The parent revolt marches north

1st March 1996 at 00:00
The 40,000 marchers who turned out for last weekend's demonstration in Edinburgh will not take kindly to being called gullible. Yet that was ministers' response to an event whose magnitude took them as much by surprise as it did the organisers. Raymond Robertson was right about only one thing. The Education Minister realised that it was the turnout of Edinburgh school representatives that had made for the size of the demonstration. But he blamed the new city council for scaremongering, for creating alarm where there should only be admiration for the Secretary of State's largesse.

As in its reaction to the Scott report, this Government has become unable to say that it got things wrong. It will blame anyone but itself. It hurls accusations at Edinburgh Council over the cuts just as it abuses Labour's Robin Cook over the Scott inquiry.

Power need not inevitably corrupt. Lord Acton's axiom would be more accurate if it identified the abuse as one of arrogance. At the rally following the march it was the Government's attitude that made people burn with anger. No one claimed that there is a ready source of extra cash for education or other public services. But it is the insouciant way in which ministers find money for their pet schemes that riles people. The loudest applause at the rally came when Rosemary McKenna, president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, asked why money was not available for education when it was so readily on tap for quangos.

On the march were thousands of parents who had never demonstrated before. Primary school followed primary school. These protesters were not there to cry "Tories out". Nor were they naively deluded, as Mr Robertson appears to believe. For many the final straw was the Government's decision to put Pounds 9 million into the assisted places scheme. The sum would not go far to meet the problems in the local authority sector, but people kept asking why it should be so easily available when the schools preferred by the overwhelming majority of the population are starved of resources. It appears that in its arrogance the Government did not stop to think about the signal it was sending out.

The irony is that parents are better informed about school finances because of Government policy. Devolved management means that every school knows the money at its disposal and the cuts it must make. So when Edinburgh's director of education informed headteachers of their reductions, she was not only carrying forward Government policy but unintentionally recruiting for the march.

Parent power is a double-edged weapon, as Gillian Shephard found last year. After the parental revolt of middle England when cities were brought to a halt, as Edinburgh was last week, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment secured some extra cash for this year. Mrs Shephard appears so far to have bought off further trouble, but the standards of English education, especially the absence of maximum class sizes, are not ones to which Scottish parents want to fall. They want to maintain a higher level of spending, and despite Michael Forsyth's brave words, he has to watch the southern revolt move north. There will be a political price to pay in the remaining Tory redoubts.

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