Scottish Voice  - SPEAKING UP FOR YOU

By Archie Stirling
The Scottish Government’s approval of the Beauly to Denny power line hardly comes as a shock, yet that does nothing to soften the blow of a profoundly retrograde decision.
Once again our political masters, hidebound by their own populist but ill-founded green agenda, dismiss the legitimate concerns both of those directly affected and of experts suggesting viable and eminently more sensible alternatives.
The power line is largely intended to carry electricity from the huge northern wind farms to the metropolitan areas, to hook into the national grid and become part of the European connectivity plan. Having waited almost a year for Energy Secretary Jim Mather to deliver his verdict following the most expensive public inquiry ever held in Scotland, the paradox is that his decision is premature.
Long before the Beauly-Denny line was even an idea in the minds of Scottish & Southern Energy engineers, the debate about the true cost, efficiency and impact of wind turbine energy should have been concluded. Instead, a whirlwind of political spin and environmental correctness has thwarted that proper public examination. But more on that later.
The SNP have decided from their perch on the climate change bandwagon to commit Scotland to a 50% use of renewables by 2020. The trouble, therefore, with the public inquiry - at which I gave evidence and to whom more than 17,000 objections were lodged - is that the result was virtually a foregone conclusion. In short, it was geared to achieving what the politicians wanted rather than to finding the right solution for Scotland.
What is at stake is not just the viability or otherwise of an overhead power line or the costs of providing an underground or sub-sea alternative, but whether we have a fully developed and coherent energy strategy and what as Scots we value most about our country.
Most people, myself included, are willing to accept that the electricity the new power line will carry is vital to our economic prosperity. But it defies belief that a line of 600 gigantic pylons scarring huge swathes of our most beautiful Scottish landscape is the right solution.
Tourism is Scotland’s lifeblood, employing more than 200,000 people and worth in excess of £4 billion a year to the economy. Pylons and poorly-sited wind turbines undoubtedly despoil the beauty of the landscape and discourage tourism. Surely even politicians can understand the economic threat these pylons will pose.
If we must have the power line then we should take a longer-term view, and, despite the extra cost (though not as high as politicians would have you believe), either route the line offshore or underground.
Are we really content to believe that some 600 mega-pylons, some of them more than 200 feet high and straddling 137-miles of prime Scottish countryside - including part of the Cairngorm National Park - are the only practical means available to a nation noted globally for its invention and ingenuity?
And what about the experience of other countries? It is clear that in Europe there is a move away from overhead transmission of electricity. In France, the government has declared its intention to switch to underground power lines and the EU is considering legislation to ensure that this becomes Euro policy.
There is, of course, one notable difference between the French government’s approach to energy provision and that of our own government at Holyrood: nuclear power. The SNP has turned its face resolutely against the nuclear option, for political rather than practical reasons.
Let us not pretend that nuclear power is cheap. The 10 new plants proposed for England and Wales will cost at least £5bn each to build and, depending on whose sums you believe, add anything from £44 to £227 to the average domestic fuel bill. They will create a problem with waste disposal which technology has yet to solve satisfactorily. They will be built by a French company, because France alone has acquired the skill through experience. But they will provide more than 25% of the electricity demand by 2025.
Compare this hard data with the SNP’s fanciful, and certainly unproven, policy of romance and myth. For them, wind farms comprise a essential element of their thrust to reduce our carbon footprint. Yet the science shows that the electricity they produce is more expensive and more heavily subsidized than any other renewable source.
When you take into account the cost of manufacturing and transporting these turbines, together with the displacement of many feet of peat during their erection - not to mention the cost of dismantling them after 25 years - the carbon footprint they leave drubs out  any benefit they produce.
If you seriously believe in the long-term benefits of wind turbines (which I do not) or tidal power (which I do because it offers a more constant source of energy) then off-shore transmission must be the way forward.
Man certainly has much to answer for with regard to excessive energy use and pollution of our planet. Yet so powerful has the green, carbon-neutral, Earth-saving lobby become that it has now even been accorded religious status by a judge south of the Border and has blunted rational political thought. We are made to feel ashamed if we dissent. If ever an example of this were needed, look no further than the recent pronouncement by Westminster’s Secretary for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband that opposing wind turbines should be as socially unacceptable as failing to wear a seatbelt.
What we require urgently is an unlikely outbreak of political courage and maturity that will call a halt to the hysteria that prompted, for example, Gordon Brown’s ’50 days to save the plant’ outburst. Approval of the Beauly-Denny power line is simply an example of what happens when we are bombarded with such drivel and half-truths. What is truly terrifying is that we risk destroying more than we save.
I have no doubt that in the long-term the answer to our future energy transmission lies under the sea and beneath the earth. Science and technology continue to advance with great speed. It would be both inept and tragic if we proceed with a plan that could be redundant before it is completed.
In that context, the Scottish Government’s decision is as shameful as it is perverse.   

Unfortunately, we and the generations that follow will have to pay the price of its political cowardice.
[A version of this article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail, 7th January 2010]


By Archie Stirling

Whether out of courage or cowardice, Alex Salmond finally put the interests of Scotland before his loyalty to his floundering Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop when he sacked her. Not before time.
The final nail in her Cabinet coffin was hammered home when, in the most bitter of ironies, she angrily threatened to wrest Scotland’s state schools from local authority control. 
My immediate reaction – shared by many educationalists, teachers and parents – was relief that she had finally got something right in a ministerial career littered with faux pas and folly.
But the sudden and unexpected rush of goodwill evaporated when she made clear that in seizing responsibility for schooling from local authorities she intended to hand it over instead to central government.
When it comes to education, the lesson should by now be clear to all politicians: the less you interfere, the greater chances it has of recovering its former reputation as a world leader.
The sooner this process starts the better, for the ground lost by Scottish education – particularly since the advent of devolution a decade ago - has been catastrophic not least because of the SNP Government’s failure to keep promises and Ms Hyslop’s ineptitude.  
A wealth of evidence proves the unpalatable truth about education in Scotland today. Friday’s report from the Literacy Commission, which found that around 13,000 children a year are leaving primary school without being functionally literate, is only the latest piece of damning data. For example, in a major study two years ago, The Trends in International Maths and Science Survey [TIMMS], Scottish pupils were ranked only average in science and below average in maths. Outperforming them were children from countries such as Latvia, Slovenia, Armenia and, significantly, England. In the same year, the Holyrood Government’s own Scottish Survey of Achievement found that more than half [54%] of S2 pupils had failed to reach the expected level in numeracy, 47% could not write as well as they should and 57% could not read properly.
One of the most telling pieces of research was produced earlier this year by the respected policy think tank Reform Scotland which found that in the 10 year period up to 2006, local authority spending on school education rose by 58% while central government increased its funding of education by a staggering seven times. Yet during the same period attainment levels plummeted.
Whatever views you may have about state education, the message of that one statistic alone is incontrovertible – the system is failing.
There are undoubtedly many excellent state schools in Scotland which are well run and producing acceptable results. The children being let down are those who depend on state education most – the thousands upon thousands of children condemned to bad schools, no choice but to accept what they are given. However well it might perform at the top end of the scale, a system that does not allow that many youngsters – most of them from disadvantaged backgrounds – to fulfil their potential must be judged a failure as must the politicians who oversee it.
Only last summer Graham Donaldson, senior chief inspector of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education, reported that one in three secondary schools in Scotland was failing its pupils. Little further need be said.
So how does Mike Russell, the new Education Secretary, stop the rot that has eroded the very foundations of our once proud and internationally renowned education system? He would do us all a service if he started by acknowledging that he and his fellow politicians face a massive challenge that will require not only radical and creative thinking but radical and creative action. It will not be met by endless tinkering and politically-correct initiatives such as the unworkable, unpopular and now delayed Curriculum for Excellence. Above all, there needs be a frank admission that teachers are employed to teach and they should be allowed to get on and do it without endlessly assessing and being assessed.
The clock cannot be turned back, although I firmly believe that in some contexts learning by rote has certain distinct advantages, but parental choice and diversity should be the watchwords of the new Minister. Mr Russell should look hard at other education models including Trust schools, state funded independents on Swedish lines, the New Model Schools, the woodland nurseries, and the Parents Network schools in London. We should advocate looking at anything that would improve standards because one-size-fits-all doesn’t work. We must take good ideas from wherever they come; it was Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University, who stated emphatically that schools in England were doing better because of their diversity. He further observed that the influence of parents was far greater than the influence of schools on a child’s success which further reinforces the need for greater parental involvement
Why have so many of the SNP Government’s education pledges failed to materialise? Why has there been a failure to cut class sizes and maintain teacher numbers? The answer, at least in part, is that when you tell councils that they can spend and cut as they wish in return for a politically-motivated freeze on council tax, should anyone really be surprised when, in the teeth of a recession, teaching jobs are cut and class sizes therefore are not?
Should we really be surprised that teachers are becoming increasingly de-motivated when they have to bear the brunt of ill-conceived, politically-driven schemes that result in ever more paperwork and less teaching? Even ignoring the hyperbole, when School Leaders Scotland, the body that represents secondary and deputy heads, describes Curriculum for Excellence as a ‘nightmare’ and an ‘administrative quagmire’, surely even Ms Hyslop should have realised that something was wrong.
While the aims of the Curriculum for Excellence – that is to provide a more coherent, more flexible and more relevant education system – may be admirable, the programme is so bound up in bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that no one, including most teachers, has the foggiest idea of how it is supposed to work in practice.   
Radical change that is both practical and meaningful is urgently required in our education system. That is why reformers like welcomed the news that East Lothian Council was thinking about setting up of community-based trusts to run some of its schools.
Sadly, but perhaps predictably, the debate that council leader David Berry hoped his idea would create has stalled behind a wall of negativity and dissent, led principally by Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray and the Educational Institute of Scotland.
Although Ms Hyslop somewhat moderated her initial opposition to the proposal (having woken up to the fact that it was being mooted by a Nationalist-led council), she was, nevertheless, unwilling to offer the political momentum required to get the debate going. Hopefully, her successor will not make the same mistake.
What a pity – not least for Ms Hyslop herself - that her outburst about divesting local authorities of their control of Scotland’s schools appeared to be no more than an angry threat, aimed primarily at Glasgow Council leader Steven Purcell whom she accused of deliberately sabotaging her class-reduction policy.
How much more encouraging it would have been had she, for example, acknowledged that many schools would fare much better were they allowed to conduct their own affairs, free from the shackles of party political dogma and the dead hand of local government. How much more respect she might have commanded had she acknowledged that parents deserved much more choice in where their children were taught. And how much more people might have listened if she had acknowledged that healthy competition in schools, as well as between schools, is a virtue and not a social evil.
When I set up Scottish Voice just before the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, I made it clear that education should be at the heart of everything we try to do in politics.
More than two years later nothing has happened to change my mind. The question now is, do our political masters and Mike Russell especially, have the courage to change, or are they content to repeat the failures of the past?
Our children deserve so much better.


Herald letter - 25th January 2010

Teachers’ morale will plummet if this is how they are treated for trying to do their best 
At a time when indiscipline in schools is reaching epidemic proportions and no-one in authority appears to have any solution, the experience of a teacher in Glasgow who suffered serious injury while trying to break up a playground fight simply beggars belief (“Teachers warned over breaking up pupil fights”, The Herald, January 22).

For acting as any caring and responsible teacher would, she was punched in the mouth and now requires £2500 of dental work to repair several broken teeth. Serious though that is, it hardly compares with the metaphorical but excruciating ‘kick in the teeth’ meted out by her employer, Glasgow City Council.

In a response that underlines just how far the poison of officialdom and health and safety has penetrated the body politic, the council has not only declined to meet the cost of her dental treatment but is refusing her time off to have her teeth fixed. Why? Because according to Josephine Giblin, the council’s senior claims officer (what magnificent salary, I wonder, does she command?) the teacher’s claim is invalid since there was no negligence on the part of the council.

The upshot, apart from the considerable physical, emotional and financial pain caused, is that all teachers are being warned to think twice before intervening in fights.

How can any of this be regarded as anything other than insane? When councils hold their teaching staff in such contempt, how can we expect schoolchildren to respect their teachers?

Until the dead hand of local government is lifted from our schools and teachers are allowed to get on and do their jobs unfettered by interfering and obstructive council busy-bodies, this kind of madness will continue to infect Scottish education.

Teacher morale will continue to plummet. School indiscipline will continue to rise as will, no doubt, the salaries of officials such as Ms Giblin.

Herald letter - 12 January 2010

Danger: Beware the jobsworths kiling your fun

Am I alone in my depression? Is there no-one out there with a desire to rattle the cages of those third-rate killjoys and their pedantic adherence to rules and regulations drawn up by yet further ranks of humourless jobsworths?

Did you read about the scenes at Lochmaben when police arrived to warn curlers and skaters off the ice but couldn’t do so because health and safety officials called for the Nith rescue boat, who couldn’t go on the ice because of health and safety concerns? Do we imagine that without risk we will live forever? Or will it simply seem like forever because it is without risk?

It really is time we started mocking all these busybodies and took our lives back under our own control.

Those at the coalface know more about their pursuits or professions than anyone else. The nurses know more about nursing, the teachers know more about teaching, and I am pretty sure the Scottish curlers know more about curling and ice conditions than any number of health and safety officials.

If we feel like spending our time on thin ice, then let’s do so. And before anyone tells us it is unfair on the emergency services, that is what they are there for, and very grateful to them we should all be.