A city marches against the cuts

1st March 1996 at 00:00
"I'd like to apologise to Her Majesty's Constabulary. I told them to plan for 5,000. Forty thousand people is now the official police estimate," Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, told a packed McEwan Hall in Edinburgh last Saturday. This was one apology Mr Smith was delighted to offer.

The overwhelming protest from parents, pupils and teachers over underfunding of education took the union, and everyone else, by surprise. Edinburgh had not seen a demonstration like it for years, even surpassing the March for Democracy in 1992 when 25,000 took to the streets.

For almost 90 minutes the procession wound its way along Princes Street, up the Mound past the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and, on police instructions, into the Meadows. That was much too far for the pipe band which had exhausted its repertoire well before thousands had even begun to stretch their legs or weary of hoisting placards and banners.

Those at the head managed to fill the 2,400 spaces in the hall and join in the castigation of Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary. A primary pupil proudly carried a pitchfork. One point speared a puppet Old Nick, the other bore a sign with the Stirling MP's name.

The vast majority of marchers meandered into the park, unaware of the speech-making, and drifted away happy to have made their mark yet puzzled they had somehow bypassed the rousing finale that accompanies such populist events. Organisational glitches showed that it had obviously been some time since the union and its parent allies had organised such a show of force.

As one official conceded: "Perhaps the machine has got a little rusty and needs to be cranked up."

For many, it was a march down memory lane, back to student days when every week coincided with some display of street power: anything from Vietnam to Margaret Thatcher. But last Saturday's marchers were restrained and disciplined, probably kept in line by the dinner ladies, janitors and plain disgruntled parents. St Andrew's House was safe from their clutches. It could not have been otherwise with 20 headteachers protesting prominently.

Labour MPs such as Michael Connarty, Alastair Darling, Malcolm Chisholm and Gavin Strang were suitably restrained. Elizabeth Maginnis, Edinburgh's education convener, had the satisfaction of having stirred the pot on cuts, even if ultimately she will wield the axe in Edinburgh as the city council gets to grips with surplus school places.

Judith Gillespie, convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and self-styled "unemployed mother of three" told the rally that Mr Forsyth's aim was to reduce spending on education to levels in England. A 1,000-pupil comprehensive in Leeds had a staffing complement of 58:3, Mrs Gillespie said. A similar secondary school in Edinburgh had 75 teachers.

Mr Smith said the march was "an outstanding illustration of the commitment of people in Scotland to a well funded, high-quality education service". Under the Government's assisted places scheme the average cost per pupil was Pounds 3,500. The average cost per primary pupil in the state sector was Pounds 1,724 and Pounds 2,708 per secondary pupil.

"We do not need lessons on efficient delivery of services. What we need is finance. What a difference it would make if every local authority school could be funded at the same level," Mr Smith declared.

In the city of independent schooling, it was a message that struck home.

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