At Cambridge City Council’s annual meeting on the 21st of May 2009 Councillor Russ McPherson was elected Mayor of Cambridge for 2009-10. The first thing he did was announce the charities which will benefit from his work during the year. These are to be MAGPAS (Mid Anglia General Practitioner Accident Service) and The Red Balloon Learner Centres.
MAGPAS is a fantastic organisation providing volunteer community responders and emergency medical teams. I think that it is excellent we have such a strong charitable sector in the UK working closely with publicly funded services. Particularly incredible are organisations such as mountain rescue (and their lowland counterparts), the RNLI, and the expanding air ambulance coverage all of which provide services now considered essential. (We need to ensure regulation is not an excessive burden to them.)
Red Balloon runs small schools for those who have been severely bullied. The Cambridge centre is in a house on Warkworth Terrace, by the Police Station, and schools 10-12 pupils. One of the aims of those running the Cambridge centre has been to buy the house the school runs in outright.
I am personally not comfortable with what the Red Balloon Learner centres are doing. I think it is wrong for bullied children to be forced out of schools, labeled victims, and educated separately. Schools ought not tolerate bullying, resources need to be invested in the schools to improve awareness and stop it for all. If anyone is to be forced out of a school it ought be those doing the bullying. The Red Balloon learner centres are funded by a mixture of public and private money, I am particularly concerned about public money being spent on such a scheme when it could be invested in mainstream schools. I think that all that can be done to reduce bullying in mainstream schools ought be done before considering “schools” such as those run by Red Balloon.
While it is clear the centres do help some individuals I am not convinced their existence, and allowing public funds to be spent on them has a net overall benefit. As with all such schools, I am in favour of parental choice but worry that by improving provision for those with pushy-parents we are missing out on an opportunity for improvements for all; that’s a general point which I believe will become more important if a Conservative Government encourages more small private schools to be set up and run using public funds.
I am also concerned that the Red Balloon Learner centers mis-represent what they are doing. When I spoke to a number of their staff in July 2007 they justified what they do by saying they primarily work with children with learning difficulties suggesting that the bullying element, if present at all, is secondary. There are many children who would benefit from a tiny school, and one to one tuition but if that is what they are offering then the charity ought be up-front about it and not mislead with its apparent sole focus on bullying. As a last resort surely moving schools would be more desirable than being educated at one of the Red Balloon Centres.
In July 2007 I asked :
- Wouldn’t public money be better spent within schools?
- Shouldn’t it be the bully not those being bullied who end up being educated elsewhere? [They ought be removed from other children, and dealt with as other disruptive pupils are]
- Why do you have so many statemented children, doesn’t this indicate you’re not dealing with just those who are victims of bullying but those with other problems too?
I also questioned why the organisation wasn’t aiming to make itself redundant and working towards reducing bulling in schools. Personally I would like to see the law requiring schools to have an anti-bullying policy which they actively follow. I also question why the centres are still required despite such a massive change in public attitudes to bullying in schools in recent years.
I find it ironic that the Red Balloon learner centres have Doug Richard (of the TV show Dragon’s Den) as a patron when the premise of that show is that the dragons are unpleasant and “breathe fire” at the contestants.
A recent parliamentary answer outlined some of the things the Government is currently doing to reduce bullying in schools. I was surprised and worried by Education Minister Ed Balls’ recent speech in which he said:
I urge all local authorities to support Red Balloon and such new opportunities for children.
Bullying is a problem throughout society, not just in schools. For example at the University of Cambridge I drew attention to disciplinary procedures in the colleges where individual fellows acting alone could impose un-capped punishments on students without any oversight, a state of affairs I felt allowed an abuse of position equivalent to bullying to occur. I have continued to lobby for change and minimum standards for disciplinary and “dignity at work” policies across the colleges were included in my application for an external member position on the University Council.
The new mayor went on to appoint his Mayor’s Cadet (a member of the army cadets at Cambridge Regional College) and the Mayor’s Chaplin (The Multi-faith Chaplain to Cambridge Regional College). I was disappointed to see the new Mayor not break from tradition and decide to keep the Crown (on the Mace) and God (Via the Chaplin and his prayers) involved in the governance of Cambridge; I think both should stay outside the council chamber.
The ceremonial session of the meeting in the morning was watched by a full public gallery, predominantly members of COPE (Cambridge Older People’s Enterprise). Politics students from a Cambridge School were also present on the floor of the chamber. Both groups had been enticed by an invitation promising civic pomp and a free lunch. I thought it was a shame that none of the substantive elements of the council meeting were conducted while there was a large audience. For elements of the meeting itsself, held after lunch which discussed independent retailer zones, recycling on open spaces, the folk festival losses, housing and many other interesting areas there were only one or two members of the press/public observing.