What are the fundamental hallmarks of a proud and civilised society? Can Scotland rightly claim such status as a growing number of children turn up at the nation’s schools hungry, even stealing food from other pupils, in the mornings?
The revelations by the country’s biggest teaching union, the EIS, that more pupils arrive at school without a “play piece”, or any food, as well as growing instances of health problems such as weight loss, is a measure of the desperate circumstances that many families in Scotland find themselves as austerity cuts bite.
The situation in our classrooms is poised to dominate next year’s Holyrood elections and it is time for the politicians to deliver action that will make a difference. The Scottish Government’s decision to extend free school meals to all youngsters in the first three years of primary is a bold and welcome measure, but it can only help a limited number of pupils. Breakfast clubs have also been established in poorer areas of Scotland, but it appears these laudable measures have so far failed to stem the problem.
The effects we are witnessing are perhaps unsurprising given the wider impact of austerity cuts. Food bank referrals in Scotland increased to over 60,000 in April to September of this year – a staggering 44 per cent of these as a result of benefit delays and cuts. And if the current austerity agenda is maintained, the number of children living in poverty will increase by almost 50 per cent to 322,000. The situation is now so grave in Scotland’s schools that the EIS was forced to issue advice earlier this year to members about dealing with the growing impact of poverty in the country’s classrooms.
So while teachers are expected to focus on teaching youngsters the basics of reading, writing and counting – the fundamental building blocks of learning – they are also now monitoring their charges for signs of poverty. This means adopting a more relaxed approach about forcing kids to wear expensive uniforms, never assuming they can afford equipment and maintaining a “sensitive” attitude to the issue of pupil hunger.
Nicola Sturgeon has insisted that driving down the gap in classroom attainment between rich and poor areas of Scotland is the issue that she wants to be judged on. The difficulty for the First Minister is that youngsters cannot be expected to focus on their studies when they are hungry.
Closing the gap was clearly part of the First Minister’s thinking in February when she set out a £100 million-plus fund to drive up classroom standards in Scotland’s poorest areas, entitled the Scottish Attainment Challenge. The four-year scheme is aimed at improving health and wellbeing as well as literacy and numeracy. But, almost one year on, there are not enough indicators of progress.
Renewed urgency is required because this should be a matter of grave concern for all of us. Ultimately it’s not just the First Minister who will be judged on this issue, but Scottish society as a whole.
No debate on Corbyn’s challenge
Jeremy Corbyn’s call for David Cameron to take part in an annual state of the nation televised debate with other political leaders perhaps says more about the Labour chief’s own problems than anything else. It is an understandable bid to focus attention on the Prime Minister and join with other party leaders in a live TV ambush.
But the chances of Mr Cameron agreeing to such a contest appear slim. This is the Prime Minister who would not take part in a TV debate with Alex Salmond during the independence referendum. He also declined to go along with the broadcasters’ schedules in the recent general election. It’s perhaps unsurprising, given the underwhelming displays in the 2010 TV debates alongside Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown which probably cost Mr Cameron an outright majority in that election. This is a politician who doesn’t fancy TV debates and having let slip that he won’t be standing again as Prime Minister in 2020, he is unlikely to see any need to offer rivals the opportunity to land blows.
For Mr Corbyn, along with new Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, the advantages are obvious. As relatively new and unknown leaders it provides the opportunity to step inside living rooms across the nation and make themselves known. For Mr Corbyn, particularly, it gives him the chance to shake off his dismal poll ratings which indicate the public have decided the hard-left image of him matches the reality.
In any case, as leader of the Labour Party, Mr Corbyn now has the opportunity to take the Prime Minister to task every week that Parliament sits – in sessions that are televised. Mr Corbyn has yet to suggest that he is going to make the most of that opportunity.