Leopards and Spots

Source Nalgo Action Issue 3 23/10/89

‘Caring’ council closes children’s centres Workers, parents and vocal children lobby Islington Council 

by Jo Thwaites a parent and Nik Barstow

 With chants of Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Hodge, whats the difference? Not a lot!Islington Councils caringleader was given a rough ride by 180 angry parents who lobbied the Labour Group last Monday. The parentscampaign was showing its support for the 150 child care workers the council has lockedout

The borough’s 13 nurseries are closed, with the council’s insistence. The managers are still suspended for refusing to admit extra children in breach of safety guidelines. And 150 staff are now in their third week of all-out strike action to support their colleagues. 

The section has shown consistently, at mass meetings and in an official ballot, that it is opposed to the cuts the council is making. Over the last two years, the centres have had over one-quarter of their staff cut as posts have been left vacant. Despite this, the council wants the staff to care for the same number of children. Workers argue that they must maintain a staff to children ratio of 1:4 in order to provide good and safe childcare. The new ratios would make that, and especially preventative work with children at risk, impossible. 

Managers from Neighbourhood Offices are also out on strike, and the priority will be to ensure their work is not covered. Support is being built throughout the Islington NALGO branch. 

Faced with this the council is still barely prepared to negotiate. A meeting last week pushed them to slightly alter their proposals and come clean about the number of extra children that they want to squeeze into the centres. It adds up after various fiddles have been eliminated to an extra 27% but the same number of workers. 

Not content with sitting back and making hundreds of parents, children and workers suffer, the council has decided to insult them too. 

A council press release not only attacks ‘callous’ workers but also “greedy’ parents who are supposed to be hitting the chances of other parents getting their children into the centres… 

Then, when 180 of us with kids made a noise at one of their committees, we were patronised and insulted by the officials and councillors of Islington: the ‘caring council’. 

We got letters from the Director of Social Services, when negotiations with the unions were breaking down, telling us that 31 staff had been cut, but that 100 more children were to be taken in and that the unions weren’t agreeing to it. 

Parents are worried about safety as we see every day how short-staffed the nurseries are. There is no doubt in our minds that the quality of care is suffering. Outings are rare, there’s a lot more TV watching and babies don’t get the individual attention they need nor do the over 2s for that matter. The pre-school room in one nursery has been closed for 6 months due to lack of staff. 

More and more agency staff have been used, unsettling the children as they don’t know them. 

When we raise questions of safety we’re told we don’t know what we’re talking about but the professionals in social services do — their ‘professional’ opinion informs their decision to cut staff and take in yet more children. Parents are not ‘professionals’. 

The Director of Social Services laughed at us, feigned sleep and boredom in meetings, refused to talk to us when we had a sit down in the Social Services HQ and sent an admin lackey to get rid of us. Previously he had told us that if anything did happen to any children he would, along with the Chair of Social Services, take full personal responsibility. Two mums told him if anything happened to their kids, they would personally kill him. 

Margaret Hodge – council leader and champion nursery-worker and ungrateful parent basher – declared at Labour Group that we were being selfish. We already had places for our children. We shouldn’t be stopping the council letting other parents have the ‘privileges’ we have. 

The Audit Commission – a remarkable child-oriented body — had investigated the nurseries two years ago and said they weren’t good value for money (not that they ever investigate Personnel Departments). Since then, despite having cut staff, Islington Council is still falling over itself to oblige the government-backed Audit Commission by cramming yet more under-5s into the under-staffed nurseries. 

The parents are fully behind the nursery workers and their strike. We can see through the council’s transparent juggling of statistics and inaccurate and deliberately misleading staff/child ratios. They can’t wait to cut for the Tories, yet dishonestly claim they’re creating more nursery places. 

We, along with the workers, know what the reality of caring for under-5s is and no amount of inaccurate figures will change the fact that ratios of any more than 1:4 can be downright dangerous. 

The local paper denounced our lobby as the ‘ugly face of protest’ with ‘worrying use of children as a weapon’. The parents say the ugly face of Islington Council has shown itself yet again — but this time they won’t get away with doing the Tories’ dirty work. 

Note: Nalgo Action was a monthly journal established in the late 1980’s by a number of Nalgo branches and other groups one of who’s major purposes was to mobilise support for groups of workers taking strike action.

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