Monday, 14 October 2013

Response to Cathedral Primary School's Central Library Q&A

The Council and Bristol's Cathedral Primary school have finally decided to answer some questions regarding their proposal to take over the lower two floors of the Central Library, only over a month after these questions and more started to get asked quite vocally and publicly!

Briefly, you can expect to see some figures for the associated costs of the plans, as well as some history to the development. Unfortunately you can also find some vague and cleverly worded non-answers in there too.

What is clear is that the school decided it wanted to use the library, originally not the lower floors. Thankfully the council was not so blinded by the cash that they turned that down immediately. Unfortunately we are still in the process of entertaining this latest proposal based on two reasons (both with fundamental flaws)...

1) The school is only interested in moving to this location, in order to save itself money in development costs to cater for it's pupils
2) The school is providing up to 420 extra primary school places to Bristol.

Question 3: Why does the school need to be in this location?
Answer: The primary school building needs to be near Bristol Cathedral Choir School’s
dining hall (which is next to the Central Library), close to other senior school facilities and
near to the cathedral to be cost effective and within safe walking distance for four-yearolds.

Now, notice the question is "Why does the school NEED to be in this location". The answer? It is preferable that the new development is located next to the dining hall and other facilities. There is also this supposed "need" for the Cathedral to be within safe walking distance. Let's look at this in two parts.

First, there is no *need* for the school to be developed next to pre-existing facilities. It is, as they say, cost effective to do so. However I find it interesting that we're saying the need for this school to be cost effective is more important than, say, making sure the library is cost effective by having it's book storage close to hand.

The reality is that the storage of books in the library (or rather away from the library if these plans go ahead) creates a long term cost inefficiency for the council, while the cost inefficiencies that are face by the Cathedral Primary School here are actually the same costs that any other school would have to face if it wanted to set up the same scope of primary school in Bristol.

There is no "need" for these things, there is a desire and a financial case to be made. However quite why the council should be required to take on an additional cost inefficiency to allow a school to be more cost effective feels to me to be a weak argument.

Second, there is this "need" to be a safe walking distance from the Cathedral. I may be a bit weird in thinking this, but doesn't every other school that wishes to visit the cathedral and isn't a safe walking distance away still manage to do so?

Again, this isn't a need, the school could arrange the necessary safe transport of children for their visits to the Cathedral, they are simply looking at an ideal situation that they want.

Let's be absolutely clear, the school is doing the classic young child thing of confusing what they want with what they need... and we must remember that "need" doesn't get.

Question 4: How many children are likely to come from within Bristol?
Answer: 29 out of 30 children in Reception this year are from Bristol (97%) with just 1 child
from North Somerset, so the majority of children are most likely to come from within the
Almost three-quarters of children (22) in Reception are from homes in BS2-BS8, the
postcodes surrounding the centre of the city.

This is a slight side issue. Given the shortage of places in Bristol the argument about places being filled by Bristol families NOW is not so much in question, but this is only part of the story. There are the following other aspects...

1) Future demographic make up
2) Efficient location for families in need, and
3) Demographics of families actually served

The 1st point is important as the current school place shortage is not something guaranteed to continue. We have a current primary capacity problem created by an increased birth rate in this country, one of the largest we've ever had in fact! This may well continue, or it may decline to more historically "normal" levels.

An argument the school is keen to pursue is that this isn't taking resources from the Bristol tax payer, since it is going to be "likely" to be serving Bristol families. However this is a short term argument because of those birthrates combined with the fact that the centre of Bristol is not an area that traditionally houses families.

For the first couple of years that the school operates it could very well have 100% Bristol families, however with 420 places it wouldn't be unlikely to see an increased number of places going to those outside of the Bristol. At this point we have given up portion of a Bristol resource to start providing educational space to non-Bristol-tax-paying families

The second point is that it's all well and good saying you supply those spaces to Bristol families, but are you located well enough to provide fair and equal access to families that wish apply? Now a school can never be situated perfectly for every family in Bristol, that would be ridiculous; however the center of Bristol seems like a very curious place for the reason that it's not really close to any families!

Placed further south in Southville, or West in to Clifton, and it would be not only on the doorstep of more families that would thank it greatly for it's proximity, but also be in a more commutable area, not forcing those families further away to have to deal with the throes of the commuter rush hour in central Bristol.

Now I know the argument here... Central Library is where it is because it's accessible to the most people, so the school should be there to be just as accessible, right? Wrong. The two aren't comparable. For a start the use of the library does not need to be at the rush hour times of the day, so the congestion of a trip to or from the library is entirely avoidable, and managable for those with a wide array of transport needs. Second, the Library is *intended* to be a resource for everyone, the school their own statement, a resource for (at best) 10% of Bristol.

The best thing that the school can do is not locate itself centrally, but locate itself in a place where it's capacity is most accessible to a grouping of 10% of Bristol's primary school place desiring families. To make a specific example/suggestion the school could look for appropriate space around the joining of the Bedminster, Southville and Windmill Hill wards and have over 750 pupils that were unsuccessful for their first preference in those areas ready to take up one of their coveted 420 places!

Better transport links, safer commute for young children, more cost effective for a more economically deprived population, and retaining the full function of the city's Central Library!

The final point runs off of the second, and that is that some families will simply not be able to afford the money and/or time to send their child to this school. Those in the North of Bristol, or the far South, are unlikely to be benefitted by this school, and so far the Cathedral Primary School refuses to detail how it is going to ensure an equitable admissions platform for all families of Bristol regardless of how well off they are financially, or how difficult it would be to reach the school at it's central location.

It's an important context to remember as we take apart one of our resources that is of most benefit to those who are on the poorer spectrum within Bristol, and gift it to a school that could end up benefiting, primarily, those who are better off; those who, while wouldn't be disadvantaged by a library being above their school, wouldn't gain as *much* of an advantage.

It's worth remembering that the school that currently exists, run by the same people that will be running this primary school, has only 5% of it's total student population eligable for free school meals, which is incredibly low.

Question 6: What will happen to the books if this proposal gets the go ahead?
Answer: The two lower floors of the Central Library hold predominantly a lending and
reference collection of around 270,000 reference books.
This proposal offers the Central Library both the opportunity and the resources to examine
its long term storage strategy. This includes considering what needs to be kept, identifying
the most appropriate location for the stock being kept, and most importantly, identifying
how to make it as accessible as possible to all is customers.
General access to the reference book stock will be improved through a cataloguing project,
as this will be available to all online, rather than dependent on attendance in person at
Central Library. This is in line with what is happening in other libraries globally and brings
the library into the 21st century.

This question particularly bothers me, as it suggests quite wrongly that it is the act of the school removing the books from the Central Library that will enable it to modernise.

Clearly this is false. The Library can modernise while fully remaining exactly where it is. This answer is a weasely one that paints the school's development as somehow intrinsic to the future improvement of the library. This is a lie.

Question 7: Where does the Central Library plan to store the books?
Answer: It is looking at a number of options should the proposal get approval. B Bond, a
building near Cumberland Basin, offers the main potential to re-house the majority of the
reference collections. The store would not be accessible to the public but items requested
would be transported back to the Central Library on a regular basis.

Note that the books would go from being 100% accessible by the public on demand, to being 0% accessible...and there is this need to transport books back and forth from the new storage to the Central Library, to be picked up...where they could have been picked up quicker before they were moved!

But keep note of that transportation issue...

Question 8: How much will this move cost?
Answer: The estimated cost to move the books, cataloguing to the online catalogue,
provision of new rolling racking and storage of books is £500,000 – 600,000. The cost will be
borne by the schools funding body, Education Funding Authority.

Apparently the development of the alternate storage is going to be funded by the central "Education Funding Authority"? This is clearly money to ensure that the school is up to standard, but they are also going to fund the conversion of other space to house displaced books and reference material?

Question 9: What is the cost of the overall proposal?
Answer: The anticipated cost is £500,000 to £600,000 to move the reference library to a
new site, catalogue to an electronic system, provide new racking and store the books as
mentioned already. There would be reduced premises costs for the library of around
£45,000 per year (reduction in National Non-Domestic Rate (NNDR) also known as the
business rate.
The Education Funding Authority (EFA) is responsible for the cost and delivery of all works at
the Central Library Building
. This is estimated at £3.8 million.

Emphasis is mine. Maybe the terminology here has just got confused...but how can the £500-600k come from the EFA to perform the modernisation and storage of books in a new location if they are responsible for only the work at the Central Library Building?

Perhaps the additional development work off site still counts as work "at the Central Library Building" since it was displaced from there.

However even giving benefit of the doubt, I have to refer back to the first question above regarding "need". What the council and the school are admitting here is that they have £500-600k to spend on new storage space for books. How much would it cost to include some of the facilities that would be used at the "senior school", and a dining hall in the building of a new school at a different location?

Does a dining hall and other un-named "facilities" really come to a cost of more than £600k when housed within a larger development of primary school facilities?

And remember that talk about transportation between the new, undecided, location for the Central Library's books and the Central Library itself? Where's the cost implication for that on a yearly basis? Where is the cost implication for the maintenance and upkeep of the new storage? Where is the cost of the staffing and security of the new storage?

These are the questions we were asking for, and they are important since if there is a requirement for any more than two staff members (equivalent full time hours)*, plus transportation on a regular basis, and upkeep of those vehicles used to do the transporting...then this cost of ongoing use of the library's resources will exceed the £45k amount they are saving per year in their rent!

Question 11: How will the Lending Library be affected?
Answer: The Lending Library will not be affected by this proposal. All public space in the
Central Library will remain as such.

Perhaps the biggest misdirection of them all. The service will get slower, any more spontaneous access of resources will have to stop. The "Lending Library" is not just the books you can pick up from the public area, and as such it is impossible to remove part of it (the non-public bit) and it not be affected.


*I'm assuming, conservatively, that 2 employees will cost the council another 40% on top of their salaries for associated employment costs and benefits.


  1. Excellent work, Lee. Might I suggest you forward a copy to 'Nooks and Corners' at Private Eye? I believe they are starting to take an interest in this unbelievable scheme.

  2. Good post.

    420 extra pupils is a lot. Regardless of how they're going to cram 'em all in to the building, where's the outdoor play space for them?

    There's a hint in the talk of pedestrianising College Square that this public space is going to become the school playground and off-limits to the public.

    If the school's not going to take College Square, where are the 420 pupils going to get some open air?


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