Why were we sacrificed?;Platform;Comment;Opinion
During the first major exercise in school rationalisation carried out by the former Strathclyde Region, a young twentysomething political wannabe addressed a meeting in All Saints Secondary School in the Barmulloch area of Glasgow. The meeting was being held as part of the consultations in connection with the proposal that All Saints should close and the pupils be transferred to St Roch's Secondary, about two miles away.
The young man was a former pupil who had done well by going on to higher education and becoming an English teacher. To the parents and pupils he was one of a large and respected local family. He spoke with fluency and conviction about the contribution of the school in providing educational opportunities for him and other working-class children in the area over a period of nearly 20 years. He was "one of us" standing up to "them".
The case he advanced for the retention of All Saints, and it was "saved", could just as easily have been deployed by those in Easterhouse who recently opposed the closure of their local denominational secondary, St Leonard's. On this occasion, however, the young man concerned was no longer a twentysomething wannabe but was thirtysomething leader of the ruling Labour group on Glasgow City Council and was using his considerable skills of advocacy to close schools rather than to keep them open.
There is no reason for suggesting that Frank McAveety is any the less sincere now in his commitment to education, but try telling that to the good folk of Easterhouse. They are convinced that even if they had had the support of a latter-day younger McAveety, with Saatchi and Saatchi thrown in for good measure, they would not have been "saved" because they regard the whole consultation process as a sham. The belief that they co-operated in what they now see as a pointless exercise makes the closure of "the Lenny" an even more bitter pill to swallow. The subsequent disillusionment with political and church leaders is almost palpable and will linger for some time to come.
Father Bob Gardner has worked in Easterhouse for seven years as part of a team of four priests and four sisters serving the Catholic community in greater Easterhouse. He is heavily involved in the work of St Leonard's as well as being chairman of the thriving and highly successful non-denominational Bosco Junior Sports Club and is regularly in contact with a large number of community groups.
"The arrogance of the council is quite astounding," he says. "We went along with their so-called consultation process. We took them on at a public meeting, and the school board submitted a 12-page response in which we effectively countered all their arguments. They even ignored their own policy as laid out in the greater Easterhouse regeneration strategy approved as recently as November 1995 and in their local plan document issued in March 1997 in which they frequently refer to the importance of improving the schools in Easterhouse.
"They also overruled the views of the priority partnership area board, a body set up by central government and on which all the local councillors sit. It would appear that the council feels that it can get away with things in Easterhouse that they would not attempt in a more middle-class area. If the consultation had been genuine the very least the council would have done was to have a closer look at the proposal."
What some people find particularly galling is that up to the weeks preceding the announcement of the closure proposal St Leonard's had been having a good press in the educational world from such diverse sources as the National Task Force for Achievement, Birmingham University's department of education, Her Majesty's Inspectorate and the depute director of the department of continuing education at Strathclyde University. And the school had never before been "in the frame" in relation to closures. The feelings of being let down, disillusionment and devastation can well be understood.
There is talk of "betrayal" by the Labour party, which even the multi-million pound investment promised by the council will have difficulty in dispelling, and perhaps more significantly, betrayal by the Catholic Church, or at least by the Archdiocese of Glasgow. "I'll never feel the same way at mass again," one parent said.
Some in the area feel that there will be a strong backlash against what was seen as lukewarm support from the Church ("twice we received letters from the archdiocese which referred to East Kilbride instead of Easterhouse") and that this will result in "as many as 40 per cent" of pupils transferring to the nearby non-denominational Lochend Secondary in August rather than the designated St Andrew's. It was no consolation when the archdiocese revealed on the day after the closure had been ratified that it had put forward "a third way", namely, a new building to take children from Easterhouse as well as those from nearby Baillieston who currently attend school in Coatbridge.
This "cross-border arrangement" had provoked strong feelings during the consultation process when the St Leonard's school board queried the council's policy of paying pound;60,000 a year to subsidise the costs of transporting nearly 500 children from two Baillieston denominational primaries to go to secondary in Coatbridge in neighbouring North Lanarkshire. Peter Hennessy, chairperson of the board, complains that this was never addressed: "It is absurd and bizarre that our council continues to pay for children who are effectively in our catchment area to go to school in another authority. The very least they should have done was to consider rezoning the Baillieston children to St Leonard's and stopping the discretionary free travel."
The main target of the community's wrath is the Labour party, at all levels. It is something of a shock to people that less than a year after the election, with all the promise that that entailed, they now have to come to terms with the fact that their much respected local school and its extensive community facilities are to disappear: "And once they are gone", Fr Gardner says, "they don't come back." There is special anger at the non-appearance of the local MP, Jimmy Wray.
Banners outside the City Chambers bore the legend "Revenge is Mine in 99", a reference to next year's elections, and posters have been put up in pubs and shops urging "No more votes for the Labour traitors". One parent at the demonstration summed up both the frustration and the anger of the community when he said: "We just didn't have enough political clout."
There is a belief that Frank McAveety had to be seen to be earning his spurs by taking a hard line on school closures. If this is the case, it has been achieved at significant cost to the morale and self-esteem of a section of the community. "The cruel paradox of the whole business," Fr Gardner says, "is that once again it is the poorer areas that are being hit in the name of so-called progress. The bottom line for me is that, apart from all the other relevant factors, St Leonard's is an excellent school making an immeasurable contribution to the lives of young people in Easterhouse."
Regeneration, "the undergoing of a moral, spiritual or physical renewal or invigoration", is a bit of a sick joke in Easterhouse these days.