Knowsley, the country’s safest Labour seat, has been savaged by cuts | Polly Toynbee

1 Jun

‘Left behind” is a complicated condition when what’s measured is those who stay, not those who fly the nest. Knowsley has the worst schools in England, with the lowest GCSE results. If families do catapult children up the exam ladder, those successes go and never come back. Few become high-achieving parents of the next generation of Knowsley residents. Tony McGuinness became a rare returner when he came home two years ago to take on the headship of All Saints Catholic High. Like many schools here, it was in special measures. “Don’t do it,” his friends warned him. “It’ll ruin your career”.

But he got a grip on attendance and behaviour – “tough love” was his mission – and now the school has been upgraded to “requires improvement”. The day I visited, a brief crisis was caused by two pupils sending Instagram pictures of themselves brandishing a gun. The police were called, but though it turned out to be plastic and he sighs at the Liverpool Echo chasing yet another anti-Knowsley story, that won’t help the school. He has great Teach First teachers, but three recent ads for maths teachers yielded none. “Why would they come here?” he asks glumly.

Here’s an even more pressing question: why does this government pile on the misery in a place struggling so hard to improve? McGuinness will have a 20% budget cut in real terms by 2020, with 20 teaching posts already lost and a fifth of his funds taken up by the school’s PFI costs. Why?

Some 40% of 11-year-olds leave the borough for better secondaries elsewhere. Students in the “scholars” stream, destined to get five good GCSEs, brim with ambition, all hoping for university, one to be an RAF pilot, another a nuclear physicist. But not one expects to live and work in Knowsley. “Our parents want us to go,” said one. Schools in deprived places can keep turning out successes, yet the community keeps losing them. McGuinness says that’s fine, he just wants the best for each one, but a brain-drain holds a district back. No A-levels are taught in Knowsley: the scholars have to move out for sixth-form college.

The rest go to the community college for English and maths retakes, but only 20% of those who sit these essential exams again pass, says Knowsley Community College principal Anne Pryer. Why, she asks, is her education of 16- to 18-year-olds funded by a fifth less than schools’, when teaching vocational courses linked to local jobs isn’t cheap. Knowsley is not the unemployment blackspot it was, but average wages, mainly from logistics and warehousing, pay £40 a week below the national average. Youth unemployment, on the other hand, is twice the national average: a recent burst of gun crime in the Stockbridge Village estate is one symptom.

The more you probe Knowsley’s condition, the more shocking it becomes that it has suffered the country’s harshest cut, losing 57% of council funding. Ask council leader Andy Moorhead and he angrily rattles off his effort to keep going with a 25% staff loss, 45% management loss and “staff morale on the floor”, as those who remain are asked for ever more on falling pay. (He thanked them with an extra bank holiday.) What’s gone? Many environmental health officers, so food outlets are inspected less. Children’s centres have closed and merged. Two libraries shut. The council call centre used to answer calls in 30 seconds, but now people hang on and on. The grass grows long in parks. But what alarms him is the squeeze on social care and child protection, as need is rising.

Nowhere has just one story, so he points to green shoots too. Building starts soon on the Shakespeare North theatre and education centre, a draw for tourists and school visits. I visited Knowsley Safari Park, owned by Lord Derby of stately Knowsley Hall, whose estate manager (an ex-army officer as pro-Brexit as most others here) runs a business group to support local enterprise.

But it’s a sorry boast that Knowsley has some of the country’s best-run food banks. The Big Help Project, founded by Barry Cooper, has 14 branches here, with 22 full-time staff and scores of volunteers, offering physical and mental help of all kinds: a good news bell rings for every problem solved. As ever, scandalous benefit delays and sanctions cause much destitution, while the bedroom tax hit Knowsley especially hard.

The council’s public health report shows the expected: rates of smoking, drinking, obesity and gambling are above average. A quarter of residents suffer from high anxiety and only 13.3% say they are happy.

Yet if there’s an upside to a hard life, it can be a cohesive community used to propping each other up, with local heroes thick on the ground. Take Jackie Harris, who doesn’t think herself remarkable. She founded the Carolinas, Knowsley’s marching jazz band. She founded a housing cooperative, became a councillor, fostered over 50 children (she is still in touch with many of them) and she helped found a memorial park to local soldiers killed in Afghanistan. “Aspiration” is what politicians praise, but there’s a conflict between aspiring to be up and gone, or sticking with communities that need their heroes to stay.

Of course Knowsley is deep Labour and will be until hell freezes over. With 78% of locals voting that way, it’s as culturally, historically, profoundly Labour as the Catholic church is deep in its blood: 80% are of “cultural Catholic” heritage, says George Howarth, their well-respected MP of 30 years. If national polls show a serious slippage in working-class votes for Labour, Knowsley resists Tories with every fibre of its being: how could it be otherwise?

And yet it voted for Brexit, while next-door Liverpool voted remain. In the Huyton community housing co-operative, pensioners gathered for bingo were still adamantly pro-Brexit, though their MP warns them of the consequences. Immigration looms large in this white district. Asked how many non-British-born people live in Knowsley, guesses range from 10 to 25%. Told it’s only 2%, they doubt it. Yet they won’t desert their Labour man, the local, thoroughly decent, strong Harold Wilson admirer in whose Huyton footsteps he follows. All here will vote Labour – bar one angry with Corbyn over defence.

All over the country, you find schools, hospitals, GP surgeries, nurseries, police stations and care homes gasping for air, struggling to keep going. Every service from potholes and bins to parks is parched of funds, with worse to come if Theresa May is returned, with her scorched-earth austerity budget. Everywhere needs a Labour government – but nowhere more than Knowsley, and the people here know it.

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