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Schools must have firm foundations

Councillors can't duck the challenge of keeping catchment areas up to date, says Ewan Aitken

y son came up with a question for me last week - "When God made the world, what was God standing on?" I had no ready answer to this admittedly anthropomorphic theology of the divine. But being questioned is not a new experience for me, especially recently as I have led Edinburgh Council into a redrawing of the secondary catchments with related primary adjustments.

This huge task will make me about as popular as John Knox at a feminist convention, but that's not a reason for hiding from the challenge. The task must be done. Edinburgh has changed hugely in 30 years. We have enough spaces for all secondary children, but not in the right places. People no longer live where they used to. They now inhabit converted warehouses, factory sites and land that was once sea.

We have schools that are not in their own catchment, catchment areas with too few children to fill the schools that serve them and catchments where people are breeding too fast.

Audit Scotland's "value for money" benchmark is that schools are running at 80 per cent and 90 per cent capacity, with 900-1,400 pupils being the optimum size of high school. That is the educational prize. That, by definition, is good use of the taxpayers' money for the common good, which is arguably one of the primary tasks of the political process. Certainly the corollary, the perception that taxpayers' money is being badly used or not for the common good, is seen as a legitimate reason to criticise politicians.

We are not alone. Glasgow is facing the closure of 25 primary schools for similar reasons. Other councils are confronting similar decisions. Rural authorities have particularly difficult challenges because of the inherently smaller rolls, yet the closure of a school is often seen as the death knell for rural communities. I know of islands that have advertised for families to move there just to keep the school open.

We shall consult in our different ways but to the same end, trying to make the best use of the taxpayers' money for everyone.

Yet no matter how we consult, our high ideals of efficient use of taxes for the common good and of putting schools where people live are soon lost in a sea of campaigns: "keep oor wee school ; "we moved here to get to this school and you are taking away our children's rights"; "if you change this catchment, the price of my house will fall".

I understand parents feel driven to defend what they have planned for their children. It is very hard to hear: "You may have assumed that your children would go to school X but, because of issues of the common good over which you can have no control, we need to change that to school Y".

It is particularly hard for school staff caught in the middle. Parents are demanding that they "do something" or they are left facing a barrage of criticism from those who, in attempting to justify their own aspirations, run down the work of the school now on offer to their children.

But it need not be thus. As Francis Hutchison, one of the creators of the Scottish Enlightenment, said: "Everyone of reflection from the age of Socrates have sufficiently proved that the truest, most constant, and lively pleasure, the happiest enjoyment of life, consists in kind affection, to our fellow creatures."

Hutchison argued that self-interest and altruism are not at odds with each other. In our highest moral state, they become one and the same, and it is in our best self-interest to be altruistic.

Lord Kames, however, another of the early Enlightenment writers, believed that the desire that compels humans to bind together in community is our desire to own things. We are "disposed by nature to appropriate," Kames wrote, arguing that we do so individually and then we create society with laws and enforcement to protect our individual possessions from the desire of others to acquire them.

These philosophical tensions made the Scottish Enlightenment the creative force for good that it was, growing out of our unique education system and stamping its mark on liberal democracy across the globe. But if the catchment review has taught me anything so far, and it has only just begun, it is that we have swung too far from Hutchison's communal "altruistic self" to Kames's "possessive individual" and we have to find ways of rediscovering that commonality.

I don't know what God stood on to make the world. I do know that we need to look to our own foundations as we live in the tension between the demands we make of our decision-makers and the desire we have to possess the future for ourselves and our children without question.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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