Sub-text: the vital importance of teaching young people how to engage effectively with politics …
Are you sitting comfortably?
If you have a spare 2 hours (I know, I know … who does? But this will be worth it!), then watch this hot-off-the-press webcast of the Edinburgh City Council Finance and Resources Committee meeting on Friday 27 October 2017. It is a classic and absolutely fascinating example of how citizens can work with their elected politicians; and how if they don’t, then autocracy and officialdom rule. If you are a teacher of politics, general studies or media, this is your next week’s lessons sorted; even if you aren’t, you will find this fascinating, if horrifying in places. And it should absolutely be a salutary reminder to us all that if we don’t get involved in politics, then democracy fails.
Some background: uncovering a “deception”
You need a bit of background to understand the context – on Wednesday 25 October 2017, an anonymous tipoff to parents and staff at Broughton High School in Edinburgh, home to the internationally renowned City of Edinburgh Music School, uncovered an internal Council document which under the guise of ‘creating’ a ‘citywide equity and excellence music service’ actually proposed nothing of the sort, but rather listed a series of potentially devastating cuts which would result in the closure of the National Centre of Excellence at Broughton and one of its associated primary schools, Flora Stevenson’s, and a dumbing down of musical tuition across the city through more large group instrumental tuition (which, as anyone with any knowledge of music knows, simply does not respond to individual need).
Realising that this was to be discussed at a Council Finance and Resources Committee meeting on the Friday at 10am (less than 48 hours’ time), parents and students at the Music School and at Broughton and Flora’s swung into action, contacting their local Councillors and the press. They wrote and spoke about their personal stories, their fears for the wider school community, the music education provision in the city, and also drew attention to various issues which were emerging that suggested that this was an extremely misguided move on the part of the Council. This meant that the Councillors on the Finance and Resources Committee had at least some more information in preparation for the meeting. The response of a number of Councillors was exceptional – swift, interactive and open to listening. (A big shout out here to Councillor Whyte, Councillor Miller, Councillor Hutchison, Councillor Ross and Councillor Johnston, as well as other local councillors, including Councillor Osler, Councillor Barrie, Councillor Gloyer and more.)
The plot thickens …
As the hours ticked away towards the meeting, a number of interesting issues started to emerge …
- Funding of the school. The Music School is actually funded, indirectly, by the Scottish Government, and not by the Council. The existence of National Centres of Excellence is recognised as part of the needs-based grants to local councils; this amount was determined by central government and has been fixed for a number of years, even though it is rolled up into the overall settlement. In 2011, Labour MSP Peter Peacock asked a parliamentary question about this:
24 February 2011. Index Heading: Education and Lifelong Learning
Peter Peacock: To ask the Scottish Executive what its position is regarding a local authority no longer providing funding for a national centre of excellence in education for which its annual funding had been specifically increased. (S3W-39439)
Mr Michael Russell:
The previously ring-fenced funding for national centres of excellence was rolled-up into the local government finance settlement with effect from 1 April 2008. Although the provision for national centres of excellence is still recognised in the needs-based distribution formula there is no separately identifiable funding. If a council were to withdraw this service, this could impact on the future funding allocations for that council. The Scottish Government view is that it would not be appropriate for a council to benefit at the expense of other councils, within the distribution formula, in relation to a facility or service that it no longer provides.
Over recent years, the Music School has been asked to cut its budget along with other Council departments. This obviously has had a direct impact on pupils of the Music School, despite claims from the Children and Families Department that frontline services have been protected. This includes a reduction in the number of instruments that can be studied by each pupil, and an increase in funding required from parents for certain activities undertaken by the Music School that are a key part of their studies and essential for their musical education – for example, paying for Grade exams. The Music School has also been required to fund pipes and drums tuition for children across the city from its budget. This means that in fact the Music School actually costs less than the amount originally intended for its costs from the Scottish Government.
Given that the amount included in the settlement to the Council is in the region of £500k a year, and the Council actually spends only around £400k on the Music School, with the closure of the National Centre for Excellence the Council would actually lose significantly more from the Scottish Government than they would propose to save. The closure of the School would be financially counterproductive and would seem to be – in simple, layman’s terms – utterly daft.
- Councillors being kept in the dark. The Councillors who were members of the Committee (with the exception, it appeared, of those in the prevailing administration – Edinburgh Council is run by an SNP/Labour coalition) did not have access to the internal document which clearly provided the bones of the proposal to close the Music School. (By this time, the internal document was available online, published by a Green Party MSP who was disgusted with the proposal and the process.) No mention of this or other internal documents appeared in the extensive Committee papers. At the meeting, Councillors repeatedly asked for information, which was not given to them … they were told that more information would be available on Monday 30 October, when the proposals went out to consultation, but that it was not available to them at the meeting. This somewhat stretched the bounds of credibility, as it was by then Friday lunchtime, and there was no sense that officials would be working feverishly over the weekend to flesh out proposals which had already been published in summary.
- Manipulation of democracy: In the meeting, the Councillors were being asked to vote to put out items for public consultation whereby the public voice could be heard about where cuts should fall. However, the amount of savings on the list of proposed areas for consultation added up exactly to the amount the Council was seeking to save, meaning that in fact there was no choice for the public, giving rise to the suspicion that this was purely a (costly) formulaic, PR initiative. Democracy isn’t democracy if there is no choice…
The meeting – the good, the bad, and the ugly
Watch the webcast and spot the following:
- Councillors asking astute and searching questions, challenging officials and the Convenor of the meeting; asking for more information but being told it wasn’t available. Councillors persisting, uncovering, illuminating. A hooray for democracy, and inspiring to watch.
- Disturbingly, officials, obfuscating and ‘spinning’ the truth – the Head of Schools ‘reassuring’ Councillors that the Music School would not be closed, but relying on a different definition of what ‘to close’ means. (Shades of Bill Clinton and his definition of ‘is’ …). Similarly, there is an attempt to describe the National Centre of Excellence as continuing to exist while being neither a Centre nor enabling Excellence (and not being National, either). A thumbs down for democracy.
- Equally disturbingly, obfuscation on the part of the Convenor about the process that has led to this particular list of proposals (adding up the exact amount of budget savings required). Watch as it is gradually revealed that in fact there were other proposals, but that the decision was taken not to submit these to the Committee, leaving the Councillors on the Committee no choices about which proposals should go out to public consultation. Another thumbs down for democracy.
- A vote, narrowly won in the face of hurdles, to postpone the decision to approve items for public consultation until 7 November.
- A realisation of the dangers inherent in our system, when officials are not held to account and required to be transparent; if the Councillors had not been alerted to the existence of information developed and retained by officials and the administration, it would have been quite understandable if they had thought that they were doing the right thing by agreeing that the proposals should go to public consultation.
What does all this mean? Well, on a practical note concerning the City of Edinburgh Music School there is work to be done (at the time of writing) by Councillors, parents, supporters and community members to illuminate the facts of the situation, in preparation for the meeting on 7 November. Parents believe that this proposal should be stopped in its tracks. Watch this space.
For educators – and actually, for all citizens – there is a deep lesson to be learned here about teaching young people the importance of engaging in politics, holding officials to account, thinking critically, and not taking ‘truth’ at face value. In an age where young people are often disengaged from politics, this message is more important than ever before.
Plato said: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” Don’t let us let that happen.
Background on the City of Edinburgh Music School
The City of Edinburgh Music School is unique: nowhere else in Europe is there a school in the maintained sector which offers a complete specialist music programme from primary to secondary level in two neighbouring centres, completely integrated into a mainstream comprehensive school. It is a National Centre of Excellence. Musical talent – real, amazing talent – is developed through intensive training, involving regular practice, various ensembles and individual expert tuition, and it paves the way for students to secure positions in some of the most prestigious colleges, universities, ensembles, orchestras and media organisations in the world. It has equity at its core, through equality of access to musical tuition regardless of financial means.
Its successes are well-documented in the public domain, as former students have gone on to many great things in the world of music; its overwhelming success, however, lies in how it changes the lives of children with particular needs, stretching and channelling them, and enabling them to become truly themselves, able to develop into adults who will play an important role in society. It is vital for the personal development and growth of all its students. The continuity and stability provided by a community of children and young people, integrated into a wider school community, is a significant part of why the Music School works so well, and why, too, the Music School is able to impact the lives of so many in the school and wider community.
Background on Edinburgh City Council
The City of Edinburgh Council is made up of 63 elected councillors. They represent 17 wards within the city.
The 63 Councillors currently represent the following groups
- 19 SNP Group
- 18 Conservative Group
- 12 Labour Group
- 8 Green Group
- 6 Liberal Democrat Group.
The full Council meets once a month and takes decisions on important issues such as the Council budget. The Council also delegates decisions to committees.