Intimidation of voters and misplaced snobbery

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Why aren't pubs commandeered for polling day, instead of primary schools? asks Sarah Nelson

Don't you wish elections were not held in primary schools?

Not just because the kidnapping of buildings on polling day presents yet another childcare headache for working parents (why do they not commandeer the library or the pub?), but because the effect on adults is so intimidating, shooting them back to far-off days of authoritarianism and deference.

Have we registered with the class and remembered the label with our names and addresses? Will we write the exercise in the right place or make a mess of it? Will we fold our artwork correctly and stick it in the right box, or jam up the works to a cacophony of tut-tutting? Somehow, these Primary 2 surroundings infantilise us, making the simplest civic exercise a painful ordeal.

It's a far cry from the naughty, nerve-racking excitement of voting in Northern Ireland.

In the good old, bad old days Ulster's schools were scenes of breathtaking election brinkmanship. How many times could you outwit teacher, acting as registration officer, by appearing as someone different, or even by resurrecting the dead?

Two friends of mine once claimed to have voted 47 times between them in a day. One school basement in Downpatrick was crammed with old clothes, hats and shoes to which people rushed for lightning personality changes between votes.

Meanwhile, parents have been voting for a change of school on a remarkably large scale. New Scottish Office figures show that about 25 per cent of children in Scotland's four main cities were on placing requests, with parents choosing non-neighbourhood primaries even more than secondaries.

Edinburgh will have to spend Pounds 1 million before next session to ease overcrowding in a mere nine primaries, while many other schools struggle to attract pupils.

As a parent, I feel bewildered and uneasy about this, especially when dozens of schools so desperately need cash spent on basic fabric and provision. I feel sorry for the teachers I know whose creative imagination and endless effort in unfashionable schools meet such rejection. What is this about? Clearly, it is not a concern for the benefits of small classes. Too often, I fear, it is less about quality than a misplaced snobbery, and a dangerously distracting dogfight among parents for extra crumbs from a cake whose shrinking size should be their united concern.

I wish we could read a detailed research scrutiny of the reasons given for placing requests, and have an open debate about what the legitimate limits should be. Parents do need some freedom to choose, but the reasons must be sound and informed.

Alas, in today's political climate it is a brave politician who will challenge unfettered freedom of choice in the interests of children. Children have no votes, after all.

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