Are MPs a good example of the four capacities?

5th June 2009 at 01:00

If Members of Parliament were to be assessed against the criteria of the four capacities of A Curriculum for Excellence, what conclusions might be drawn? Most would qualify as "confident individuals": it takes a fair degree of self-assurance to enter the political arena and pronounce on the issues of the day.

"Successful learners"? Here, two contradictory interpretations are possible. Some MPs have difficulty with basic numeracy, apparently unable to manage simple addition in calculating their expenses. At the same time, they quickly assimilated the rules which allowed them to make claims that most people would regard as unreasonable.

Furthermore, if the Biblical adage which suggests that it is more blessed to give than to receive is followed, MPs would certainly not come up to scratch as "effective contributors". While they are not slow to lecture others on their obligations to society, for too many of them their priority clearly lies in looking after number one first.

That leaves us with "responsible citizens", and here the abject failure of the political class is plain for all to see. Leaders must set a good example if they are to deserve the trust and respect of the electorate. If the rhetoric of social justice and equality before the law (which MPs of all parties invoke with regularity) is to mean anything, they must be able to demonstrate that they live up to those principles themselves.

Of course, it is easy to ridicule such glaring examples of "do as I say, not as I do", and recent revelations show that there are decent MPs as well as scroungers. But underlying the personal embarrassments are much deeper issues which have disturbing implications for the work of teachers in schools. What hope have teachers, particularly those who work in challenging circumstances, to promote the respect agenda when some of the leaders of society are exposed as greedy and self-serving? Social education programmes are seriously undermined by such negative role models.

Two reactions might be anticipated. Idealistic youngsters, who might otherwise be interested in the kind of community engagement that would take them into politics, are likely to be sickened by the spectacle of establishment venality and may turn away from civic activism.

Even more worrying are those youngsters, perhaps already disenchanted with schooling, and living on the fringes of criminality, who interpret the message of recent events as providing them with justification for actions that will take them outside the mainstream of society. "If those at the top are lining their pockets, why shouldn't I treat the law with contempt?" This attitude may not lead directly to a career as a drug dealer, but it could easily manifest itself in other forms of anti-social behaviour which impinge on the lives of family, neighbours and peers. The accumulated effect of such actions can soon damage the quality of life of whole communities.

So the actions of MPs should not be regarded as personal aberrations of a few greedy men and women. They are symptomatic of the political culture of our times and of the values which have come to dominate society as a whole. They are profoundly damaging to our democratic system, with consequences far beyond their immediate context. And they make the work of teachers even harder than it is at present.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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