Rumour is rife, and the truth is silent

5th May 2006 at 01:00
Without civic values, our society is in danger of drowning in cynicism, says Ewan Aitken

was lobbied recently by a group of nursery parents concerned about a rumour that I had been proposing Edinburgh City Council nurseries be privatised. I was happy to make absolutely and unequivocally clear that, not only was the rumour totally untrue, but that I would resign rather than take any such proposal through the council.

I am used to being lobbied. I try to meet all delegations and to spend time with them. Access and presence are fundamental to my ability to do my job well. This delegation was no different to many others. What made it different, however, was their reaction to my response.

Despite being given an absolute assurance, and offering to put in writing that I agreed unconditionally with their point of view and doing so face to face, they did not believe me. Such was their disenchantment with politicians, it was easier to believe that what they feared happening was really going to happen, rather than to be pleased I was clear it wouldn't.

That would mean trusting a politician - clearly an untenable position for them.

Luck of trust in politicians is not news. But this trend is pervading new places. Recently, there was a demonstration in Oxford in favour of animal testing, organised by a boy aged 16 who thought it was time progressives stood up to the animal rights activists.

What was fascinating, however, was the placards of those protesting against the pro-test marchers. One in particular said simply: "We live in a world of deceit: don't believe the scientists' lies."

Similar stories could be told about the breakdown of trust between the populace and doctors, the police, lawyers, clergy (perhaps that's my problem, a double whammy of untrustworthiness) and many other professions whose word was previously enough. For teachers, too, their professionalism is often questioned in a way that, even 10 or 15 years ago, would have been unthinkable. Certainly, it would not have been said in such strident terms as I hear reported to me on many occasions.

I have no problem with accountability. All of us as public servants need to be transparent about why we make the decisions we make about the services we provide or have responsibility for. That's why the Freedom of Information Act is a good thing, despite the additional work it has and will continue to impose.

Calling people to account is more complex than simply being cynical, though that may play a part. Nor is it the same as assuming that, if a professional disagrees with a member of the public, he or she is not listening or is hiding something. Being accountable does not mean that the customer is always right.

I know that politicians in many ways have only themselves, or at least some of their high-profile number, to blame for the attitude that many have towards them. But I also think that all of us, professionals, politicians and the public, need to be very worried about the dangers of not trying to find ways of rebuilding trust and renewing what we mean by accountability in public life.

This is where schools do have a fascinating opportunity. The development of citizenship features both in the five national education priorities and in the four competencies of A Curriculum for Excellence. Part of that must be about how to call public servants to account while also trusting those same public servants to act professionally and with integrity.

I am not saying for one moment that the solution to the demise of trust in either politicians andor public servants can be solved in the classroom.

The classroom can only play one part in how society is changed.

Politicians and other public servants have a responsibility to be more transparent and more responsive. But with citizenship being a key priority, school-based explorations of the issue are an opportunity not to be missed.

This is especially the case if we are going to create space for the tide of cynicism about public service to be stemmed.

This is a huge challenge. I am not even sure if citizenship can be taught in the same way other subjects are taught. It is much more than simply an intellectual experience. It is about imbuing and acting on a set of beliefs based on a value system.

If we don't rediscover what it is to be a good citizen, including trusting that others who act on our behalf or in our service are doing so with integrity and in good faith, then we are in danger of drowning in cynicism - a horrible way to go.

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

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