Arresting fall in police ranks

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IN an ideal world, there would be more police officers on the beat – the regular refrain of every politician standing for election.

Yet the reality is very different. The police, like other key public services, have not been immune from the spending squeeze that will now remain in place for the rest of the decade. Even Labour accepts this.

Chief constables are having to come up with practical and pragmatic ways of maintaining patrols – high-visibility policing is critical to retaining public confidence – and this has led to a greater reliance on special constables or police community support officers, the brainchild of David Blunkett.

Though some critics continue to be disparaging towards these public-spirited individuals and the fact that they’re not fully fledged officers, they do, nevertheless, play an important role on the region’s streets – their presence, for example, at major sporting or music events means that detectives, and other senior staff, can spend more time apprehending those criminals who do pose a serious and sustained threat to public safety.

However some caveats are required as West Yorkshire Police looks to recruit 1,000 additional specials to help counter the loss of 600 full-time officers in the coming years, an approach symptomatic of the changes now being implemented across the country.

Special constables are not a substitute for existing officers – many lack experience of policing sensitive situations and their availability does depend on their own work and family circumstances. Yet, while PCSOs have, to their credit, silenced many of their critics with their diligent work in local neighbourhoods where they do tend to operate in pairs, specials are even less experienced.

The challenge facing West Yorkshire is training another 1,000 special officers, in addition to the 450 individuals on its books at present, at a time when the number of full-time officers is predicted to fall from 5,059 at present to 4,423 by May 2016. This is a critical point. For, unless the right training and supervision can provided, this initiative will be construed as policing on the cheap and will not only jeopardise the safety of the public, but those tasked with upholding law and order in the region.

The best and worst of education

AS the deteriorating relationship between Michael Gove, Ofsted inspectors, headteachers and the unions begins to approach breaking point, all sides would be advised to reflect on the conclusions of Bradford Grammar School’s headmaster Kevin Riley on the opposite page.

After 35 years working in the teaching profession, Mr Riley has come to this stark verdict: “Our best schools compare with any in the world but our worst fail children appallingly.” He has called for the policy-making process to become less confrontational so that “a consensus” can be achieved.

Even those who still question the role of grammar schools should take heed of these remarks at the end of a bruising week that has seen two political think-tanks closely allied to Mr Gove question both the role and competence of Ofsted inspectors – and its chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, defend his organisation and then question why there is inadequate supervision of the Education Secretary’s much-vaunted free schools.

This poisonous atmosphere means that the latest Tory idea, namely a longer school day and shorter holiday, is unlikely to be given a proper hearing because the policy debate is now dominated by too many vested interests.

Yet the lesson from Finland, and appreciated by Mr Riley, is that schools will not fulfil their potential until teachers have greater autonomy to help children, particularly those with a history of under-achievement, to fulfil their potential. Until this reality is heeded, the future of education in Britain is likely to be dictated by mediocrity and political interference, the two longstanding traits that have contributed to Yorkshire schools languishing at the bottom of a succession of national league tables for far too long.

Belated response to flooding crisis

JUST about the only consolation to be drawn from the latest floods is that this Government has finally acknowledged the importance of dredging rivers, a point highlighted on Tuesday in these columns.

However it is a national scandal that it took more than three weeks for Ministers to deploy the Army to stricken communities on the Somerset Levels. Lessons have not been learned from the Yorkshire floods of 2007 and this county has only escaped the worst of the wet weather through good fortune.

It is also regrettable that the expertise of MPs such as North Yorkshire’s Anne McIntosh has been ignored – her interventions have now been praised by Ministers, and Speaker John Bercow, ahead of her re-selection vote in Thirsk and Malton today.

Yet how can the Environment Agency be persuaded to invest the necessary time and money in the maintenance of rivers when its head Lord Smith is so unsuited for this critical role? Steeped in London suburbia, he was Culture Secretary in Tony Blair’s first government and his first love will always be the arts, rather than the practical needs of flood victims around the country.