Why Alton Towers?

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Kenneth Roy

Thursday morning
There was a glimpse on Scottish Television yesterday evening of why the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the outfit which controls Scottish broadcasting after 11 years of devolution …..

Kenneth Roy

Thursday morning
There was a glimpse on Scottish Television yesterday evening of why the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the outfit which controls Scottish broadcasting after 11 years of devolution, thought that the combined forces of Oor Wullie and the Bo’ness Bugle, given £16 million a year from public funds, might do a better job of providing a basic news service to ITV viewers north of the border. The glimpse was contained within the piece-to-camera of a young reporter standing outside a deserted Lanark Grammar School in which she spoke of a close-knit community coming to terms with its loss.
     In defiance both of the law of averages and of demographic trends, there seems to be no possibility of tragedy ever visiting a loosely knit non-community taking a perverse satisfaction in its own anonymity. In the same way, it is unimaginable that tragedy should ever settle on a people who, far from wishing to come to terms with their loss in the stoical manner prescribed by journalists, prefer to shed bitter tears of recrimination and to wander the streets white with grief.
     The initial narrative of the Lanarkshire school bus accident – although that narrative is changing this morning and will go on doing so over the next few days – was of a normal event overwhelmed by an incident on a bridge. The Prime Minister quickly issued a statement expressing his sympathy to the families of those affected by the accident ‘in the north of our country’ – leaving open the proprietorial nature of the country he has in mind and, for that matter, its geographical location. But, in the south of our country, where it actually happened, there was nothing in the least normal about the circumstances of this accident.

It was the final week of a school term before a 15-day Easter break. It seems that these final weeks – there are three of them over the course of a school year – are, for many pupils, only loosely associated with what passes for education. But so long as they are part of the official timetable, perhaps there is a marginal case for applying rationality to their observance.
     The reality for 39 Lanarkshire school-children was somewhat different. Having, presumably, been at school all day on Tuesday, they were wakened from their beds in the early hours of Wednesday – between 4 and 5am, it seems – in order to undertake a nine-hour round trip, very much longer in bad weather, to a pleasure park in Staffordshire before, presumably, returning to school today for the final day of term. Just before 6am, our old friends elf and safety deserted Lanark in its hour of greatest need. It was not enough that the 39 sleep-deprived senior pupils should be put aboard the waiting bus. They were then driven off in treacherous conditions, in darkness, along a country road.
     All winter, schools in most parts of the country were closed at the drop of a flake. There were repeated suggestions that many did so with suspicious alacrity because to have opened, and admitted a small number of pupils, would have depressed the attendance record and invited the oppressive attentions of the inspectors. I have never read any convincing rebuttal of these suggestions. But if they were entirely false, we are entitled to know – well, we are entitled to know anyway – why the same principles of safety, above all other considerations, which motivated the wholesale closure of schools in bad weather were not followed in the case of a jaunt in equally bad weather.
     The narrative of normality – the illusion that all was well until the bus tumbled off the bridge – extends to the intended final destination, a place called Alton Towers, where the 39 school-children, in the final week of their pre-Easter study, were to have enjoyed what the young reporter from Scottish Television approvingly called ‘a fun day out’. Mr Hood, a local MP, has also referred to the attractions of this venue, expressing his sorrow that an enjoyable trip to Alton Towers should have ended so tragically. In such statements, there seems to be no hint of irony.

Anyone who has read the seminal book on modern Scotland, R F Mackenzie’s ‘A Search for Scotland’, written by a radical teacher in the last months of his life, will be aware that a ‘fun day out’ is often compatible with the purposes of education. In that book, there is a moving passage in which Mackenzie describes how a fellow teacher took a group of ‘difficult’ children in Fife out of school on an expedition.
     They did not travel far. They trudged all the way to the top of a hill, where the teacher lovingly introduced them to the wonders of the natural world. The quality of his teaching, the miracle of nature and the curiosity of the young together exercised a transforming influence.
     The educational merit of Alton Towers is less obvious. Judging by its website, it is a slick, highly commercialised operation, a mini-Disney marketed with ruthless efficiency to the undemanding. No doubt it would be a place to visit, and perhaps enjoy, during those long school holidays, including the two weeks now yawning ahead. But if this is what is meant by the school expedition, we have come all the way to the bottom of R F Mackenzie’s magical hill and gone on marching into a meaningless void.
     A 17-year-old girl is dead. Her memory would be served best by a searching examination, not only of what happened in Lanark in the early hours of Wednesday morning, but by a deeper exploration of why Alton Towers, physically and metaphorically, seems to be Scottish education’s destination of choice.