Mars has pillaged the temples of learning

7th March 2003 at 00:00
FIRST the bad news. My spies in the Praetorian guard tell me that the Governor of Caledonia plans cutting Scottish FE funding by about 1.5 per cent in real terms next year. Why?

Are our students awash with bright new textbooks and the scrappy photocopied materials consigned to the dustbin of history? Are our buildings gleaming temples of culture? Certainly not! So what's the good news? If you think a 1.5 per cent decline in educational provision is bad, spare a thought for the teachers of Iraq before any war is launched. Our good government has (with others) imposed education cuts there that Margaret Thatcher's handbag could only have dreamt about.

Due to past military campaigns and sanctions Unesco reports that "40 per cent of educational institutions have been damaged with many schools needing urgent repair. Few have electricity or heating." Consequently, Unicef says, 30 per cent of girls and 18 per cent of boys do not even attend primary school, and this affects the poorest families hardest.

The impact of a crumbling education system reaches up into the older age groups. Literacy rates are plummeting, according to Unicef. Sanctions have prevented the importation of computers, software, educational journals, even basic textbooks. This pales into insignificance against the ban on pencils imposed for many years. I may be only an ageing gladiator rather than a physicist, but to my untrained mind it seems extraordinary that this was justified on the grounds that graphite could be used for nuclear weapons.

Pencils are particularly prized in Iraq. Sanctions on paper meant they have to be reused, and so writing with a pencil is essential. Pencils are now valued presents. They are often broken in two to share with siblings.

You had the surreal situation of the downtrodden Palestinians collecting 1 million pencils which they sent to Iraq via Jordan. I am racking my brains to think of anything remotely as charitable that this country has done (unless it is providing asylum-seekers and their families with free bed and board in detention centres).

Enough, enough, I hear you cry. This good news is all too upsetting.

Fortunately it is working out OK. We are removing the need for education in the first place - by killing potential students. According to Carol Bellamy, Unicef's executive director, sanctions have contributed to the death of half a million Iraqi children between 1991 and 1998. Save the Children UK estimated last year that at least 400,000 under-fives are dead due to sanctions.

But this is insufficient. Students persist in attending crumbling schools.

So why not have another war?

Unesco, in a heartless fashion, has fitted 4,500 classrooms with windows and doors and provided 500,000 children with pencils and paper. It has even trained 3,000 new teachers. But don't despair. If world opinion is ignored, then smart bombs will turn out to be much better than smart Iraqis and the next war can undo all the harm Unesco and other organisations have wrought.

So back here in Scotland the good news is we can indulge in what the German tribes call schadenfreude. Others are worse off than we are and, if George Bush and Tony Blair have their way, their numbers will grow. I think we are entitled to ask the FE funding council and its political masters why, war or no war, our students should suffer to increase the continuing suffering in the Middle East.

I know about Roman Imperialism (having fought it), but it hardly compares to the joys of Pax Americana.

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