Parents take to the barricades;School Boards Forum

8th March 1996 at 00:00
The great watching giant of Scottish parenthood reared its head and roared when 40,000 parents, teachers and children took to the streets to protest at the proposed cuts to Scottish education. This good-natured demonstration shook the very foundations of Government ministers' complacency.

But anyone who has ever tried to organise a mass protest knows what a high-risk strategy it is. If no one turns up, you fall flat on your face and hand the propaganda victory to those you're protesting against. So why did this one work?

There were a number of critical factors. It was important that the Educational Institute of Scotland decided to have a march just when local authorities embarked on a conscious policy of explaining their budgetary crises to headteachers and parents through a series of meetings. The authorities explained that the position was not yet clear but both the worst and best case scenarios involved cuts and were not very appealing. Those who heard were angry, but at this stage this was only a few people - school boards, parent-teacher association committees and headteachers. The march offered an opportunity for people to express their anger, but how to make it work?

Determined action by a few people set the ball rolling. One or two schools immediately passed the information on to all their parents by means of special letters or newsletters. The march was mentioned.

This determined action by a few quickly started to snowball. Parents who also had children at other schools - secondary school parents with children still in primary school - passed the information on. This prompted the second school to take action. Information was backed up with public meetings held at short notice and attended by large numbers of parents.

Headteachers explained the possible consequences of cuts, always being careful to say that the final picture was not yet certain. When the inevitable question came back: "What can we do?", the march was an option. And so school after school picked up the ball and started to run with it, reinforced in their action by the knowledge that they were not acting alone.

Meanwhile the lie was given to the Government's assertion that the problem arose from local authority profligacy by daily reports in the press of other local government services suffering severe cash shortages. The momentum was building and, if anything finished it off, it was the Government's announcement that it was going to increase money for assisted places.

Anger at the impact of the cuts on education turned into rage at this gross piece of Government insensitivity. When Ronnie Smith of the EIS spoke at the rally of the inequity of the Government paying pound;3,500 on average per assisted place against the average of pound;2,708 for local authority secondary school pupils, you could hear the sharp intake of breath and feel the anger.

Once again, as with the national testing campaign, critical elements came together. The cuts affect children directly and so every parent could see they were relevant to them. Teachers, parents and local authorities have a common interest and so acted together, but ultimately it was the individual decisions of the 40,000 people who turned the march into such an astounding statement of popular democracy which the Government will ignore at its peril.

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