Meet the new dawn with renewed hope

1st April 2005 at 01:00
Scots should not be afraid to stand up and take pride in what they have achieved for children, says Ewan Aitken.

For reasons that I can't explain here, I decided to give up watching television for Lent. This has had many consequences, perhaps most significantly that I had to suffer the pain of Scotland's Six Nations debacle without being exposed to the gory visuals.

It also meant that I missed what has undoubtedly become the main subject of "water cooler conversations", not just in schools but elsewhere - Jamie Oliver's valiant attempt to serve real food to children at school. By all accounts, he did a good job in the face of much resistance, including some from parents.

His decision, however, not to accept the Scottish Executive's invitation to come up to explore Scottish school dinner cuisine is probably no bad thing.

Not because I have anything against the self-styled "naked chef". He is a genuinely endearing character and he managed brilliantly to expose the lie that the market always produces the best value, or more importantly what's best for our children, certainly when it comes to school meals.

But in inviting him, we once again hid from celebrating what he himself recognised - that we have made huge strides in improving school meals in Scotland, especially through the Hungry for Success programme. There is a long way to go, but school meals are finally playing a real role in changing the dietary habits that are killing generations of Scots before their time.

Why do we lack the confidence to say we are doing well? What is it about our collective mental state that we struggle to be proud of what we have achieved? It might be argued that the lack of success on sports fields doesn't help, but that is not the whole story.

I celebrated the end of Lent with my favourite service of the year, the Easter morning dawn service. In that quiet time in the garden of the local parish church, around 50 fellow Christians reflected on what our faith means to who we are, the way we live our lives and how we live with those around us. It is a very moving service using very few words, focusing instead on the dramatic power of the breaking dawn to speak of the potential of new life and renewed hope. I know I need that special time of reflection to keep me going throughout the year.

It is my hope that the new guidelines on religious observance will create the spaces for pupils and staff alike to have the opportunity to reflect on what they believe and what that means for how each of us lives our lives.

The guidelines' description of regular "community acts" of reflection, sitting outside any one faith community's liturgical calendar but drawing on the insights of all faith groups, will give a new rhythm and a depth to the spiritual life of school communities. As a consequence, it will affect positively the individuals who make up those communities.

It is in being better able to understand who we are and what we believe that we can gain the confidence not to fear standing up and being proud of what we have achieved. That's not to encourage arrogance or to hide from what we still need to do. But regular self-reflection brings a contentment which in turn allows us to accept with delight what we have done and to believe in what we might achieve.

There will be some who will say that this type of self-reflection will be impossible for some, or even many, of the young people in their school. I would hazard a guess that those categorised in this way would be the same ones whose diets are bad and whose other lifestyle choices are destructive of themselves, others or both. I am pretty certain that they don't care about their diet or about how others see them because they don't see themselves as having value.

What I heard about Jamie Oliver was that he didn't give up. Faced with parents stuffing chips through the school railings and cooking turkey twisters, he stuck with his plan and, by and large, he succeeded. Hungry for Success is showing similar signs of effectiveness, despite the enormity of the task.

It may seem impossible to create these community acts of reflection in a way that will engage all pupils, but we mustn't give up. If they can discover that being silent for even five minutes brings a good feeling, think of how that will enhance their educational activity. If they can move to having some sense of themselves and what they believe, then big progress can be made.

It is about getting into the mind by beginning with body and soul.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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