Saturday’s edition of The Herald (14th April 2012) went spectacularly off piste in an astonishing series of items on the school closures issue.
The initial impact
These pieces were immediately over the top in their number, the space they occupied and the visual prominence and drama of their presentation. Readers were propelled into imagining that rural education as we know it is on the brink of extinction.
The bottom half of the front page was flashed ‘EXCLUSIVE‘ and was by education correspondent, Andy Denholm. It had a big two line header over five columns: ‘New blow in campaign to protect rural schools’. Its strapline shrieked ‘Councils argue that they are not crucial to communities’ and it featured an interview with Sandy Longmuir, Chair of the Scottish Rural Schools Network.
Inside, on Page 4 was a cluster of related pieces. The major one was a second article by Denholm – two thirds of the page; another two line 5 column splash headline, ‘Russell faces dilemma in balancing arguments’. Its strapline was ‘Choice to be made between schools and balancing budgets’. And this little number was flashed ‘ANALYSIS‘.
OMG. An EXCLUSIVE and an ANALYSIS in one edition. In a state of extreme anxiety, we reached for wet towels. Things must be about to implode.
Embraced by the Denholm Analysis was a big pic of sweet Luss kids at harmonious play, heading its own satellite piece entitled ‘How people power saved primary from axe’ (on Luss Primary School’s two successive and successful epic campaigns for survival); and the continuation of the front page story under a tweaked short headline ‘Fresh blow for rural schools’.
Reeling under the repeated hammer blows of this assault on the eyes and the mind – and working to delay confronting what was obviously going to be very bad news – we kept turning the pages.
On Page 16 the lead editorial, entitled ‘Heed lessons of community spirit’ – was on this very issue and conjured the spirit of the Blitz found in Luss. Back to the wet towels. Editorial. Heavy stuff.
This was accompanied by a lead letter with another alarming splash headline – two lines deep again, across the three columns of the letters section, ‘We cannot afford sentimentality over schools and their location’. Oh – Hiss. Boo. The writer was one of the known local authority diehards in the game, COSLA Education Spokesperson, Councillor Isobel Hutton,
The panic-making headline to her letter sat above an attention grabbing pic of Argyll’s Barcaldine school campaigners, in the recent bad old days outside Kilmory, in their bright red sweatshirts and with their funereal black-edged placards ‘Save Barcaldine School’.
Set beside the header on the adjacent Editorial – ‘Heed lessons of community spirit’, we indulged in a second ‘Hiss Boo’ moment. This juxtaposition presented us with a stark choice between the good and the bad. Quick, Rush to mother.
But looking fondly at the Barcaldine picture again brought puzzlement. This showed them empty, slumped, exhausted – seemingly defeated by aggression. Yet the reality we knew was an upbeat energised group, full of facts and determination that Barcaldine school was never going down.
This photo had obviously been selected for its ‘message’. It will have been taken in a moment of downtime where the physical tiredness these early-start-day-long protests brought was undisguised because the participants were not in active mode.
The covert intention
This was the clue. We put aside the wet towels, turned up the lights and came to our senses.
We work in this field and have done for a total of around twenty years. We know the form. We had been panicked by the immediate impact of the splash, splash, splash. This was, of course, the intention.
Whatever was going on, this could be nothing but manipulation of readers, designed to frighten and mobilise – but on what grounds and to what end?
We bit the bullet and started reading.
As we read we became progressively wide-eyed at the level of ignorance or misinformation alongside the increasingly obvious directional shepherding
The general tenour of these pieces – bearing all the hallmarks of a planted story (but surely not) – was scaremongering. They heightened the fears of rural communities and of parents wishing to see their youngest children educated in small schools within rural communities.
They implied that such communities are imminently to be hit again by the return of predatory local authorities to the school closures warzone. (And who ever imagined that councils would not try again?)
The articles founded this ‘scare’ on the basis of the submission made to the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, COSLA (when exactly?). This Commission is jointly ‘owned’ by the Scottish Government and COSLA and is not due to report until August 2012.
The COSLA submission argued that a school ‘… will at best only have a limited contribution to make to community life’.
The first fusillade
The front page article barely gets to its second paragraph before there is a misleading factual error.
Denholm says that, in their submission to the Commission, ‘Local authorities have argued for the first time that schools are not important to the survival of rural communities’.
This is not ‘the first time’ that such an argument has been put. Moreover, The Herald itself carried an article on the extraordinary statement made to the media in the Autumn of 2010 by Argyll and Bute’s Education Director, Cleland Sneddon in which he first tried this tack.
Back then, Mr Sneddon cited a research study carried out in the Outer Hebrides, with a very different focus but whose conclusions he had pressed into the service of this inappropriate argument. The researchers promptly slapped down this abuse of their work by Mr Sneddon – on the record and reported by The Herald.
But the emotional impact of the statement that local authorities have presented this argument ‘for the first time‘ is to jag up the blood pressure of the worried that the baddies are on the march again. And worrying about attack sends the nervous running for shelter.
Where might they find such shelter?
The answer to that one is neatly provided at the end of Denholm’s second article on Page 4, the ‘Analysis’.
This paints a heartbreaking picture of the Education Secretary caught between the rock of visceral commitment to rural schools and the hard place of COSLA’s insistence on the imperative of closing some rural schools to save money to improve overall service delivery.
The piece, to this point, seems to be preparing its audience for the worst (a Plan B perhaps?) – that the outcome of the work of the Commission may not be as protective of rural schools as they have been led to anticipate; and pointing them to see COSLA as the root source of this disappointment or betrayal.
How can these internal tensions in the Commission possibly be resolved, asks Denholm - between the Education Secretary’s perspectives and those of COSLA?
He provides the answer himself in his article’s closing three paragraphs, by suggesting that if the SNP do as well as they expect to do in the local authority elections on 3rd May, the internal dynamic of the Commission may change.
This is a bald finale to a badly disguised piece of journalistic manipulation. It is a direct invitation to protect rural schools against the predation of local authorities by voting SNP candidates into power in councils across Scotland.
These first two articles together jack up the panic and then open the door to a proposed and political solution.
We find this disturbing.
And more misinformation
An Editorial is the very last place one expects to find material errors of fact because it carries the reputation of the newspaper on its back.
But here, after a banal attempt to balance the books between the understandable and the damaging in the COSLA position, the editorial remarks: ‘Under recent legislation, the Scottish Government has made it much harder to close a rural school’.
This is simply incorrect.
It subliminally refers to the 2010 Schools Act, introduced by the SNP-led Scottish Government, a piece of legislation persistently trumpeted by the Education Secretary as offering unprecedented shelter to rural schools. This claim rests on a ‘legislative presumption against the closure of rural schools’. This presumption has been instanced in Denholm’s articles preceding the Editorial – which, being on education, it would be normal for him to have written himself.
The facts are, as we have previously shown, that the ‘presumption against the closure of rural schools’, in practice offers little or no protection to rural schools.
- It has not prevented the progress to statutory consultation of a single rural school.
- It has never been mentioned by a local authority as an issue considered in the only period where it has any statutory role – during the testing of the ability of a closure proposal to proceed to consultation.
- It never been cited by the Education Secretary himself in or during his call-in of any local authority decision to close a rural school.
- It has not prevented the closure of one rural school.
The reality is that the ‘presumption against the closure of rural schools’ does not appear in the text of the 2010 Schools Act. It has no presence either in the Explanatory Notes to the Act. It appears only once in the Statutory Guidance to the Act – and that is in a passing mention in the opening paragraph, The Purpose of the Act.
If it is brought into play at all, it may prevent the progress of a closure proposal to statutory consultation. Beyond that, it is impotent.
Andy Denholm and The Herald – as with elected members who are paid much less and who largely make no claim to be experts in the field – seem completely unaware that once a closure proposal is voted to go to consultation, the school in question has absolutely no protection from the ‘presumption against the closure of rural schools’.
The presumption has no role whatsoever in the process once a closure proposal enters the embrace of consultation; not has it any place in the ministerial call-in procedure.
It is all but a total will o’ the wisp.
It could defensibly be said that the ‘presumption against the closure of rural schools’ is the most successful political conjuring trick effected in Scotland since devolution – because the people wanted to believe in it.
It did not stop the closure proposal for Minard School in Mid Argyll – with the third best HMIE report in Scotland – from being sent to consultation.
It did not stop the actual closure of Uyeasound School in Shetland, with the best HMIE report in Scotland.
Moreover, the 2010 Schools Act, in its career to date, has seen only a tiny percentage of schools reprieved from closure, in a process distinguished by a lack of discoverable consistency.
The 2010 Schools Act has failed to offer rural schools any protection worth mentioning, starting with the ignominious case of the allowed closure of Crossroads school in East Ayrshire.
A different cause for concern
Th Herald’s foolish self-exposure in so unbuttoned an excursion as Saturday’s theatrics was actually funny.
It was a transparent a piece of political manoeuvering, whether it was born from an independent and benevolent wish to help the current government in its push to conquer the local government scene or whether it was wind assisted. Manifestly, given the lapse of time, we had no thought of paying any attention to it.
But yesterday, comments on an education related story by regular and well informed readers suggested that the naked ploy had actually succeeded in its deception in areas where it should have been detected at once. And that drove us to confront the matter.
Think about the substance of the Herald’s confection.
All COSLA did was present an open argument that the general wisdom finds both specious and dangerous for the sustainability of rural communities.
It is only a position.
It is not even a new position but a very familiar one against which, as Sandy Longmuir’s response quoted in the front page Denholm adventure make clear, arguments are already well rehearsed and unanswerable.
It is there to be argued within the Commission, which, by the invitation of the Education Secretary, is jointly hosted by the Scottish Government and COSLA.
This Scottish Government has an unprecedented majority the Scotland Act was designed to prevent.
It can do whatever it has the will to do. It is the law maker.
There is absolutely no need to panic. If the Scottish Government wants to save rural schools, it has all of the means to do so without assistance from any quarter.
It would only be in circumstances where this was not its true intent that it would wish to paint itself as impotent in the face of the big bad COSLA – a situation which is ridiculous given its unequivocal majority. And it is unthinkable that its true intent should be anything other than its repeatedly declared commitment to the value of rural education and the need to sustain rural communities.
In the extreme hypothesis that the Scottish Government is indeed privately prepared to see rural schools close beyond what can be seen to be unavoidable, seducing the public into agitating about COSLA would be no more than a cheap but handy diversionary tactic. The real enemy would, in this hypothesis, be in a very different place. And that level of chicanery is surely beyond contemplation, even by the cynics.
Electioneering is about sleight of hand, elephant traps, promises at the level of hyperinflation and dirty tricks against the opposition.
But there has to be a limit to what is acceptable if we are to remain at least within shouting distance of integrity.
The Herald’s overtly political manipulation, voluntary or sought, discredits all concerned and should be set aside as a day of journalistic shame by any independent intelligence.
And if COSLA, one of the joint ‘owners’ of the Commission is rightly making its submission to the Commission, where is the Scottish Government’s submission? They can speak for themselves and put their case powerfully and unequivocally as they are equally entitled to do.