We have been told by the coalition government that in tackling its key objective of reducing the UK's deficit the whole public sector, bar the National Health Service and international development, but including the Armed Forces, will face a minimum of 25% cuts in staffing and perhaps as high as 40% in the next five years. Before I proceed, if you are interested in where I get my figures from see: http://www.civilservant.org.uk/numbers.pdf and the reports from the Local Government Association (LGA): http://www.lga.gov.uk/lga/aio/5826934 and http://www.lga.gov.uk/lga/aio/11637001
I noted in a recent posting the size of different sections of the UK public sector. It employs a little over 4.5 million people, only 16% of the UK workforce. The thing is, when you speak about 1.1 million people losing their jobs by the end of 2015, it is difficult to comprehend what that will mean to you. Of course, we could simply put every teacher and every social worker in the UK out of work and that would still only have removed about 490,000 people from the public sector. There are 225,000 administrative civil servants, people working on the kind of grade that you meet if you go into a job centre or your local tax office. In fact the Department of Work and Pensions and HM Revenue & Customs (which handles tax) take up 49.5% of national civil servants between them. Defence has a further 15.8% and 'Justice' has 17.1%. As it is, even if you took out every single administrative civil servant working for all national department (as opposed to local government departments) and added these to all the teachers and social workers, you would still be at only 615,000 and would be looking for another around 500,000 people to lay off. This means you could also remove all of the 217,500 executive grade civil servants, so the people who manage your job centre or benefit office or are the actual tax inspectors and still would need another 280,000 redundancies.
Of course, the government will not expect the full weight of cuts to come from the national civil service, but also from local authority bodies too. There are 34,400 people working in libraries in the UK, many part-time. So you could close every single public library in the UK without making more than a minimal impact on the figure the government is aiming for. Of course, selling off the books, computers, buildings and the land would help a little towards the deficit. Getting rid of all of the 5,800 trading standards officers, all 38,000 housing welfare officers, all 8,000 school crossing patrol staff, all 15,000 nursery school nurses and 9,000 playgroup leaders, all 36,000 people working in refuse collection and recycling, every one of the 11,800 people who work in public theatres, galleries and museums, all of the 66,700 people who work in every public swimming pool and leisure centre, so closing all of these things down, still does not take us to the desired total. Yet, even wiping out all of these jobs will mean no refuse collection, no sports or cultural facilities, no state schools, no social workers, no playgroups that are not in private, profit-making hands. The government says these positions will be taken over by the private sector, so you will have to pay to have your refuse removed and to sign up to a private sports centre if you want to swim. As for social work who is supposed to take this on? The new poor houses? I know back in the 1980s there was talk of 'Victorian values' but purging the public sector of so many jobs will plunge us back into that kind of society.
Of course, rather than take out whole sectors, national departments and the local authorities will carve chunks off individual sections and will hope the remaining staff can continue to deliver as good a service as before. There is a belief that there is so inefficiency in the public sector that the remaining 75% staff will be able to increase their efforts by a third (not a quarter, think about it; 25% is a third of 75%) to lift their output back to just 100% of the current level. As it is, there is a shortage of social workers and we have had extensive recruitment campaigns, now we are scheduled to lose a quarter of those we currently have. Of course, there will be more children dying unprotected by social workers. They are stretched now, it will get worse. Of course, in the government's view this is a worthwhile sacrifice to pay back the loan that kept the wealthy bankers afloat. Another thing, with all these teachers, social workers and librarians being out of work, who is going to process their unemployment claims and benefits with job centres having lost 1 in 4 of their staff?
Big numbers of thousands and millions of people are often difficult to assess, so I will finish off looking at a human-level example. There is a primary school at the end of my road. It is a very popular school, so for the 60 places each year there are at least 90 applicants. It covers the school years from Reception (i.e. Year 0, though given the connotations of that name it is not called that) for children 4+ through Years 1-6 with children leaving aged 11-12. There are two classes, each of 30 pupils, in each year so it has a total of 420 pupils. Each class has at least one teacher and classroom assistant usually to help children with learning difficulties. Some classes have two part-time teachers. There is also the deputy-head and head, the former also does some teaching. There is one caretaker for two sites and about six administrators. So, I estimate about 45 staff for the whole school. Now, remove a quarter of these, say, 11 staff. You could remove most of the 14 classroom assistants. You could take out all the teachers for years 0-4 and one from Year 5. You certainly could close down the Reception year and take children at 5 as was the case when I started, but then how do you reach the government targets for children's achievement. You could combine the classes, but that is not permitted and no school has room to have 60 children in a class. You could only accept 30 children, but then where do the remainder go, given that every other school in the district will be facing similar cuts? We are lucky that this is not a rural area and there is a choice of schools. I suppose the government would argue that you could shave more staff from local authority running of schools, but it seems impossible that that could spare every teacher. Even taking out just 5 staff from a school of this size would disrupt its working; teachers will have to do their own administration as well as teach and prepare and mark.
Of course, these grass roots challenges, as this single example makes clear, are of absolutely no personal interest to government ministers, their children go to fee-paying schools so will be exempt from any cut backs. This means that ordinary children in the UK who coming through the school system in 2011-15 will be in more crowded classrooms with fewer teachers and poorer equipment will be further disadvantaged than they are now. The number of working class people going to university has not risen since 2002 and adult learning has slumped since the mid-2000s. The coalition government's policies seem to be driving yet another step towards Victorian style division in which the rich can afford to benefit from opportunities and the rest of us have to scrabble around for what we and our children can get. This is far more sinister than it is being portrayed in the media. People still talk of the blight for the generation that grew up in the 1980s in Britain and it is clear that such a disadvantage is going to be imposed on the children and others of the 2010s.