Last year may have been the official year of young people but it feels like 2019 is the year when young people are most making their voices heard. The school climate strikes, starting in Sweden, but now throughout the UK, have seen young people seize the momentum on the defining issue of their lifetimes. In March and May, outside the Scottish Parliament, thousands of school students took part in the most uplifting but challenging demonstrations I can remember.
The climate emergency is certainly the cause of this generation. And it is education – whether at school, college or university – which acts as a big focal point for young people. So I have always been quite puzzled by the limited ways in which young people can have their say in the way education is run. Most schools have their pupil councils – although they vary as to how well they are supported – but at council-wide level there is a real gap.
Take the council’s education, children and families committee. There are eleven elected councillors on it, as is generally the case for the main council committees. However, education committee is unusual in that it also has four additional members: three from religious groups, all of whom currently have voting rights and one parent who has no voting rights.
In fact, although it is before my time as a councillor, I understand that in 2012-2017 there were six additional members, all six of whom had voting rights. However, in 2017, the two teacher representatives were removed (as it was deemed to cloud matters when the teachers were also council employees) and the sole parent representative was stripped of voting rights.
Now my position – the Green position – is clear. The Education Committee should have representation from parents and school students on it. And they should have voting rights.
For religious representatives, I am not clear why they are there other than it is legally required. All councils, including Edinburgh, are required, by law, to include three members of churches on the committee which covers education. One must be from the Church of Scotland, one must be from the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and one must be from another church. In Edinburgh currently, the third place is taken up by a representative of the Jewish community. The current legal requirement dates back to 1973 but of course goes back centuries, to when schooling and faith were closely interwoven.
So what we have today is very uneven. Most glaringly, there is no place at the table for the people most affected by education – young people themselves. Other councils have pupil representation on the committee but my suggestions to date that Edinburgh should do the same have not yet found favour, although that could and should change. I am also seeking to increase the number of parent representatives to two as that would allow for continuity and place less of a burden on already busy volunteers. Put together – a pupil representative and two parent representative – it would give parity with the number of religious representatives.
The case for having representatives of churches on education committee feels very dated. It would be better if the unique legal requirement to have such representatives were to be ended. That is not about individual churches or faiths, nor is it about individual people from those faith groups. Indeed, if a council chose to have such representatives it could still do so. But it would no longer be a legal obligation. For now, however, all that a council can do is clarify voting rights. At least three councils in Scotland have already reviewed processes so that church representatives have their legally-required places but can no longer vote. Here in Edinburgh, having taken legal advice, there is no legal barrier to the city council following suit.
From where we are now, in a kind of half-way house, it is about parity. It is about parity of numbers. And about parity of status. If, at present, a parent representative cannot vote then I cannot understand why church representatives can do so, especially where the church vote could swing a controversial vote from one side to the other, as happened recently in Perth and Kinross in the decision to close a school.
That is why I am proposing changes in those terms when all councillors in Edinburgh meet this week. I look forward to the day when we have parents and school students on the committee with full voting rights and when religious representatives are no longer legally required. For now, this is simply a step in that direction.