Civic education in the new Scotland? (Image from BBC Reporting Scotland 25 March 2015)
Politicians love to make a bee-line for schools. Educationalists and education authorities are keen, if not to keep them out, then at least to regularise their access.
The reasons should be clear.
A school provides a happy hunting ground for the politician in office to say ‘Look. See how successful our building programmes/funding/educational policies are.’ For the politician in opposition or yet to be elected there is precisely the opposite motivation: ‘Look at the state of this building/the underfunding/how the teachers struggle.’ For both there is the chance to be associated with children, young people, the future. And at the primary school gate, and sometimes beyond it, there is the chance to talk to parents (as Alex Salmond knows).
But schools are there to educate children.
At primary level that education needs to include an element of how we should behave with each other in society but it does not need to involve politicians directly.
Secondary level is different. This is the time to introduce a more overt element of civic education and understanding of democracy. When my children were at the local academy this was done through PSE, personal and social education. It also emerged, inevitably and correctly, through other elements of the curriculum, such as geography and history. At election times, many secondaries also hold a mock election with students representing real political parties, complete with hustings and a ballot (to the ‘Yes’ campaign’s discomfort many also held mock referenda last year, with nearly all reporting a majority for ‘No’). Some schools invite all the candidates or their representatives in a real election along for a panel discussion and Q & A with senior pupils. The local MP or MSP may also visit outwith election periods to discuss their role. As members of the education authority, councillors have legitimate reasons to visit.
All this is fine and indeed praiseworthy. Perhaps the independence referendum muddied the waters a little with all 16-17 years able to vote, instead of a small minority of 18 year olds still at school. But in any event education authorities issue guidance to schools on the subject. It’s not all the same but it’s available. You can see a summary of guidance each council issued for the referendum on the BBC web site.
But now come some allegations that are a little different to all this.
The Labour MP Michael McCann makes these claims about an SNP meeting in his constituency:
[A delegate said] “Sterling work was being done by the SNP youth wing in all local schools. “The meetings were packed out at lunchtimes and this would be intensified during the election period as pester power from children could help persuade their parents to vote SNP.” The speaker went on to reveal that more teachers were getting converted to the cause, adding: “We must remember that the youth are tomorrow’s voters and we should get them whilst they are young.” Next a woman who claimed to be a teacher stood up and reported that in her school they had been showing children recordings of Westminster which, she says, the children found “boring”. She added: “This process helps to put children off Westminster.”
It needs to be stressed that the claims have yet to be proven. Apparently they were obtained by a Labour party member masquerading as an SNP supporter. Not perhaps the most honest way of finding out what’s going on but no doubt Messrs Rifkind and Straw thought the same when their claims to undercover reporters were revealed about influence they could bring to bear on government policy.
But at least the McCann claims are sufficiently explicit to warrant serious consideration (you can find more details in the Daily Record’s East Kilbride News). McCann has brought the allegations to the attention of various people including the chief executive of South Lanarkshire council, the education authority concerned. He wouldn’t do that without being sure of his ground.
So what to conclude from this saga?
What the local SNP branch are said to be doing here is very wrong. If the allegations are proven
- the party should publish clear guidance about activity related to schools and children
- the council needs to review and reinforce its guidance on political activity and schools. In particular,
- the reported lunchtime meetings should not be allowed (a huddle of kids in a playground corner may not be capable of being policed – anything else, certainly a ‘packed out’ lunchtime meeting, should be)
- teachers need to be forcibly reminded that their personal politics must be kept separate from what they teach
- they also need to be reminded that discussion of Westminster (or any democratic political institution) needs to be balanced and they must not traduce it.
There was a strange echo in all this of an exchange I’d had on Twitter in February. I had posted an article on what I called the serial promiscuity of the SNP. This drew forth a lot of hostility from nationalists on Twitter. One in particular spoke about my ‘bile … bilious views … [and] … unionist vitriol.’ I was ‘mad’ and a ‘unionist nut job’ (I’ve saved the tweets). Someone told me at the time that the person concerned was the partner of an SNP MSP but I drew a discreet veil over the names in my blog.
Well, I’m now happy to confirm he was Duncan McLean, partner of Linda Fabiani MSP and, surprise, he pops up at the SNP ‘let’s get the schoolkids’ meeting. Michael McCann claims
those attending were asked to prove their party credentials by being photographed holding an SNP sign. The photographer was SNP MSP Linda Fabiani’s partner, Duncan McLean
and he adds
while all of these matters were being discussed Linda Fabiani and their parliamentary candidate were both present and they didn’t take exception to any of this strategy.
I’ve said before there’s something not very pleasant at the heart of the SNP and the way they behave. These new allegations only reinforce my view.
In the meantime, you’ll see a photo of Nicola Sturgeon with some putative mini-nationalists at the head of this post. It’s nothing directly to do with the subject of this post but it did coincidentally appear on the BBC news last night and may be a straw in the wind.
My view of education, and one I tried to inculcate in my children, was that it should teach young people to think for themselves. It would seem that the SNP has a very different view.