Sumo versus the piracy of sound-bites

5th October 2007 at 01:00
What do pirates learn at pirate school? Answer: the three Aar, Aars.

I heard this joke on BBC Radio 2 the other day. So simple, so poor that it was instantly memorable. I then began to realise how political sound-bites have the same effect.

Politicians are always looking for short, snappy, memorable phrases that will convey a winning policy or mood to the electorate.

Well, I for one don't think it's OK because they often reduce very complex problems to trite solutions. When New Labour unleashed upon us that behemoth of soundbites, "education, education, education", it managed to convey a sense of priority that meant many things to many people but ultimately many of them must have been disappointed with the results. We have witnessed the same crass sound-bite approach from the Scottish National Party with its policy of smaller class sizes and, now that it is in government, its contradictions and weaknesses are being exposed.

The policy originated when Mike Russell was the SNP's education spokesman and John Swinney was leader. Mr Russell is many things, but a fool is not usually one of them. He identified smaller class numbers as having a grounding in some educational research, albeit disputed. He could therefore claim it worked. More importantly, it offered the benefit of requiring more teachers, and was thus favoured by the Educational Institute of Scotland.

Using a Sumo-like throw to turn the weight of the EIS against Labour was clever (and fun). It was also an easy panacea to pitch to parents. It was ideal for sound-bite politics. As the Tory education spokesman at the time, I thought the policy was flawed. Like so many past education policies, it assumed every school was the same: the same problems required the same solution.

Just before the 2003 elections, I commissioned research into the effects of the policy in Scotland. The findings were devastating, highlighting the extra classrooms and buildings that would be required. Some schools simply had no room to expand; indeed, some communities might need new schools.

The policy would not only require extra teachers but also new catchment area boundaries if it were to work effectively. At the very least, children who had become friends at nursery would be split up when previously they would have gone to the same school. Some infants could find they would not be able to go to the same school as siblings. What seemed a superficially attractive policy would have led to many parents being up in arms.

Mr Russell had costed the extra teachers, but capital resources were underfunded and that was before a proposed council tax freeze had been thought of. My research considered the effects of the policy in the seats of SNP politicians such as Mr Swinney and Roseanna Cunningham, and was set to be unleashed during the 2003 election.

In the end, the Tory leader David McLetchie chose not to use the information, believing it was too detailed to be understood by the media, never mind the public. It wasn't sound-bite politics.

I still think the policy is flawed. Some schools would benefit from smaller classes, but others might prefer to see more effort put into improving in service training, providing more sports or artistic experiences, investing in new facilities other than classrooms or developing specialist provision.

I would rather give the millions of pounds to schools and let them decide their priorities. If hiring more teachers is the local choice, that judgment must be superior to a decree from Holyrood or Victoria Quay.

Democracy can get it wrong, and it would help if political parties didn't behave like pirates, getting their policies off the shelf at "Aar, Aargos".

Brian Monteith

was taught

in a primary class of 36

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