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Page last updated at 16:26 GMT, Friday, 18 March 2011

Dorset school probes lollipop lady cuts

Dorset school investigates lollipop lady cuts

By Marilyn Rust
BBC News School Report

When I visited Emmanuel Middle School in Dorset on a drizzly day in February, I was not expecting to find the next Jeremy Paxman.

The students and their teacher Mrs Robertson invited me and a colleague to help them report on how the council's budget cuts might cost them their lollipop lady.

During the course of the day, we met teachers, local parents, councillors and the lollipop lady to find out what they thought.

Conservative-run Dorset County Council needs to make savings of £31.1m during the next year, so it is making cuts.

Earlier in 2011 it announced plans to withdraw funding for 65 crossing patrol salaries, making a saving of £200,000.

In the spirit of David Cameron's Big Society, Dorset County Council wants community volunteers to step forward or schools and parish councils to raise funds to pay for the crossing patrol.

It was keen to point out, however, its commitment to financing the training of any volunteer or independently-funded crossing patrols. But, if no volunteers come forward and no alternative funding found, the posts would be lost.

The children had certainly done their research and had prepared well for their interviews - remembering the 'five Ws' and the need to ask open questions.

Before getting started we spoke about the importance of listening to what an interviewee says and responding accordingly, rather than rattling through a list of pre-prepared questions. Breanne would later prove what an important tool the ears are to a journalist.

I think you've bashed me up enough!
Dorset councillor Toni Coombs

The children broke into groups to interview their guests. Mr Parsons, the head teacher of the local primary, and the lollipop lady Mrs Howe both told their inquisitors that they worried an end to the crossing patrol would encourage more parents to drive their children to school, making an already busy road even more dangerous for those who walked.

And as for finding any volunteers, Mrs Whiteman explained to Eliot that as a working mum she simply didn't have the time to help out.

Jacob and Jordan interviewed Janet Dover, the leader of the Liberal Democrats on Dorset County Council.

She told them that at £200,000 a year the crossing patrols made up a tiny fraction of the council's outgoings and it was wrong to cut funding for such an important service.

Jacob pulled her up, pointing out that the council had to start saving money somewhere.

The headline came when Breanne (our junior Paxman) took on Conservative councillor Toni Coombs.

School Reporter Breanne and Cllr Coombs
Breanne puts Cllr Coombs on the spot

Cllr Coombs, the authority's cabinet member for children's services, began by explaining that the council needed to save £50m over three years, which meant lots of difficult decisions.

Breanne wondered why the council had singled out crossing patrols as it wouldn't make a great saving.

The councillor agreed, but explained that the service was discretionary, ie the council didn't have to provide it and hoped that others would take it on as part of the 'Big Society'.

Breanne asked if there would be enough volunteers in the local area.

With a sigh, Cllr Coombs admitted that so far no one in the whole of Dorset had come forward, something that greatly saddened her.

She added: "If we can't find volunteers, or school or town and parish councils to take over the funding, then we will continue to fund them."

After a pause, I reminded Breanne that the best interviewers always listened and would pick up an interviewee to seek clarification.

Breanne: "So you're saying if we can't get any volunteers to come forward than you won't be making these cuts?"

Cllr Coombs: "We will still have to make cuts but we won't make the cuts in the school crossing patrols."

Then the young interviewer then asked a question you'd never hear pass the lips of political animals like Paxman, Martha Kearney or John Humphrys:

Breanne: "Thank you for your comments - do you have anything else you'd like to say?"

Cllr Coombs: "No. I think you've bashed me up enough!" - followed by some nervous-sounding laughter.

Dorset Council has subsequently issued a press release to clarify its position on school crossing patrols.

It was initially proposed that funding would be withdrawn from some sites in July 2011 and the remaining sites in December 2011.

But the council will now continue to fund the patrols until March 2012 as it extends its consultation period with the local community.

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