Ensconced in the ‘Newsnight Scotland’ studio last Thursday, waiting with Katie Grant for our turn, there was nothing to do but listen to Gordon Brewer’s pre-recorded interview with a junior minister, Keith Brown, about school closures. Mr Brown clearly considered it his duty to support local authorities in the face of criticism that children were being deprived of an education because of bad weather.
When Gordon Brewer pressed him on the wholesale closure of Glasgow schools, Mr Brown’s message became impossibly mixed. He repeated the general observation of his boss, the education secretary Mike Russell, that it was unreasonable to close schools at short notice. But then he went on to defend Glasgow City Council’s announcement, at 8 o’clock the previous morning, to close every school in the city at an hour’s notice. He insisted that Glasgow had ‘good reasons’.
Challenged to say what they were, the minister indicated that there would have been a risk to the safety of pupils and that some of the teachers would have had difficulty getting to work. I wanted to shout ‘Feeble’ at the screen, but there were the sensibilities of Katie Grant to consider, and the make-up artist was powdering my nose at the time, so shouting ‘Feeble’ at the screen was not a viable option.
Only someone living in an enclosed order – the one occupied by politicians – could seriously argue that Maryhill Road was an impenetrable white hell last Wednesday.
Apart from being feeble, Mr Brown was also being illogical. Either the ministers think it is unreasonable to close schools at short notice, or they don’t. Unless, of course, 8 in the morning fails to qualify as short notice. Shall we make it three minutes to 9?
But the unreality of the context, rather than the confused logic, is what made the interview so revealing. Mr Brown was describing a major city. Most of the teachers who work in it also live in it. Most of the students either walk a short distance or are driven a slightly longer distance along open, heavily used streets, some even gritted. Only someone living in an enclosed order – the one occupied by politicians – could seriously argue that Maryhill Road was an impenetrable white hell last Wednesday. A hell, perhaps, but a long way from Cockbridge, a far cry from deepest Colinsburgh.
Most people assumed that someone in Glasgow City Council panicked. It seems the likely explanation for an otherwise incomprehensible decision. But, such are the niceties of official Scotland, it is not possible for Keith Brown to appear on ‘Newsnight Scotland’ and say to Gordon Brewer: ‘Everybody makes mistakes in this world and, you know what, I think closing all the schools in Glasgow yesterday was a huge mistake and so does my pal Mike Russell’. No doubt the people who draft replies for ministers in expectation of awkward questions from interviewers could have put it more diplomatically, but you get my snowdrift. The transparently silly decision must be backed. The opposite of what is obvious to everyone else must be argued. Hey, that’s politics. If only it weren’t.
There is another dimension to this unreality. It is the unreality associated with perceptions of risk. It would be horrible to return to the tyranny of Greenhill Primary when my friends the brothers, the roughest boys in the school, trudged through the cold, cold snow – it seemed to snow all winter in Greenhill, a rather misnamed outpost when I think about it – and, when they turned up a few minutes late, as they usually did, were belted for being less than impeccably punctual. Even the slightly warmer atmosphere created by this opening ritual failed to melt the icicles on the inside of the classroom window. Prayers were said.
No one thought of the risk the brothers took in walking all the way to Greenhill Primary with the near-certainty of a belting at the end of it. There was no Falkirk Council to cancel their schooling for days on end, no Keith Brown to defend the closures. The harshness of life proceeded unabated by bureaucratic concern and kindly intervention.
No. We would not wish to return to such a regime.
What might our children have learned had they not been condemned to go home in the interests of safety and throw snowballs at each other?
There remains only the marginal issue of education itself. At least the brothers were educated. That much could be said in favour of the former regime. Now that the new ice age has descended – climate change, but the wrong sort of climate change – the eradication of risk is the primary consideration. The judgement of parents to allow their children to walk along Maryhill Road is not to be trusted. The children may fall. The schools must close. Another day of education is lost, never to be regained. What might our children have learned had they not been condemned to go home in the interests of safety and throw snowballs at each other? I like to think they would have learned how to spell the word pusillanimous.
But it may still be possible to rescue a generation of Scottish school-children, the generation lost to snow. In other Arctic civilisations, ‘snow days’ are an accepted part of the school year. Every day in which the school is closed because of snow is simply added to the end of term. A fortnight of closures in Scotland would mean an extension of the term into mid-July. Of course it is possible that snow days would prove so unpopular that the schools would remain open in the worst of weather for anyone who wanted to use them and that the teachers, poor souls, would get to work somehow.
It seems a small price to pay for education.
This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.