Scots pupils vote Yes to devolution

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Raymond Ross reports on the results of a TES Scotland schools referendum on the Government's plans for a Scottish parliament

A schools referendum carried out by TES Scotland in the run-up to yesterday's national vote shows Secondary 5 and 6 pupils overwhelmingly in favour of devolution. More than three-quarters of participants backed creation of a Scottish parliament, and more than half voted in favour of its having tax-varying powers.

There were 488 voters in the referendum from 10 schools spread throughout Scotland, including two Roman Catholic schools and one independent.

The biggest surprise was that 33 out of 50 pupils at Anderson High School in Lerwick voted Yes, Yes, backing both a parliament and tax-varying powers. Shetland voted overwhelmingly against devolution in the 1979referendum.

Big majorities also voted Yes, Yes at Bannockburn High School in Stirling and Culloden Academy in Inverness (31 out of 50 in both cases). But the largest proportion of pupils voting for a parliament was at Roman Catholic Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh, where 45 out of 50 voted Yes, Yes or Yes, No. Another Catholic school, St John's High in Dundee recorded the highest Yes, Yes vote - 39 out of 50.

Ironically, the only school to return a majority No to devolution was Glasgow Academy (27 out of 48), the independent school where Secretary of State for Scotland Donald Dewar was educated. Dewar has declared an interest in becoming First Minister in a new Scottish Executive.

All the pupils were asked to vote without any teacher guidance or special preparation, on two simple questions: * Should there be a Scottish Parliament? YesNo

* Should a Scottish Parliament have tax-varying powers?YesNo

After all the votes were counted, TES Scotland visited two schools at opposite ends of the spectrum, Holy Rood and Glasgow Academy, to find out why the pupils voted the way they did and to ascertain their general outlook on politics and Scottish education at this historic crossroads. Taking part in the discussion were 33 pupils from Glasgow Academy and 21 from Holy Rood.

The Yes, Yes voters in both schools argued that a tax-varying Parliament would be better for the economy, above all because it could "plough money back into the country", as one pupil put it. Another said Scotland was "not treated as equal" in a London parliament where "our voice is lost in an English majority".

History played its part in the argument, with one Academy pupil declaring that Scotland had "suffered under the incorporating Union of 1707", while the Braveheart factor was apparent in a Holy Rood pupil's remark that "Wallace fought for Scottish independence and then we gave it away". An Academy pupil argued that Scots should "stand on their own two feet", while a Holy Rood pupil spoke of a need to resist "the suppression of Scottish culture", drawing a contrast to Ireland where "traditional music and dance are still part of the living tradition".

The Yes, No camp in both schools expressed fears of over-taxation and the possible cross-border variation in tax levels imposing "a tension that could break the Union", as one Holy Rood pupil put it. A higher tax rate in Scotland would be "bad for business and personal tax", said a Glasgow Academy pupil.

No, No voters were worried that Scotland's voice would be diminished in Europe and the world. The Union "gave strength in numbers", said one pupil: "Scotland and England have been together for so long it makes no sense to split them up." One Holy Rood pupil compared the power of an independent Scotland to that of "an independent Luxembourg".

Glasgow Academy's No, No camp advanced several different points: "we get a lot of money from England", "we should not split a country", "the English might be discriminated against" and "the Scots would be too busy fighting each other and the English to get on with the business of running the country".

All but two of the Holy Rood pupils and one of the Glasgow Academy pupils regarded themselves as Scottish rather than British. (One English-born pupil at each school even opted for Scottish identity.)

Asked to declare in a show of hands which parties they would vote for in Westminster elections, 16 pupils at Glasgow Academy said that they would vote Conservative, with nine opting for the Lib Dems, three for Labour, two for the SNP and three don't knows. Their voting intentions in Scottish parliament elections were radically different: 13 said they would vote Lib Dem, with only five backing the Tories, four Labour and one the SNP; there were 10 don't knows. This suggests that the Conservative Party is so strongly identified with the Union that its role in a Scottish parliament is obscure even to its own young supporters.

In response to the same questions, 11 Holy Rood pupils said they would vote Labour in a Westminster election, with eight declaring for the SNP and two don't knows. But in a Scottish parliament election, only one Holy Rood pupil would vote SNP, with 20 backing Labour. It seems that backing for the SNP at the school is something of a protest vote.

None of the pupils at either school thought the Government's devolution proposals would strengthen the Union (the Government's official position), with 10 Academy and 13 Holy Rood youngsters believing it would lead to independence.

All of the pupils opposed the Government's abolition of student grants, with several complaining of "discrimination". At local authority Holy Rood, one said that grants were "part of the education system" that "should be given priority". Another argued that if the Government could afford the millennium dome it could afford grants, while yet another saw abolition of grants as a deliberate attempt "to keep down the number of people who are well-educated to prevent them speaking out knowledgeably and articulately against the Government." One Holy Rood pupil said that many Labour MPs "had received the grants they are now doing away with".

Pupils at independent Glasgow Academy were if anything even more opposed to the Government's plans. One denounced them as "blatant discrimination against the poorer sections of society". Another criticised "Labour hypocrisy" on the issue. Several Academy pupils also criticised the Government's abolition of the assisted places scheme.

Majorities in both schools believed that Scottish education was "better" than that in England and Wales, with Glasgow Academy pupils speaking out for Highers as opposed to A-levels, though their school offers both. They felt Highers were less pressurised and gave them a second chance, because they could resit in sixth year - which was not allowed by the two-year A-level courses. The vast majority of Holy Rood pupils (18) and a sizeable minority at the Academy (13) thought a Scottish parliament would improve the education system in Scotland.

In their assessment of the Labour Government's performance to date, on a simple scale of one to 10, the schools came close with Glasgow Academy according the Government five and Holy Rood giving it six. Tony Blair's performance as Prime Minister received a resounding eight in Edinburgh, but the Academy could only muster three for the new Prime Minister. Donald Dewar's performance as Secretary of State for Scotland received a higher vote in the east (seven) than it did in his old school (five). Education minister Brian Wilson was accorded six by the state school but received nought at Glasgow Academy, where pupils were unsure who exactly he was.

TES Scotland thanks the staff, pupils and education authorities of all the schools that took part in our survey

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