Deprivation of culture is hard to beat

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
Airports are less than pleasant. The long queues and waiting for the flight leave a lot of time for people watching.

While we waited to check in for our flight home to Glasgow at the end of the October break, we found ourselves behind a grandmother, mother and daughter, along with, presumably, a pal, and were party to their loud conversations for 40 minutes. These centred wholly on vicious and aggressive verbal attacks on each other, dotted liberally with choice language and punctuated by prods and pushes.

During interchanges, Granny's and Mum's faces displayed narrowed eyes, jutting chins and grim mouths. The daughter, who was the main recipient of the invective, didn't appear bothered but, although a pretty lass, had a slightly dull withdrawn look about her eyes.

Ne'er a smile passed between them the whole time, except from the two young girls, who occasionally laughed and giggled together as teenagers do.

The adults were not drunk; nor were they just tired out and tetchy after their journey to the airport. This, one somehow knew, was their normal way of relating to each other and they were completely oblivious to those around them.

Grinding poverty can do this to people, but this family displayed none of the signs of financial poverty. They were well dressed, had costly hairdos, looked healthy and not prematurely aged. What we were observing was their culture; hard and sharp as cut glass. Rosemary, one of my deputes, calls it "poverty of the spirit".

Most of us will have had exchanges with parents like these, where it is difficult to keep the situation calm, forward looking and focused on the child. They frequently go belly-up and I've often thought that our attempts to ameliorate, along with our refusal to engage in aggressive exchanges, are interpreted by the parents as weakness.

It is a real clash of cultures and if the divide cannot be bridged, then the loser is the child and the impoverished cycle continues.

Living and working in a rural area has its benefits and drawbacks. We don't escape to other anonymous places at the end of the working day, but live among our pupils and their parents. This means we hear all the good news and see our pupils growing up and forging their way in the world. But we also see our failures and they are writ large in the community. They are, in SEED parlance, the Neet group, not in education, employment or training.

In September we embarked, through our geography department, on an exchange with a school in Copenhagen. All went well until our pupils took their guests to the "Shows" on a Friday evening. There, a group of them was attacked by some of our "lost boys", high on drink, drugs or both.

One of the Danish boys ended up in casualty.

I would not have been surprised if the whole party had left and if some very angry parents had been hot on my phone, or even on the school doorstep.

This did not happen. Our guests were understanding and at pains to reassure us that it was just an unfortunate "blip" that could happen anywhere. The Danish parents reassured us that their children had had a wonderful time and they were looking forward to hosting us.

What a refreshing attitude; and it is part of their culture. The exchange will continue and, if anything, the unfortunate incident has strengthened our ties.

Most of our "lost children" do not come from financially impoverished families. The poverty takes on different forms and is all the more difficult to overcome.

It is mostly about changing a culture, and to do that requires effective inter-agency working, with agencies equipped with the people, resources and skills to work with challenged families.

There is nothing new here. Knowledge and understanding of the problems, their causes and potential solutions have been around for a while, along with a real response from the Scottish Executive. But we and many of our partner agencies remain in a woefully under-resourced (if somewhat improved) position to be able to make a real difference.

Yet there is hope. The recently published index of deprivation points to substantial improvements being made. We are on the right track; just give us more.

Home again, at Glasgow airport, display boards declaring "Best small country in the world" greet the traveller, with photographs to make you proud. But the glossy images of an aspirational future still evoke an old saw from school reports of the past: "Could do better."

Linda Kirkwood is headteacher of Oban High

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