The vote is for ending inequality in Scotland

Poverty is teachers' key concern in their referendum decision

Henry Hepburn

This was a debate unlike any other in the independence referendum campaign. Not one question was asked about the currency and no one seemed concerned with how much money would be in their pockets after 18 September.

A year ago, commentators mocked Scotland for having delusions of social progressiveness after research showed that being pound;500 better or worse off might have a critical bearing on voters' views on independence.

But in the first of four referendum debates organised by Scotland's EIS teaching union last week, the Aberdeen audience reflected a very different mindset. As the polls narrow - with the first one last weekend calling it for the Yes campaign - campaigners will have to appeal to teachers' altruism to get them onside.

"Because we're working with young people, we see the effects of poverty," said Grant Bruce, secretary of the EIS Aberdeen branch. "We want to see a more balanced society - we know how that can improve conditions for learning and young people's attainment."

Before the debate between Aberdeen MSPs Mark McDonald (of the SNP, for Yes) and Lewis Macdonald (Labour, No), several teachers told TES that their votes would go to the side that made the best case for tackling disadvantage.

One primary teacher asked how Aberdeen could be the oil capital of Europe yet leave one in five of its children living in poverty. Another, who worked in one of poorest parts of the city, said that increasingly parents could not afford to send their children on school trips or pay for uniforms.

But there was no sign of the febrile, antagonistic atmosphere of the televised independence debates at the EIS event, as the audience posed measured, forensic questions.

One woman wanted to know whether the SNP wasn't pulling a cynical ploy by focusing on childcare when the party had had seven years in power to do something about it. A male primary teacher asked why, if the UK really was "better together" (the No campaign's official slogan), 10,000 food parcels had to be delivered to Aberdeen families last Christmas.

Similar concerns have dominated teachers' online discussions. Contributors to the "Teachers for Yes" Facebook page made impassioned pleas for people to vote for independence as a way of counteracting Westminster's austerity cuts and boosting schools' performance.

But there were scornful ripostes from the likes of Bridget Kane, who accused Yes supporters of victimhood and said they should look to the Nigerian girls kidnapped by militant Islamist group Boko Haram "if you want to find a victim and a cause".

Other education issues also got an airing at the debate. One classroom assistant, leaning towards Yes, said that education was just like the NHS: she appreciated that it was devolved to Scotland but feared that a No vote would squeeze funding and allow unpopular Westminster policies to creep north.

"The Scottish education system is the best there is," Labour MSP Mr Macdonald concluded. He argued that there was no need to leave the UK because education north of the border had, for many years, made advances that England and other countries later followed.

For the Yes side, the SNP's Mr McDonald said that although independence was "not a magic wand", taking greater control of the Scottish economy would prevent more children from falling into poverty and would allow the country to reform the childcare system.

But there was little evidence of voters changing their minds. Rob Peaker, a retired chemistry teacher and No voter, admired Mr McDonald's concern about child poverty but felt that independence was being presented as a catch-all cure.

Amy Halliday, an English teacher at Aberdeen's Bucksburn Academy, said she was voting Yes because she had grown up in the poverty of Glasgow's East End and believed that urgent action was needed to tackle disparities in life expectancy.

As the final vote approaches, it is too close to call which arguments will win out.

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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