributions, I managed to learn that there was a world outside our little bit of Somerset, I learnt about being part of a team who needed to clean and cook and wash together in order to produce food and a good living environment, I learnt to play well with others. I learnt skills which people assume everyone is taught at home, but perhaps are not for very many reasons. I learnt about set timetables and not being left to my own devices, but the need to have a structured day which integrated with everyone elses structured day. I learnt discipline but in the kindest and most fun of ways. I climbed, I walked, I laughed and I relaxed in a space which was entirely safe. It was a godsend on a number of levels and it couldn't have happened without Council money.

Oh, that 30 mile round trip to Secondary school? Council funded. Not sure how I would have managed to get to school without it - we had no car.

As a result of a lot of Council money, spent to enable those who happened to be born into less fortunate circumstances, I learnt, I grew and I give back. I have worked in every job going to ensure that I contribute something in order to pay something back to a system without which education would have ended at 16 and dead end jobs would have probably been the norm. Without that money being spent in those places, I would not be the educated, well read, enquiring, enthusiastic, passionate and hard working person I am today. I can say that without a shadow of a doubt.

In the midst of the cuts and the spending freezes, the removal of grants and the efficiencies, the biggest thing which is breaking my heart is that somewhere there is a little girl just like me. And every single one of the branches which I held on to to ensure that I got an education, an outlet for my brain and a passion for thinking and changing things are about to be removed. I don't know for sure, but I think that mobile library services, rural libraries, leisure centres, free swimming lessons, free music lessons and loan of equipment, bus services to rural areas - all of things will be in the firing line. And all of those things are the opportunities and assistance which those who fall into the sector of society who need them most are about to have removed.

We are, in effect, about to rob the poor to pay the rich - or rather rob the poor to ensure the rich remain able to pay themselves massive Xmas bonuses. One of those bonuses could probably keep a mobile library service running for a year. What price the disappearing opportunity of education and mind expansion of the geographically and financially excluded?

Too high, it seems.

So I suppose this is a marker. A nod. A plea to spare a thought, over the coming months, for making the public sector the target of your ire. As the leisure centres close, as the libraries shut down, as the hot school meals are withdrawn, as the budget for school books is reduced, spare a thought for the little girl somewhere out there who's opportunities to get out are being reduced, one by one. And she's done absolutely nothing wrong.

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