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Parents forum;School Management

Hallelujah. How many other parents of primary schoolchildren will echo that celebration at the news that this May, the Scottish International Children's Festival is finally moving from the tented squalor of Edinburgh's Inverleith Park to reputable indoor arts venues? And that a supposedly non-parochial event will finally be touring its shows around Scotland? Last year, 95 of the 153 schools that visited the festival came from Edinburgh and the Lothians - with most of the rest, one suspects, from the Central Belt and Borders.

When I criticised its shoddy facilities in print, the furious reaction made it quite clear that ordinary parents weren't allowed to question events which were the subject of massive PR hype and were considered the proper preserve of arts and theatre cognoscenti. The real point that we were making was taken on this year by festival director Tony Reekie. "The bottom line is that if the audiences had been adults, they wouldn't have put up with it."

For eight years, small people were not being treated with equal respect. The conditions, the cost-cutting, the barriers to child-friendliness affected children's capacity to appreciate the artistic experience. It's equally good news that the festival wants to design long-term projects with schools. That is vital if children are to feel part of the event, yet it just wasn't happening - even in schools nearest to the annual mass of tents. Let's hope also that the huge cultural contribution of Scotland's ethnic communities will finally find a proper place.

Great news for parents, children and teachers then; but it's still a mystery why change took so long, and why most parents paid up with such muted protest for the trials of this windswept obstacle course, its bleak gates firmly closed before teatime against working parents and their children. Praise for reform should not be undue when this festival is simply moving towards the mainstream standards of imaginative arts events for children long held all over Scotland, often by organisations on shoestring budgets.

Now for this year's campaign. Some time back, this column mentioned in passing the abomination of short trousers in private schools. After witnessing all winter small male people shivering at windy bus stops across Edinburgh - a sight that will be replicated in many parts of middle class Scotland - I've finally felt angered into launching CASTE '98, the Campaign against Short Trouser Elitism. Will any other parents (and children) join me?

Scottish chill is not the main reason: that just exposes the thoughtlessness or absurdly dated notions of moral fibre-building involved. I feel pain for the children I see, less for their raw knees than for the isolation and embarrassment they invite among their peers. We all recall sharply from our own schooldays that nothing is crueller than looking different, and as parents we watch our own children express the same forceful feelings.

Perhaps headteachers have failed to notice what everyone else spotted two decades ago: no-one wears grey flannel shorts any more. Not at 10, not at eight, not even at four. They belong to my primary school in l958, and football matches where guys in flat caps cheered Stanley Matthews.

The alarming thing is that of course heads know it. So do the parents of these children. Why then do both inflict this curse on kids, why do parents put up with it? I'd like them to write in and state their justifications, so that we (and the Schools Inspectorate) can read and consider them. Because the only conclusion I can reach is that it is a badge of superior social status: buy the education, get the shorts.

These children are meant to look different. The trouble is, this particular badge isn't like a smart school scarf, tie or blazer: this one is a stigma to children, a laughable anachronism which makes adults feel smug at the cost of injuring small people's dignity and self-respect. From such injury they deserve to be protected by grown-ups - like parents, like teachers, like inspectors, like you and me.

Sarah Nelson

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