A year ago, I wrote about a small charity called the Scots Language Centre that seemed to me, well, just a bit too political for a charitable endeavour. Now another case of potential imbalance has come to my attention.
Something called the First Minister’s Reading Challenge first piqued my interest. The Scottish Book Trust (SBT) runs the challenge for the Scottish government. I wondered why a reading challenge for children, in principle a great idea, needed to be associated with a politician – any politician. More of that anon.
First, the SBT. Like the Language Centre it is a charity (Registered No. SC0276690). It says that it ‘believes books, reading and writing have the power to change lives’ and it describes what it does to progress that aspiration. It’s an aspiration I’m entirely sympathetic to.
I tried to work out what sorts of people and organisations might have an interest and role in promoting books, and the reading and writing of them. Here’s my layman’s guess, in alphabetical order.
- Authors’ agents
- Book designers, typesetters and other ancillary trades
- Book retailers
- Government, through its responsibility for education and funding for the arts/culture
- Teachers and educationalists.
It would not be unreasonable to expect the board of trustees of a charity devoted to books to mirror these sorts of interests. Coincidentally SBT’s board of trustees has nine members, the same number as my guess at relevant interests. It’s not possible to match each individually to my nine categories and I’m sure they’re all readers. But that apart, here’s a stab at classifying some of their multiple current and past interests. Of the nine trustees:
- six work or have worked for the Scottish government in one role or another, of whom two are current civil servants and another two have or had responsibility for aspects of the Curriculum for Excellence
- four are or were teachers or educationalists
- three have or had senior management roles in local government
- three are or were involved in marketing, including one for a book retailer previously
- two are authors (one playwright, one poet) although not as their main profession.
It would be fair to conclude that there is a clear public sector dominance on the board, with two-thirds (six) working or having worked for the Scottish government, nearly half (four) being teachers/educationalists, and a third (three) local government senior managers. I see no publishers or anyone involved currently in book production or sales. The two authors (they will forgive me) are part-time writers.
Even more telling, you can see in the SBT’S latest annual report and accounts (‘Full accounts made up to 31 March 2016’ p.5) the source of their income of £3.36 million for 2015/16:
- Scottish government – 59%
- Creative Scotland (an agency of the Scottish government) – 31%
- Other – 10%.
In other words, 90% of their funding comes directly or at one remove from the government. I am reminded of the old adage that he who pays the piper calls the tune.
I mentioned earlier that the SBT runs the First Minister’s Reading Challenge for the Scottish government and I speculated as to why it might need to be associated with a politician – any politician.
If you’re not aware of it, the reading challenge is an initiative aimed at Primary 4-7 children. It has its own website (but is also explained more fully on the SBT site). Rather like the principle of a book trust itself, the encouragement of reading by children strikes me as an excellent idea.
I might quibble as a parent and once-upon-a-time member of a couple of the old school boards about some aspects of the initiative. Why not just build the funding available permanently into the mainstream budgets of primary schools? Is the competitive element really effective? Where, amidst all the ‘literature’ promoted is the material for the reluctant or poor reader?
However, the question that really interests me is why does a challenge run by a charity need to be so closely associated with a politician, the first minister, indeed named after her? Will it make parents, teachers or 8-11 year old children more likely to take part?
If current popularity is a criterion it would be better named after Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.
Or what about an actual author loved by children, say … the J K Rowling Reading Challenge? [Rowling has 8.79 million Twitter followers compared to Nicola Sturgeon’s 0.473 million]. Since she lives in Scotland she might even be willing to do some school visits that don’t have the whiff of electioneering about them. If you were a ten-year old who would you prefer to sit down with you and read?
But no, you couldn’t have the author of Harry Potter associated with a Scottish government reading project for children. After all, she had the temerity to express a political opinion about separation during the 2014 referendum campaign, whereas the first minister … oh, no, forget that one.
Pending the presentation of clear evidence demonstrating otherwise, I’m tempted to conclude that the naming of the challenge after the first minister is, if not a vanity project, the continued promotion of ‘St. Nicola,’ as some have called her, for political purposes. In any event, considering all the problems assailing Scottish education a presumably temporary reading project for Primary 4-7s seems at best a peripheral distraction.
The case of the SBT and the first minister’s reading challenge is different in some ways from my previous example of the Scots Language Centre. But they share two things in common. Not only proof of that adage that he who pays the piper calls the tune, but also a demonstration of the effort the SNP put into issues to do with the promotion of nationalism through culture in a wide sense. I find myself wondering what else they are colonising in the third sector.
The facts in this post were correct when I researched them in mid-October. One SBT trustee’s appointment has ended since then. For the avoidance of doubt, although I think there is something wrong in what the Scottish government is doing I imply no wrongdoing by anyone involved with the Scottish Book Trust.