Thursday 7 January 2016

What are schools for?

This is a much more complicated question than you think.

Schools are surely for the purpose of educating children.

Except in practice, in Scotland, they are not. Or at least for far too many of them they are not. Really.

The biggest single challenge facing Scotland is the gap. The gap in expectation between those from comfortable backgrounds and the rest. It isn't an exclusively educational gap for it also shows up, at the other end, in life expectancy. That's not a small thing but it's not my topic here.

For in relation to those at the end of the life cycle, while it might be possible to mitigate the gap, it will never be possible to eliminate it. You can't turn the clock back.

But at the start at least you can try to ensure that it doesn't run too far behind.

Before I go on, I want to say two things.

The first is observational.

On 29th December, Andi and I went to see Scottish Ballet perform Cinderella at the Festival Theatre. We got the train from Croy to Waverley. We wandered about the German Market for an hour or so, with its lights, its trivial but beautiful gifts, with its generally cosmopolitan air. And then we walked up the Bridges to our “night oot”. Followed by two hours of wonderful music, wonderful staging and, insofar as I am qualified to judge, wonderful dancing. It was a brilliant experience. But it wasn't a cheap one, albeit one that we personally were well able to afford.

And over the holiday we met up with kith, kin and friends and enjoyed the vicariously the years experience of their children; their parents being our contemporaries, the “children” now being teenagers and beyond.

So we learned of expeditions to see Basketball at Madison Square Gardens in New York; snowboarding “sabbaticals” in the Canadian Rockies; “working holidays” in Australia; not such working holidays spent on the beaches of the Croatian Islands.

But I come back to the ballet. For as we walked towards it and back from it, we were surrounded with lots of little boys and girls (alright, mainly girls) literally skipping with enthusiasm at what they were about to see or, later on, had actually seen.

No education system can fix the ability of parents to be able to afford, or more likely not to be able to afford, these sort of life experiences for their children and the subsequent life advantages that these experiences inevitably bring. But it can at least try.

Which leads me to my second, more personal and cautionary point. It is difficult for a legal aid lawyer to write about his or her cases in an attempt to draw wider conclusions without betraying client confidentiality.

You will therefore have to trust me that the essential elements of what I now say are based on a true case but appreciate I have had to very substantially change the detail to anonymise it.

For they involve a child from a particularly difficult background. His paternal uncle was in prison for murder and his father, now prevented by law from contacting him, had served a period of imprisonment for assaulting his mother even before the child went to school. Where he proved incapable of overcoming his nurture, even disregarding his nature.

So, from Primary one, he was violent to other pupils. He would hit them, kick them, when once having come off worse in a fight, then present a knife towards them. Until one day, at the age of eight or so, he went “too far” and put another eight year old wee boy in the hospital with a fractured skull.

When, after an admitted suspension, “the system” suggested he should be returned to class. Whereupon the other parents in the school had had enough and occupied the Head Teacher's office, vowing to leave only when they were assured their own children were safe. Which could only happen if this child went somewhere else. Anywhere else. I'd like to say their view was that he needed “appropriate help”, but it wasn't. They just wanted to know that they could go to their work in the reasonable expectation that their own child wouldn't be stabbed in their absence. Not to their work as Social Workers or Teachers or even Legal Aid Lawyers, for few of “us” would have had a child in that school in the first place, but (just) to their work as Social Carers or Labourers or Shop Assistants. Who hoped perhaps that their children might have a bit better opportunity in life than them. And who knew that this could only come through education.

Now, I read all of the Social Work and Education reports in this case. They repeatedly referred to the value to the child himself enjoying a mainstream education. Of the extent to which he was “bright”. Of the unfortunate circumstance of his upbringing. Of the extent of his personal “innocence”.


For where were the interests of the wee boy with the fractured skull? Or of the classmates reluctant to go to school, or even too scared to go to school altogether, for fear they'd be stabbed? At best for the kids who'd conduct every Arithmetic or English class lacking concentration as a result of always looking over their shoulder for fear of an unwanted kick or punch?

Where was the appreciation of a school as a place of education, not a place for the teachers to, hopelessly, try to address the injustices of the wider world,? Or of a school as a place for the pupils within it  to attempt to do something more than, simply, survive?

There is no better example of the hard choices of politics than this. Politics' objective is surely to secure the greatest good of the greatest number. But it can't progress on the basis that there will be never be any casualties on the way. “No child left behind” is a noble sentiment but not if it translates as “Every child kept behind in consequence”.

As they are inevitably if classes need to be disrupted by other children regularly turning up late. Or held up while teachers deal with discipline problems. Or, I'm sorry, simply with hygiene problems.

To return to my given example; maybe, if returned to mainstream schooling, that wee boy might have overcome all his disadvantages and gone on to make something of himself. Maybe.

But at some point, no matter how ruthless it may sound, somebody surely needed to balance that remote chance, for that's all it would ever be, with the damage that might be inflicted on so many other wee boys and girls while failing in the attempt. Even then hoping it would only be educational damage.

I'm a great defender of the comprehensive principle. All children willing to learn should be treated equally.

But teachers are not Social Workers. And schools are not miracle palaces. If we want to even start to challenge the advantages of Basketball trips to New York, or Canadian sabbaticals, or evenings at the ballet, then a starting point has to be this: That, for working class pupils, state schools are, as private schools have always been, start to finish, places of education. Not outreach departments of Social Work. And for those not able or willing to buy into that,even if they are, personally, “innocents”? Then schools cannot be the “cheap” solution. For that solution maybe cheap for some but it is not for those other children, from ordinary backgrounds, who truly find themselves paying the price.

Monday 4 January 2016

Down and Out in Glasgow and......Glasgow

Today, it was announced that the middle class tossers at Creative Scotland have paid some lucky recipient a grant to live in Glasgow for a year and to report on “being poor”. That grant is £15,000. For a year. Tax free.

Here are a few facts. If you are under 25, unemployed, but physically fit, in Glasgow this is the maximum you can receive in benefits.

Job Seekers Allowance: £57.90 per week. £3010.80 per annum.

Housing Benefit: £92.08 per week. £4788.16 per annum.

Council Tax Benefit (per annum): £808.67
And that's it.

That is a total of £8,607.63 per annum.

That is £6,392.37 per annum less: £122.94 a week less; four meals downstairs at the Rogano less, than that which Creative Scotland regards as poverty. But imagine the trauma for a creative of not being able to eat a full three days a week at the Rogano? And never upstairs. Unless you are being treated by somebody (from Creative Scotland?) visiting you and enjoying an expense account. After all, it's not far from Queen Street.

Now, be clear, let us revisit that amount of £8,607.83 per annum; £165.53 a week, before housing costs. £57.90 afterwards. For heating, lighting and, with what is left, food. That is poor. Really poor. So poor that nobody needs to contract with you, as the middle class tossers did with their middle class recipient of their £15,000, that she would only leave Glasgow for family or medical emergency, not even for The Fringe. £165.63 per week rules out even the cinema in Coatbridge. Indeed £165.63 per week, £57.90 after housing costs, leaves you so poor that you probably couldn't even afford to leave Glasgow even if there was family or medical emergency. With or without the agreement of Creative Scotland.

The middle classes simply do not appreciate absolute poverty. That explains the £15,000. Just as it explains two other things. The Yessers belief (and I suspect most of those awarding this grant fell into that category) that the “adventure” of Independence might bring a little financial “hardship” to them but not one they couldn't bear. But it also explains those in my Party, in comfortable public sector employment, who think that “a Labour Government at any price” is also one too high for them to bear. For them perhaps. But not I suspect for those on £8607.53 per annum, £165.53 a week, before housing costs. £57.90 after housing costs. A week. And facing things getting consistently worse under another ten years of the Tories.

Now these same Tories say “Get a job!” (although not, I suspect, as a professional “poor person in Glasgow”) and I get that. But if you've been brought up in a workless household, and have, as a result of our dysfunctional education system, have no practical skills to employ in this increasingly post manual labour age, then “getting a job” is not as simple as that.

So £165.53 a week might be your lot. But let's not pretend that this is anything other than absolute poverty. And lets not pretend that £15,000 per annum ( tax free) is anything even approaching that. Not least because the National Living Wage (certainly no fortune) is £14,287 per annum for a 35 hour week. Before tax!

But that is the extent to which our Nationalist masters and their middle class luvvie pals simply do not understand the lot of the poor. And yet by waving a flag they get away with pretending that they do. While my own Party believes it can afford the indulgence of Jez and Kez.
I'm annoyed. You'll get that.

Friday 1 January 2016

A One Party State

You may have noticed that I have more or less stopped blogging.
Mainly that's because there isn't really very much for me to blog about. I blog about politics, mostly, and my kind of politics is now essentially irrelevant.

The only important Party now is the Tories. And I don't know much about the Tories. So there isn't very much for me to say.

One of the things that you learn eventually about democratic politics, anywhere in the world, is that the only thing that really matters is elections. In their immediate aftermath the losers inevitably talk of “holding to account” the victors. They also fall back occasionally on complaining about the “unfairness” or the “misguidedness” or even the “illegitimacy” of their defeat. But it never comes to anything in a mature democracy. After a few months it sinks in that the only way to get revenge is to win the next time. “They won, we lost, get over it”

That's what the Tories are really good at. Other than during a very brief period under IDS, throughout the whole of my lifetime they have either been in power or planning how to get back into power. And, given they have been (mainly) running the Country for the last two hundred and fifty years, they are even, if required, prepared to play the long game in that process. Thus, the achievements of the Attlee government were recognised as too popular to be reversed, so they were embraced. Thus Wilson's successful assault on Tory toffs was met with the initial counter of “Grocer” Heath (although he was never a Grocer) and then the (genuine) Grocer's daughter Thatcher. Thus Blair was endured and then found the sincerest form of flattery in his imitation from Witney.

And now Cameron has set the limit to his own mortality? The first question the Conservative Party will ask, from top to bottom, and before a nomination is made or a vote cast, will be “Can she or he win?” It would be inconceivable for even the most right-wing Tory to endorse a candidate thinking “Well, clearly he can't get elected, but he'll certainly stick it to these socialist chappies in the course of being defeated.”
And that, in a nutshell,is the first reason the only important Party is the Tory Party.

For Labour simply does not think the same. Or at least does not unanimously think the same. It's not just Jez, it's Kez as well. Kez stood for the Scottish Leadership on an open platform of not being the solution to Scottish Labour's problems and has since gone on prove it. She gives the impression of having no idea why she is there, other than to acquire a momentary, very minor, celebrity. Having embraced, in theory, the argument that no-one knows what we stand for, far from clarifying that, she has instead cast doubt on two of the few things about which it was thought we were reasonably clear: that Scotland should remain within the United Kingdom and that the United Kingdom should remain within the European Union. And that's before you even start on her bizarre attempt to save Michelle Thomson (a distraction, apparently); her failure to go after Phil Boswell (another distraction, apparently) or the general vacuousness of her every public statement. Strangely I even feel some sympathy for the “#SNPbad” school of criticism. I know what we are against but I have absolutely no idea what we are for. We are against the Council Tax freeze but will we lift it? No idea. We are opposed to the SNP failing to use the Calman powers but would we have used them? No idea. We believe Forth Bridge maintenance was underfunded but would we re-introduce tolls? No idea. We think the NHS needs more resources but do we support Prescription Charges? No idea. We oppose cutting college places and maintenance grants to fund free university education but would we introduce fees, or even bring back the Graduate Endowment? No idea.

And then finally we have the utter shambles of the list selection procedure where, to avoid offending anybody, everybody has been left to stand. I have a choice of twenty (twenty!) candidates for seven places, only five of whom have any conceivable chance of being elected. Making the process, in its execution, both ludicrously time consuming and, worse still, a huge distraction from trying to actually hold some Constituency seats.
Just about the only thing I have agreed with Kez about is in the interview she decided (why?!!!) to give to the Guardian in which she confessed her own doubts about whether she was up to the job of being a credible candidate for First Minister. Only, along with most of Scotland, “doubts” would not express my scepticism sufficiently strongly.

But we're stuck with her 'til May.

Which is the second reason that the Tories are the only important Party. For until Labour is once again credible in Scotland, with or without the Jez factor, there is no route back to power at Westminster. And while Kez is there.........

“But surely, when talking about important Parties, we at least have the SNP?” I hear you protest. “They run the Scottish Government! They've got almost all our MPs! They are massively ahead in the polls! They must be important!”

Except they are not, really.

One of the things that passed off without nearly as much comment as it ought to have attracted was Nicola telling the SNP October Conference that there would not be an unconditional commitment to a second referendum in this (I nearly wrote next!) year's Manifesto.

Why? She didn't really say. Except that we all knew it was because they would just lose (again). And that that loss (One might be unfortunate but two might look like carelessness) could prove to be as much of an electoral gamechanger in conventional politics as had proved September 2014. Only this time, for the SNP, not in a good way.

So the SNP is now, still, for Scottish Independence, only not yet. And, to be honest, you do wonder if it's slowly dawning on them, not ever. They successfully avoided the internal excoriation they received from Alex Bell by ignoring it. But out of sight is not out of mind. A re-run referendum based on a promise of an immediate cut in living standards and the prospect of then negotiating the world with a currency of indeterminate value is unlikely to persuade many of the 55. While you suspect much of the 45 would find themselves thinking “Haud oan a minute!” As the cleverer Nats know.

But in the meantime? Well we know the answer from Swinney's budget in October. Tax and spend in SNP Scotland will mirror tax and spend in Tory “England”. That's life. If you want an end to austerity, or even a particular aspect of austerity, you'd be better lobbying George than John. George might not listen but he is at least the organ grinder. And that is the third reason the Tories are now the only important Party.

But the final reason is more peculiarly domestic.

Aside from the SNP there is at least one other Party in Scotland who is not in complete disarray. Who does have a credible alternative candidate for First Minister, a candidate who does know what her Party stands for (chiefly because she has told them) and who does have a clear programme for Government. Who has had a grip on their candidate selection, who hasn't effectively written off the constituency contests, and who will be laser focused on winning as many seats as possible rather than on who gets to win these seats.

That Party won't win the election. But if the SNP are to be denied a second overall majority it is much more likely to be as a result of a recovery in their fortunes than as a result of any other scenario.

And if the SNP fail to win an overall majority? Well then, once again, in deciding what happens next, there will be only one important Party.

Happy New Year.