Schools: power in your hands

Schools can put power in your hands, argues Melanie Main.

Of all the layers of government – European, UK, Scottish and local – the last is most relevant to most people’s daily lives.  Local councils are responsible for care for the very young and the very old. They keep our streets clean and lit, pick up our waste and look after our streets. The parks, libraries, museums, community centres, which add richness to neighbourhoods, are run by councils.

Above all, councils run schools. The single biggest budget of any council is education and it is often the most hotly-contested issue in public debate.

2017 looks like no exception. Families and young people are entitled to expect the very best of our schools and I want to outline 3 ways in which more Green councillors will bring fresh thinking and new insight into some very well-trodden paths.

The first concerns the buildings in which our children and young people are taught. In Edinburgh the last five years has been dominated by the tragedy of the death of Keane Wallis-Bennett, a 12 year old killed by a falling wall at school. Two years later the collapse of 9 tonnes of masonry at Oxgangs Primary School only evaded a far worse tragedy by luck.  As a Green councillor I have sought to be absolutely honest about the need for extra funding (in excess of £20 million in the capital) to make sure that our buildings are kept in a decent state of repair.

And I have sought to be equally frank about the failings of labyrinthine private funding models which, because of the distance they put between the public authority and the building site, obscure basic failings in construction and management of schools. This was graphically exposed by the report from Professor John Cole published in February into Edinburgh’s school building crisis. Future decades need to see a return to more straightforward funding and building models, and ones in which the potential of our young men and women to be the engineers and building workers of the future is realised.

The second area is around what happen within schools. The Curriculum for Excellence has been weathering some tough criticism this year. As a parent whose daughter’s own journey through school has paralleled the evolution of Curriculum for Excellence I would caution against throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  By all means let us reflect on what is working well and what needs changed. But let’s remember that the skills that our young people need to navigate the 21st century are very different from those that prevailed decades ago. The jobs they will be doing may not yet even exist. Team-work, inclusion, problem solving, self- evaluation and resilience all matter just as much as basic numeracy and literacy and must not be lost in an appeal to educational nostalgia. These skills for life are the key to our children’s future and to closing the stubborn attainment gap.

The third area is who decides. In Edinburgh, over the last five years a parent has sat on the council committee which deals with education, and made a positive and considerable contribution. That one parent seems measly compared to the three religious representatives, so Greens have consistently argued for more. Now, with the Rights of the Child becoming embedded in our schools and 16 and 17 year olds voting in elections, we shall also be arguing for a senior pupil place on education committee.

That direct involvement must start in individual school level as well. Some schools are excellent at enlisting the experience and skills of parents and carers, staff and pupils in decision making.. Others, however, have a lot to do.

And so it turns out that, in schools, as in much else, who decides matters.

Councillor Melanie Main is Green Education Spokesperson in City of Edinburgh Council and has a daughter at secondary school.