Tynwald end of term report: F for the erstwhile education minister

So, we’ve completed the first year full session of Tynwald under Allan Bell’s leadership as chief minister.

But, what has actually been achieved?

We’ve had the announcement of a slightly dubious development in the slightly dubious film industry.

And we’ve seen one man cause havoc in the education system in the Isle of Man.

Since first writing this entry, there’s been a development which emphasises the above point. There’s an update at the bottom of this piece, if those of you who are returning to this post wish to skip down to that, I shall not take offence.

Apart from that, not a lot has happened. We were presented a budget that tried and failed to knit together the findings of disparate government departments, which led us to the ludicrous situation where state run nurseries were being closed down while a different section of government was splashing out hundreds of thousands of pounds to buy a diesel locomotive to run on a steam railway.

There’s almost a nice irony with who has followed into the hot seat following Peter Karran’s overdue sacking as Education Minister (overdue but possibly for the wrong reason – being slow-witted over how to handle a pre-declared position which was against CoMin policy – instead of for his unsurprisingly inept performance overall in charge of the education of the Isle of Man’s children)

The new education minister Tim Crookall was in charge of the DCCL when the loopy loco scheme was drawn up.

Just last week, in justifying the expenditure, he said the loco would have paid for itself after 13 years. It just so happens, of course, 13 years covers roughly the same amount of time a child will spend in school if they stick through the sixth form.

Which brings us back to education.

Karran bleated his defence of the decision to close the 11 state-run nursery schools. He argued that it would end the ‘postcode lottery’.

Anyone, as I have, who has had to wait before trying to actually choose a pre-school facility for their child, may beg to differ.

It was clear the decision was rushed through. By TT week, we still didn’t know what nurseries would be running and who would be running them.

We finally found out. Then we started doing the price comparisons. Peter’s right about the lottery not being based on postcodes. You could find two nursery facilities within 50 yards of each other charging different rates.

If he and the department had bothered to do better research, they may have found many parents had no objection to paying to put their children into state-run nurseries. What some of us object to is that there will now not be a teacher in any nursery for more than a cursory amount of time each week.

And this is where Peter fell down. When he was asked questions off-script and he had run out of his usual tired clichés, he displayed a complete lack of understanding of what really mattered: the educational provision.

His credibility diminishes further if you concur with Dudley Butt’s account of events in that if Karran had agreed to introduce some form of charge for university tuition fees at a later date, then the nurseries, and the mobile library and children’s library, would have been safe for the time being.

The crucial point was that no fees needed to be introduced anywhere this September. The department could have built up a long term plan for phased implementation of tuition fees. There was no need to drop anything on parents with immediate effect.

Peter Karran chose not to.

Dudley resigned from the Department of Education and Children in protest.

Further down the line, when the two remaining department members absented themselves from a debate because they could not support Karran – not their greatest moment either when you consider that a proper protest earlier could perhaps have prevented the cuts – they were sacked.

Peter clung on to his job. But I suspect many more were beginning to see through the rhetoric.

His normal reaction to criticism – to shout, bluster and rail against everyone who has it in for him – is less palatable when he’s actually in a position of power.

He should never have been appointed.

Allan Bell has been quite clever in the way he has allowed ministers to put forward their ideas and then take the flak if they go wrong.

He may have seen appointing Karran as a master stroke. In one movement he made Karran put up or shut up.

Frankly, the member for Onchan did neither.

But we all knew that would happen.

For that, history may look a little less kindly on how our chief minister selected his first cabinet.

While we’re on the matter, let’s look at the argument that nursery cuts were better than tuition fees.

Firstly, for a cost of probably below £2m per year, state pre-school provision could have been available for all.

So it’s not a massive saving and when you look at government’s investment in the film industry and its shifting around of the reserve account, the fact that, for an extra £1 million per year, the department could have done the opposite and made free pre-school provision universal, the decision to get rid of it entirely, saving the government less than £1m per year, seems all the more unpalatable.

Meanwhile, those who think university tuition fees won’t come in at some point in the future have a much rosier outlook on the matter than I do.

We had the opportunity, with Treasury support, to allow people to prepare for the extra expense of tuition fees further down the line. Give people five years’ notice that tuition fees would then start to be phased in, it would give them time to prepare and the government opportunity to devise support schemes for those parents,

Peter Karran blew it because he was told what the Liberal Vannin policy was. And that was no tuition fees.

Instead, parents of children of a pre-school age in September received a few months’ notice they would have to pay thousands of pounds.

Of course, some already faced that cost because they couldn’t get their child into a state facility. I’ve mentioned above how that could have been made fairer.

Even if you don’t agree with spending £2m to make it universal, to use the argument the new system of fees for all makes it fairer for everyone is spurious. It hasn’t improved anyone’s position one iota and has probably succeeded in excluding some needy children from the educational start in life they require.

To be clear, I’m affected by the nursery fees. And I’ll be paying tuition fees in 14 years’ time if my son wants further education, I’m certain of it.

But it’s the loss of teacher presence in those nurseries and the confused handling of the whole affair that annoys me most. It wasn’t thought through, it was rushed and the consequences could be long term and far reaching.

In about eight years’ time, when people start tutting about the lack of social and education skills in some secondary school pupils, maybe we’ll notice that many of them had parents who couldn’t afford the fees for a nursery place.

Because the other truth of the mess Karran left us is the people who will be hardest hit will be the children of adults he used to purport to represent.

That’s the hard up and the under-privileged; the people who can’t afford many books at home in the first place and may yet see the children’s library close. They are most likely going to be the same parents who find that, with the paltry support scheme on offer, they cannot possibly afford to send their child to nursery.

Couple that with the potential impact of Chris Robertshaw’s welfare escalator – something I’ll come to another day – and we’re looking at people who are facing a sharp descent down the social ladder.

UPDATE: 20/07/12

Not even 24 hours have passed since I wrote the above and we’re seeing the first signs of the real impact of Karran’s disastrous decision over the nurseries.

Today it has been revealed that one of the private operators that stepped in to take over the running of some of the nurseries that Karran so easily gave up has had to admit it won’t be providing a service at two of them.

This isn’t the biggest surprise to anyone who gave any thought to what might happen with such a crass decision from the minister of that time.

Put in charges that parents weren’t experiencing previously, and couple that with the fact that some people will find the fact that these nurseries are no longer teacher-led a definite downpoint, then thrown into the mix the short period of time in which the private operators have been given to step in and even shorter period that parents have had to make an informed judgement, is it any wonder that there’s been a failure to attract sufficient numbers.

Because that’s the reason being given by the planned operator, which says not enough people put down names for inclusion at the nurseries in Manor Park and Ballacottier schools – neither of which seemed to suffer a shortage of numbers in previous years.

 Mooinjer Veggey is in talks with education chiefs to try to address the situation and come up with a solution but let’s not hold our breath. Remember, these will be the same education chiefs who created this dreadful situation in the first place.

Funnily enough, earlier this week I recorded a piece with the new local internet news station.

It went out earlier today and includes me talking about the Department of Education. Here’s the link:

http://www.mytv.im/chapter.asp?Chpt=46&Ln=X

You’ll notice that I say we’ll get a clearer picture of the the impact of Karran’s nursery fiasco in September.

I was wrong, the picture is already starting to become clearer now, in July.

The problem is there are many of us who fear it will just get worse.

Twitter: @Norbertsdad

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About Paul Speller

Writer, journalist, husband, dad.
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