Sarah McDonald reports on a campaign that has spurred people into taking direct action
On Thursday April 23 a few hundred protesters gathered to await the announcement by Glasgow city council as to whether the proposed closure of 13 primary and 12 nursery schools was to go ahead. Unsurprisingly, the Labour council endorsed the proposed closure of all but five of these schools.
Council leader Steven Purcell justified the move on educational grounds. According to Purcell, the merging of schools and hence the creation of bigger institutions with enhanced facilities would lead to the employment of more teachers and thus a better education. Of course, the opposite is probably true. Smaller schools tend to be nearer home, more intimate and less bureaucratic places (especially helpful to development in the early years of childhood).
Since February there has been a militant campaign against the proposals, inspired and coordinated by parents, teachers, nursery nurses and other members of the local community. The campaign has also generated solidarity, with numerous messages of support, including internationally. Obviously, the left has played an active part in the campaign and leading Scottish Socialist Party member Richie Venton has acted as the Save Our Schools organiser. Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity has also been active in supporting the campaign, as has the Scottish Nationalist Party, which attempts to portray itself, not Labour, as the establishment party associated with progressive causes. Certainly the feeling amongst last Thursday’s protesters was that they had been betrayed by the Labour Party and it is the nationalists who stand ready to cash in on these sentiments, as they have done increasingly in recent years (aided, of course, by the left).
The Liberal Democrats have also spoken out against the closures, with the leader of their council group, Christopher Mason, expressing concern that the closure of so many Catholic schools would “kill off denominational education in Glasgow”.
If this were true, it could be viewed as the best argument in favour of the closures, but the question of faith schools, particularly on the west coast, is a fraught one in Scotland. Catholic schools are part of the state system (90% of all Scottish secondary schools are fully comprehensive and part of the state sector), although the church also has a hand in their administration. Where religious tensions between Protestants and Catholics are rife, as is the case on the west coast, so-called non-denominational schools are effectively Protestant. This is true in terms of imposed religious observance, as well as in relation to the political and football-related allegiances of the pupils who attend them.
That said, the unity and militancy with which local communities have fought in defence of both Catholic and non-denominational schools is impressive. Parents have chained themselves to railings and occupied two primary schools (Wyndford and St Gregory’s) throughout the two-week spring break despite initial threats by police that they would storm the building. On top of this, there have been several public meetings and three demonstrations in support of the campaign.
What comes through from the parents and teachers involved is a strong sense of the need to stand together to ward off these attacks. Perhaps this is not what education secretary Fiona Hyslop had in mind when she espoused the virtues of “parent power”.
As leading educationalist professor Brian Boyd from Strathclyde University pointed out in a letter to The Herald newspaper, “Ms Hyslop has recently signalled that small rural schools are crucial to the survival of their communities and, as a result, should be protected from closure on financial grounds alone. I, and many of my colleagues in education, would agree with the parents of pupils in Wyndford and St Gregory’s that these two schools are every bit as vital to the survival of their communities, albeit within an inner-city environment. Primary schools and nurseries play a vital community role for parents and carers wherever located” (April 18).
As ever, it is a question of the nature of parental involvement in terms of media and public perception and in terms of results. In other words, it comes down to class. ‘Parent power’ is all fine and well in the leafy suburbs of East Renfrewshire, where parents push the local authority, which in turn pushes the schools in pursuit of a results-driven agenda. This focus on exams has, of course, been continually proven to hinder rather than encourage intellectual development.
By its nature it encourages passive, and therefore superficial, learning, whereby information is transferred in the hope that it may later be recalled when necessary. By contrast the more emancipatory approach demands critical engagement and active participation. The detrimental involvement of parents in the push for grades is encouraged and promoted by the government and media when it comes to the middle class suburbs, but the working class voices of pupils, parents and communities are ignored in inner-city Glasgow.
For the communities of which these schools are a part, they serve as more than a qualifications factory: they are an important part of the community. One parent commented: “It’s not just a school. We depend on it for after school clubs. We have a lot of single parents who rely on elderly relatives to take their kids to school. And they are brilliant schools. This was the last thing we could do to save our communities and our schools and our choices. They are taking our choices away as well” (The Guardian April 12).
This campaign has spurred people into taking direct action – many probably for the first time. Those involved in resistance and struggle often become politicised through engagement with the wider working class movement. Which leads to another problem: the left, while heavily involved in the campaign, is too fractured, badly organised and theoretically weak to provide the political and organisational leadership needed to make these acts of resistance more than single-issue campaigns.