FOI victory reveals the full extent of Teach First’s Scottish lobbying | Blog

Last week, in an exclusive story with Severin Carrell and published by The Guardian, I revealed that Prince Charles has finally admitted to lobbying the Scottish government, and in particular former First Minister Alex Salmond, in an attempt to help Teach First expand their operations into Scotland’s education system.

These latest revelations are part of a long-running saga around Teach First’s ambitions to gain a foothold north of the border. A six-month FOI campaign has generated numerous stories in both The Guardian and The Herald, highlighting the details not just of Teach First’s proposed Scottish operation but also the long-standing, well-connected and highly secretive lobbying campaign in which they have been engaged.

The stories:

11 August – The Herald: Student teachers in class after five weeks of training

12 August – The Herald: Teach First calls on government to delay fast-track teaching course

14 August – The Guardian: Scottish ministers refuse to release Prince Charles lobbying letters

15 August – The Guardian: Publish Prince Charles lobbying letters, Scottish government urged

26 August – The Herald: Teach First leaders ‘wanted teaching watchdog disbanded’

28 October – The Herald: Fast-track teaching scheme condemned by academics

28 October – The Herald: Top Scottish universities shun Teach First scheme

During this period I also published a number of blog posts providing additional details:

Revealed: meetings between the Scottish Government and Teach First

Tartan Teach First? A look inside the Scottish Government’s plans

Teach First, Ask Questions Later – full report and email exchanges

The Sunday Herald’s investigations editor, Paul Hutcheon, also wrote about Teach First’s funding and their attempts to withhold information from FOI responses – both of these stories are relevant to what follows.

Even when the latest stories were published, however, the Scottish Government was still attempting to withhold some information, preventing its release to the public. This is no longer the case, with the government having now formally backed down and provided all of the information requested.

I am therefore able to provide a new, complete timeline detailing Teach First’s attempts to lobby the Scottish Government in order to gain access to the Scottish education system, as well as full documentation for the organisation’s proposed new programme – ‘Teach for Scotland’:


3 February 2009 – Joanne Lee of Teach First attempts to contact Maureen Watt, then minister for schools and skills, in order to set up a meeting with Teach First’s then Director of Leadership Development,  Professor Sonia Blandford.

Doc 36


9 February 2009 – Scottish Government official Peter Allan replies to Teach First rejecting their approach. His letter states that “there is no current need for Teach First to be active” in Scotland and that “there is not a requirement for Mrs Watt to meet Professor Blandford to discuss her proposal at this time.”


16 March 2010 – Joanne Lee writes to the new education secretary Mike Russell (on behalf of Prof. Blandford) seeking to arrange a meeting between him and Brett Wigdortz (Teach First’s founder and, until recently, CEO). The email is sent on behalf of Prof. Blandford, includes press clippings from TES and the Economist and also references the fact that at that stage Teach First trainees had been unable to meet the necessary standards to become registered teachers in Scotland. Lee also lists the areas in which Teach First were operating and states that they would be interested in exploring how “Scottish schools might begin to share in this success.”


31 March 2010 – Mike Russell’s private secretary (Brian Taylor) responds to Professor Blandford rejecting the request for a meeting with the minister. Instead, Taylor writes that “officials from Learning Directorate, including Michael Kellet, Deputy Director, would be interested in meeting with you.”


9 June 2010 to 18 June 2010 – The documents show an interaction between Teach First representative Chloe Tait and Helen Reid of the Scottish Government’s Learning Directorate. This exchange seems to stem from a phone conversation between the two on 9 June 2010 to discuss Teach First “and in particular the funding contributions” involved. The interaction appears to end with Teach First being unable or unwilling to respond to some detailed questions about the funding aspects of their programmes, such as cost per participant and tutor salaries. They state that this because they relate to “contractual details which reside with our partnering universities.”


10 January 2012 – Joanne Lee once again writes to Mike Russell, this time following contact between Teach First and Duncan Hamilton, the former SNP MSP and political adviser to Alex Salmond. Lee’s email makes clear that Hamilton has acted as an intermediary between Teach First and the Scottish government. It is passed on to the Ministerial Correspondence Unit with the note: “Quick response required.”

Doc 29


15 February 2012 – Mike Russell’s private secretary (Laura Holton) responds to Joanne Lee advising that “Mr Russell’s diary is heavily committed for the foreseeable future” but that “officials in the Learning Directorate would be happy to meet.”

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5 April 2012 – Brett Wigdortz invites Mike Russell to an “Evening Reception at the Scottish Parliament” facilitated by Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur.

Doc 27


13 April 2012 – Mark Leishman (former journalist and private secretary to Prince Charles from 2009 – 2017) writes to Mike Russell. The email is addressed to “Laura” Holton. It is clear that he has already been in contact with either Holton herself or someone else in the Scottish Government (“As discussed last week”). Leishman includes a letter and briefing from Brett Wigdortz of Teach First (see next entry). Leighman writes that he would be “delighted” to introduce Wigdortz to Russell. This document was originally entirely withheld by the Scottish Government.

Doc 25


13 April 2012 – Brett Wigdortz writes to Mike Russell – immediately referencing the communication from Mark Leishman – once again seeking a meeting with the education secretary and providing a ‘briefing’ about the organisation.


1 May 2012 – Laura Holton responds to Brett Wigdortz, mentioning the covering letter from Mark Leishman, and confirming a meeting between the Teach First CEO and “Mr Russell’s officials” on 16 May 2012.

RA doc 24-page-001


1 May 2012 – Laura Holton also confirms that Mike Russell will not be attending the Teach First reception at parliament (although the next document seems to contradict this).

Doc 26 Cab Sec letter 1 May 2012 meeting invite-page-001


16 May 2012 – Meeting between Teach First staff and officials of the Scottish Government’s Learning Directorate. Shown below are the heavily redacted version of this document originally provided by the government (left) and the complete, unredacted version now available (right). This shows that, amongst other things, the Scottish Government wished to keep the words “very persuasively” out of the public domain. It also highlights that the government officials were willing to have “exploratory discussions” with councils with a view to “a pilot in academic year 2014/2015 at the earliest.” As you can also see below, the government attempted to withhold the fact that Mike Russell still had “concerns about the application of the scheme in Scotland” – indeed, this was the very last redaction to be removed.


19 July 2013 – Brett Wigdortz writes to Mike Russell once again requesting a meeting. A recent meeting between the then first minister Alex Salmond and Prince Charles is mentioned in the opening sentence, and Wigdortz is explicit about this being a “follow up”. The original, redacted version of the letter is shown alongside a complete version.


?? September 2013 – Mike Russell’s private secretary replies to Brett Wigdortz confirming that the minister “will be pleased to meet with” him.

Doc 19 Cab Sec Sept 2013-page-001


30 January 2014 – Meeting between Mike Russell and Brett Wigdortz & James Westhead (both of Teach First). Official briefing notes specifically reference “a meeting between the First Minister and Teach First’s patron, HRH The Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay” as part of the reason “why” this engagement has been arranged. Despite the presence of three senior civil servants, and 19 pages of briefing documents, no minutes of the meeting are taken. Once again, redacted and complete versions of the key document are shown below.


20 February 2014 – Mike Russel writes to Brett Wigdortz following their meeting. He outlines the situation regarding Initial Teacher Education in Scotland and states that he does not believe, based on their meeting, that there is a “viable proposal on the table” from Teach First. The letter also ends with a noticeably terse paragraph about Teach First trainees working in Scotland.


1 March 2014 – James Westhead writes to individuals from the Scottish Government, GTCS, East Ayrshire council and Glasgow City council recapping a meeting held on 25 February 2014. He states: “The meeting was convened by the GTCS – Ken Muir – to explore what the potential value-add to the Scottish system would be” from the establishment of a Scottish version of the Teach First model. A follow up email (which seems to have originally been withheld) between two Scottish Government officials seems to question the accuracy of Westhead’s summary: “Mmmmm. Some interesting use of phrases and words there.”


13 February 2015 – Brett Wigdortz writes to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon asking for a meeting.

Doc 15 - Letter from Brett Wigdortz to Nicola Sturgeon - 13 February 2015-page-001


30 April 2015 – Nicola Sturgeon’s diary manager (Craig Smith) replies to Brett Wigdortz rejecting his request for a meeting but leaving open the possibility of future dialogue if Teach First have now “developed a proposal that addresses Scotland’s unique challenges.”

Doc 14


3 February 2016 – James Westhead writes to Rachel Sunderland (Scottish Government). He states that Mark Leishman (the Prince of Wales’ private secretary) “mentioned that there might be interest” from the Scottish Government in a new meeting with Teach First. As shown in the next entry, this communication leads directly to a later meeting.

Doc 13 page 6


22 April 2016 – Meeting between Scottish Government officials (John Gunstone and Stuart Robb) and Teach First staff (James Westhead and Reuben Moore). No notes appear to exist for this meeting. Another government official – Clare Hicks – actually requests any notes about the meeting on 25 May, adding that “we will want to keep on file.” She receives no reply.


21 May 2016 – Nicola Sturgeon writes to Paul Drechsler (Chair of the Teach First Board of Trustees) agreeing to a meeting between the two.

Doc 12-page-003


26 August 2016 – Teleconference between David Roy & Stuart Robb (Scottish Government) and James Westhead & Jonathan Dando (Teach First). Notes include the following sentence: “We agree to ensure they had the opportunity to tender if we go don that route.”


21 September 2016 – Meeting between Nicola Sturgeon and Paul Drechsler. The official briefing notes that “Teach First have long held ambitions of exporting their model of initial teacher education to Scotland.” Despite the presence of a senior civil servant, and likely themes being “Reform to Scottish education, changes to Initial Teacher Education in Scotland and the possible role for Teach First”, this is classified as a “private meeting”. No minutes are taken.

RA doc 09-page-001

(Parts of the briefing documents were originally redacted by the Scottish Government. Both versions are shown below.)


25 November 2016 – Gareth Brown (of PR organisation Message Matters) writes to Craig Hancock (assistant private secretary to John Swinney) in order to arrange a meeting between Teach First and the deputy first minister. His email also includes a full briefing document for Teach First’s proposed ‘Teach for Scotland’ programme (a document which the government will later try to keep secret despite having already provided an entirely unredacted version).


10 January 2017 – Meeting between John Swinney and James Westhead (Teach First) & Peter Duncan (Message Matters). Remarkably, the document states that there are no “sensitivities” around this meeting, despite identifying Teach First’s ambitions to expand into Scotland, highlighting the fact that “over £1m of SG investment” is supporting the development of “new routes into teaching,”  and stating that this meeting is “to hear more about the work of Teach First and whether the organisation could play a role in the context of Scottish education.” The notes also state that the “Equality and Human Rights Commissioner for Scotland is now advising Teach First” although she is unable to attend the meeting. Once again, no minutes are taken.

Doc 07-page-001

(As with Nicola Sturgeon’s meeting in September 2016, parts of the briefing documents for this meeting were initially redacted. Before and after version are shown below.)


28 February 2017 – Peter Duncan (Message Matters) contacts Colin McAllister (Special Adviser in the Scottish Government). Duncan asks McAllister to call him and also asks for assistance on three points relating to Teach First’s “excellent progress in drawing together a tangible offer to make available to the Scottish Government.” McAllister is asked for feedback on a proposed timeline and to help ‘facilitate’ an intervention whereby the Scottish Government would indicate to universities that engagement with Teach First would be “welcome”. He is also made aware of the possibility of a “helpful media intervention from the Teach for All network”. The third of these was originally redacted by the government, and both version of the document are shown below, along with the proposed timeline (a document which Teach First seem to have been especially keen to keep secret).

RA doc 04 enc-page-001


17 March 2017 & 4 April 2017 – James Westhead (Teach First) contacts Stuart Robb (Scottish Government) about the forthcoming government tender. The first email comes the day after a telephone call and is “a short note to capture our conversation.” It asserts that Robb “agreed that it would be useful to have a further more detailed conversation so that as commissioners you could understand fully what we could offer and our limitations”. It also claims that Robb agreed to “speak to Morag Redford to emphasise the Government view that HEI’s should be involved in discussions with Teach First around this potential tender”. Morag Redford is the chair of the Scottish Council of Deans of Education, a body representing the Scottish universities involved in Initial Teacher Education.

The second email follows up on the request regarding Redford, asking whether Robb had managed to speak with and “reassure her”. It also raises the possibility of Teach First and the Scottish Government engaging in a “partnership pilot rather than a tender” (the Scottish Government originally attempted to withhold this detail) and highlights concerns over the proposed development timeline of the government’ proposals. This email also makes reference to a meeting between John Swinney and Brett Wigdortz at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, although no official notes of this meeting seem to exist.

Once again, redacted and unredacted versions of the documents are shown below.


9 May 2017 – James Westhead writes to John Swinney, raising concerns about the timeline for the government’s new tender and even suggesting that other organisations may “submit tenders that are unrealistic in both ambition, delivery timescales and resource requirements, as they do not have the track record or experience of delivering such programmes.” Westhead suggests an “alternative route” which would permit Teach First to bypass the public tender process and establish a “partnership between Teach First and the Scottish Government” involving a “two-cohort pilot programme in Scotland starting in 2019.” The government initially redacted the sentence at the end of the first paragraph on page two of this document – the full version is shown below.


First of all, well-publicised concerns about the Scottish Government’s approach towards transparency and Freedom of Information are front and centre here. Teach First – an organisation which was explicitly seeking a change in Scottish education policy that would be beneficial to their organisation – held three meetings with government ministers (including the first minister of Scotland) without any minutes being taken. There is no version of events in which the decision not to keep proper records of these meetings looks justifiable. Furthermore, the tenuous nature of much of the redaction, highlighted by eventual provision of complete versions of all of the documents requested, raises serious questions about the government’s application of FOI exemptions in order to keep information secret from the public. It is worth remembering that a full disclosure only happened after a six-month battle during which I was forced to go all the way to the Scottish Information Commissioner. The time, knowledge, contacts and, let’s be honest, sheer bloody-mindedness to follow this process all the way through is an obvious barrier to many citizens being able to fully exercise their ‘right to know’.

What is also absolutely clear from all of this is that Teach First has been engaged in a long-term, persistent and – crucially – extremely well-connected lobbying operation. They have utilised links that go to the very heart of the British establishment, including connections with the Prince of Wales and the engagement of a PR company which includes two former MPs (one a piece for Labour and the Conservatives) and, in Marco Biagi, a former SNP government minister, all in pursuit of policy changes from which they would clearly benefit. This is not the behaviour of a benign education charity interested only in social justice, but rather of a multinational business seeking opportunities for further expansion.

Some of the specific details now in the public domain, such as the brazen attempt to bypass the public tender process, or the request to have the government lobby universities on their behalf, should also raise extremely serious questions about Teach First’s conduct as they have sought to gain a foothold in Scottish education.

Their reasons for withdrawing from the government’s tender process also remain unclear. In response to the recent stories about Prince Charles, a Teach First spokesperson said: “The proposed timeline would not provide us with sufficient time to develop a new programme bespoke for Scotland.” This directly contradicts the comment they previously provided in response to this issue, with Reuben Moore (their Director of Leadership) having earlier insisted that they were “pleased the recently announced tender process will give the time to focus on developing an excellent new route into teaching.”

Either way, this is almost certainly not the end of the story.

Update: 17 December 2017

Teach First’s withdrawal from the tender process and the Scottish Government’s response

Following a further FOI request the Scottish Government has provided me with Teach First’s letter to the Scottish Government informing them that they would not be submitting a bid to operate the “new route into teaching”.

TF withdrawal-page-001

TF withdrawal-page-00-2

There are a few things to note here.

The first is the assertion that Teach First “welcomed the issuing of a tender”, a claim which appears to be at odds with the contents of the letter sent to the Scottish Government in May 2017. At this stage, James Westhead (Executive Director of Teach First) attempted to convince John Swinney to allow the organisation to bypass the tendering process entirely, seeking instead to establish a “bilateral arrangement” with the government.

Doc37 extract

The next issue is the reasons – plural – given by Teach First for not submitting a bid. We now know that they had concerns not just about the timeline involved but also with the funding available.

Regarding the timeline, Teach First have made clear that they “are uncomfortable with commencing recruitment in February to a programme that would not have been fully designed or accredited by then.” This is an entirely reasonable criticism of the government’s plans, which are laid out within the official tender documents (which I have already analysed):


In addition to their concerns about the time available for the programme, Teach First have now also highlighted what they regard as problems with the funding, which they regard as being “not sufficiently clear”. They also appear to have been put off by the fact that they “could not receive funding directly”.

Unsurprisingly, however, Teach First does not regard this set back as the end of the matter and clearly retain ambitions of Scottish expansion. Their letter once again seeks Scottish Government “support” in developing a relation with a university partner and also requests a further meeting with John Swinney.

The education secretary’s response does not appear to offer them any encouragement on either point:

TF withdrawal response-page-001

If you would like to read original PDF versions of any of the documents included above please contact me at

Student teachers in class after five weeks of training | The Herald

First published on August 11, 2017 by The Herald: (shared byline with Andrew Denholm)

TRAINEE teachers would be allowed to start work in Scotland after a five week summer school under controversial proposals for a new fast-track course.

Documents obtained under freedom of information legislation show the educational charity Teach First has suggested the setting up of a Scottish Summer Institute as part of a briefing to John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary.

Teach First is talking to the Scottish Government after ministers decided to put out to tender a new fast-track teacher training course targeted at plugging vacancies in rural schools and key subjects such as science, technology and maths.

However, the proposal for an intensive summer school will prove controversial because it undermines the traditional model of university teacher education where postgraduate students undertake a year of study – including work placements – before joining a school as a probationer in their second year.

Graduates entering the classroom after just a few weeks of training will also reignite concerns about unqualified teachers working in schools.

The documents state: “Participants would undertake an intensive Scottish summer school prior to commencing work in a school with a phased introduction to responsibility overseen by an experienced Scottish teacher.”

A second paper says: “The Scottish Summer Institute would be focused on providing Teach for Scotland participants with a strong grounding in the key areas of classroom management, assessment and planning.”

The documents also show Teach First is proposing a two-year postgraduate course with trainees being paid in the first year of their course once they complete the summer school and move to “on-the-job” training.

Trainees would then experience a “phased introduction to responsibility” over the course of their first year, during which they would “work towards General Teaching Council Scotland accreditation.”

Such a proposal is likely to be highly controversial as it would mean individuals working in schools, and even teaching classes, before meeting GTCS teacher standards.

Teach for Scotland trainees would also be “paid in accordance with their level of responsibility, which is increased to full pay by the end of the programme.”

In England, Teach First trainees receive “at least the basic salary for an unqualified teacher” during their first year, but no arrangements are currently in place to pay unqualified teachers in Scotland.

It also means paid Teach First participants would be working alongside university-educated students undertaking intensive work placement free of charge.

In addition, a number of “key requirements” are provided which schools must meet in order to receive a Teach for Scotland participant.

These include a commitment to provide individuals with a “significant leadership opportunity in their first year” as well as the chance to “act as the lead class teacher by the end of their first year.”

Scotland is currently facing acute teacher shortages in certain parts of the country and in a number of subject areas including, most notably in key STEM subjects. The Scottish Government is committed to developing new routes into the teaching profession, with the goal of attracting “high-quality graduates in priority areas and subjects.” £1m of funding from the Attainment Scotland Fund has been earmarked for this purpose.

A spokeswoman for the Educational Institute of Scotland said: “We do not believe that handing greater responsibility to unqualified graduates will lead to better outcomes for pupils.

“The Teach First proposal would give such trainees just a few weeks training before putting them into the classroom at the start of the academic year to teach pupils, presumably together with a qualified teacher, and then the trainees would rise to act as the lead class teacher before the end of the first year.

“The EIS believes the teaching responsibilities placed on these trainees would be premature and excessive, and would be to the detriment of the pupils.”

The spokesman said proposal that trainees would be employed by schools meant a school could have two groups of trainee teachers on postgraduate programmes working with pupils – one group being paid whilst the other is not.

She added: “This does not seem like an equitable system and it may deter graduates from entering the current well-regarded route into teaching. The notion of differentiated pay scales is also unlikely to find favour as it would undermine current negotiated pay scales.”

Rueben Moore, director of leadership for Teach First, said the proposals for Teach for Scotland were not yet finalised.

He said: “We’re clear that any new teaching route in Scotland would need to be a bespoke model that was designed and delivered for the Scotland context, with Scottish university and education providers.

“It would need to complement, not compete, with the pathways that already exist, and be befitting of the academic rigour and world class standards of teacher education in Scotland.

“The proposal discussed with the Deputy First Minister was some initial thoughts on an approach, but doesn’t reflect a final model.”

Mr Moore said Teach First would welcome input from the wider Scottish education sector on their ideas.

The General Teaching Council for Scotland, which would have to sign off any new proposal, said they had made it clear to Teach First that standards would have to be maintained.

A spokesman said: “We have had discussions with Teach First on a few occasions and, as Mr Swinney has stated, the principle of meeting our standards before becoming a teacher will continue in Scotland.

“Being properly qualified to teach in Scotland, and meeting the GTCS standards will remain the benchmark for aspiring teachers.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Ministers have made clear that we will always maintain the high standard we expect new recruits to attain before they become fully-fledged teachers.

“This means that any new route into teaching must be accredited by the GTCS and will require a partnership with a university to maintain academic rigour and ensure programmes are of the highest quality.

“We have committed £1 million from the Scottish Attainment Fund to identify and develop new ways for people to come into teaching, and will shortly be putting a new initiative out to tender designed to attract high quality graduates in priority areas and subjects.”

Swinney in secret talks with education lobbyists | Daily Record

An edited and shortened version of this article was published on 7th February, 2017. The following article is the original, full text.

Full details of meetings between the Scottish Government and Teach First are available here.

Secretive meetings between the Scottish Government and a controversial lobbying organisation have provoked calls for reform.

On 25 October last year John Swinney – the Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary – met with representatives of the Hometown Foundation, a group pressing the government to allow the creation of ‘autonomous schools’. Like Free Schools in England, these would be publicly funded but exempt from local authority control.

Freedom of Information requests – which allow the public to access important information held by the government and other public bodies – have revealed that no minutes were taken during the meeting in October last year, despite the conversation being directly relevant to the Scottish Government’s school governance review, which was still ongoing at the time. In an earlier letter to the Hometown Foundation, Swinney had also advised that ‘autonomous schools’ proposals were to be considered as part of his review of the Scottish education system.

Information released under FOI laws also revealed that Colin McAllister, John Swinney’s Head of Policy and Senior Special Adviser, held a further meeting with the Hometown Foundation on 21 November. Again, no minutes of the meeting exist.

A follow-up letter – also available thanks to FOI requests – from the Hometown Foundation to John Swinney suggests that their representative, Bill Nicol, was told by McAllister that no decision on ‘autonomous schools’ would be made before the conclusion of the government’s schools review.

The Scottish Government has been repeatedly criticised for its inconsistent approach to keeping records of important or controversial meetings.

In August 2016 it was revealed that a meeting between the government and an EU commissioner, which related to serious delays in payments to Scottish farmers, had not been minuted. Weeks later, it was reported that the failure to keep minutes of a meeting between John Swinney and fracking giant Ineos meant that details of their conversation could not be revealed to the public.

In 2015, the Scottish Government was forced to admit that an entire series of meetings which led to the introduction of standardised testing in schools had gone unminuted.

Carole Ewart, Convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, sharply criticised the failure to keep minutes of meetings and called for a review of the state of FOI in Scotland. She said:

“Access to information is a human right and the Scottish Government must ensure its actions pro-actively comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Proof of secret meetings with lobbyists provides further justification for the Scottish Parliament to undertake an inquiry into the operation of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act which was passed 15 years ago and became effective 12 years ago. The Parliament should also assess whether the investigatory powers of the Scottish Information Commissioner should be enhanced to prevent and punish those who would seek to adopt new practices which have the effect of reducing the effectiveness of the public’s right to know.

FOISA was supposed to stop, punish and prevent such actions.”

Scottish Labour MSP Neil Findlay, an outspoken critic of lobbying in the Scottish parliament, added:

“Once again the Scottish Government are caught out meeting lobbyists without recording what was discussed. It really does look like the Scottish Government are seeking ways to systematically evade FOI legislation by simply not recording information or writing minutes of potentially important meetings like this one, which sees lobbyists advocating free schools and minimising the role of local authorities in education, a direction of travel that concerningly Mr Swinney already knows too well.

It is also worrying that they think it is acceptable to consistently disregard the spirit of FOI and avoid sharing information with the public and in the process wilfully and regularly showing disdain for the founding principles of openness, transparency and accountability which the Scottish Parliament was built upon.”

When asked to explain details of the decision not to minute meetings with the Hometown Foundation the Scottish Government stated that they would be unable to respond in time and suggested submitting a Freedom of Information request.

A government spokesperson also said: “There is no requirement for minutes to be taken at all Scottish Government meetings, particularly at informal meetings.  This is entirely in line with normal practice across the UK Civil Service.”

Brave decision to end homework is good news for school pupils | Daily Record

First published 10 November, 2016 by Daily Record:

THIS week, something amazing happened.

Inverlochy Primary, a little school of just 175 pupils in Fort William, has done something truly revolutionary.

No, they haven’t opted out of council control, instituted daily standardised testing of all pupils or started a campaign to bring back the belt (because things were better in someone’s day).

What they have done is simple – they’ve decided to stop setting homework.

Yes, you did read that correctly – no more homework.

The move, which was backed by 80 per cent of pupils and 60 per cent of parents, means that children will be encouraged to read books or comics rather than dotting i’s, crossing t’s and doing sums at the kitchen table each night (or the school bus each morning).

I must confess to getting rather excited by this. Why? Because it looks like that incredibly rare thing – a genuinely bold education initiative driven by what is best for pupils, not politicians and pencil pushers. Hallelujah.

It takes real guts to challenge orthodoxy and there are few things more orthodox, more lazily ingrained in our whole view of what education is and should be than homework.

But wait – I hear you cry – homework is vital, isn’t it? I was given loads of homework at school and it didn’t do me any harm.

I mean, the Scottish Government even has a whole section of its website saying homework is really important, and they must know what they’re talking about when it comes to education (stop sniggering at the back).

Well, actually – no.

This might seem counter-intuitive but when it comes to primary school children the evidence is actually pretty clear – homework has, at best, a tiny impact on pupils’ progress. This is partly because a lot of homework is little more than pointless busy-work and partly because a great deal of it is set in response to school-wide homework policies rather than the carefully considered needs of each pupil.

It is also partly because the inability to control the conditions in which homework is completed, if it is completed, makes the whole exercise an act of faith – which Tom Bennett, an adviser to the Department of Education in England and founder of educational research organisation ResearchED, accurately described as “a boomerang thrown into the darkness”.

And the problems don’t end there, because our obsession with homework also has numerous other downsides: it places an unnecessary strain on young children who already spend enough of their day completing school work; it eats into the (increasingly) limited time available for families to talk, read and play together – all of which are more useful for children’s learning; it adds to the already unacceptable workloads faced by over-worked teachers.

Worst of all, the sort of homework regimes in place across Scotland are, if anything, likely reinforcing the gap between the rich (who tend to go home to environments conducive to effective learning) and the poor (who all too often do not).

That’s a lot of time, attention and resources focused on something that certainly isn’t doing much, if any, good and, at worst, could be having a negative overall effect.

Bad ideas – like homeopathy, prohibition or voting Tory – are infuriatingly resilient but they should always be challenged.

So just imagine if, from this little pebble, a wave were to spread. What would it take to make this sort of change a success nationwide?

Firstly, parents would have to be offered help and advice on how best to support their kids without the obvious, but flawed, framework traditional homework has provided. Done well, this could make ending homework the catalyst for improving parents’
involvement in their children’s education. That can only be a good thing.

Secondly, we would have to ensure all children have easy, stigma-free access to books. Lots and lots of books. Yes, that would cost money but let’s keep things in perspective – the £12million the government are going to spend on an overtly-political standardised testing regime could put a new library in around three-quarters of Scots primary schools. It’s just a matter of priorities.

The political weaponisation of education makes it difficult to really improve things but this little school in the Highlands has reminded us that real alternatives to stagnant educational thinking are out there.

Sometimes progress depends on simply having the courage to make the right decisions and that’s exactly what Inverlochy Primary School has done.

Image credit: Hades2k (

A year long fight for the truth comes to an end | Daily Record

First published on Sept 17, 2016 by the Daily Record:

IT’S finally over.

After a scarcely believable and unnecessary year-long battle the Scottish Government have finally been forced to release the written advice they received regarding standardised testing.

The public now has access to the unvarnished and mostly unredacted truth, as should always have been the case.

We now know this material, which informed a controversial shift in education policy, consisted of four emails from two individuals and that a number of the written recommendations were rejected.

What’s more, these submissions were, according to the Scottish Information Commissioner, “unsolicited”, suggesting that the Government did not even bother to seek written advice before announcing their plans last September.

The Government have tried to defend themselves by pointing to “many in-depth discussions with parents, teaching unions,academics and education professionals and those views were used to shape the draft National Improvement Framework, including the approach to standardised assessments”.

This seems perfectly reasonable. After all, the Government did hold 11 meetings in the four months before the announcement of their standardised testing plans.

There’s just one problem – from all these hours of talks, over many weeks and months, not one single set of minutes was taken. Not one.

In fact the Government’s record-keeping is apparently so poor that even agendas for nine of the meetings cannot be provided.

So we, the Scottish public, have no way of knowing what was said during these discussions.

It may well be that, recognising how controversial plans for standardised testing were always going to be, the Government made a point of raising the issue at every opportunity.

Then again, it’s also perfectly possible that conversations specifically focused on standardised testing were largely avoided by politicians and Government officials fearful of an overwhelmingly negative reaction.

It may well be that the vast majority of those present whenever standardised testing was raised offered enthusiastic backing for the Government’s proposals.

Or perhaps it’s the case that at meeting after meeting the Government were repeatedly warned that their plans would lead inexorably to serious consequences such as a narrowed educational experience for young people, the publication of damaging school league tables and the entrenchment, rather than reduction, of the so-called attainment gap.

We just don’t know.

In the interests of transparency and democratic accountability several questions must now be answered.

Why did the Government choose not to seek written advice from experts on the matter of standardised testing?

Why have the Government spent a year fighting, in vain, to keep the limited advice they received on the issue a secret from the public?

Why did the Government decide not to take minutes at meetings which former education secretary Angela Constance has admitted directly informed her thinking on the development of the standardised testing policy?

And, most of all, why did the Scottish Government have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, towards an honest, open and transparent position?

At this point it’s worth thinking back to November 15, 2012, when Nicola Sturgeon, then deputy first minister, led a debate about possible amendments to Scottish freedom of information laws.

She told MSPs: “I believe that transparency is not an optional add-on but an integral part of policy-making.”

This noble sentiment was repeated in November 2014 when Sturgeon laid out her first programme for government, with Holyrood assured of her intention to lead an “open and accessible government”.

She certainly talks a good game, but it’s impossible to square the First Minister’s asserted support for openness and transparency with the barriers faced by many of those trying to hold her government and other public bodies to account.

Earlier this month, for example, it emerged the Government had “breached freedom of information law by delaying the release of information” to journalist Rob Edwards.

The report included a damning extract from the Scottish Information Commissioner’s judgment on the case which described ministers as “unreasonable”.

Concerns have also been raised about attempts to conceal the nature and contents of a conversation between the First Minister and Andrew Wilson, a former SNP MSP who has been appointed as chairman of the new Growth Commission.

Given what we now know, it’s hard to see how the Government can pursue standardised testing with any credibility – but it’s clear a bigger issue needs addressed.

If Sturgeon is genuinely committed to open, transparent and accountable policy-making, then a fundamental shift in the official attitude towards the recording and release of information is needed.

The SNP promised us openness and transparency, and the people of Scotland deserve nothing less.

Feel the Bern – inside the Sanders campaign HQ in Brooklyn | Daily Record

First published 19 April, 2016 by the Daily Record –

LOCATED in a small warehouse on Brooklyn’s 8th Street, surrounded by industrial and residential buildings – and near one of the best pie shops in town (Four and Twenty Blackbirds, in case you’re in the area) – Bernie Sanders’s New York HQ is remarkably understated.

Were it not for the blue-and-white banner cable-tied to the rust-stained fence – and this city’s visitor-friendly grid system – it is doubtful I’d ever have found it.

It is from here the New York campaign for Sanders – a 74-year- old Vermont senator whose genuinely social-democratic platform has electrified the race for the Democratic presidential candidacy – is co-ordinated.

I haven’t called or emailed to let them know I’m coming. This is partly because I want to see what things are really like at the heart of this campaign – and partly because I couldn’t find any contact details on the website.

I haven’t called or emailed to let them know I’m coming. This is partly because I want to see what things are really like at the heart of this campaign – and partly because I couldn’t find any contact details on the website.

It is, therefore, with some trepidation that I pull open the heavy metal door and step inside.

I needn’t have worried. Even by US standards the people here – almost all volunteers – are incredibly welcoming.

The space is bigger than I expected. Two separate walls are piled at least six feet high with boxes containing flyers, posters, leaflets and other campaign materials. On the wall facing the door is a huge whiteboard with a list of “Things We Need”, including snacks, post-it notes and toilet paper. It’s all very familiar.

Another wall is covered with posters and stickers. Some are the standard campaign material I’ve seen in different parts of the city but two stand out. The first is a black-and-white photo of a 21-year-old Sanders being arrested during a protest against racial segregation in schools.

The second is a poster emblazoned with a slogan I’ll hear variations of, again and again, over the coming days: “Finally, a reason to vote.”

Next to the door stands a table topped with sign-in sheets and more campaign literature, the most striking of which is illegible to me due to being written in Russian. This spot is staffed by Tina.

“My daughter was really involved in the Occupy Wall Street campaign and we bought a button-maker back then,” she said. “We remembered we had it the other day so we’ve started making Sanders buttons.”

I ask how much they are. “No charge. Just take them.”

Across the room, a training session on data-entry is in full flow. More than a dozen volunteers are huddled around a folding table, laptops open, smiles on their faces, while another volunteer walks them through the process.

In another part of the room, a handful of recruits are being guided through their first “phone-banking” session, which involves cold-calling potential supporters, gathering their details and encouraging them to vote in the coming primary contests.

I may be more than 3000 miles from Scotland but, after the explosion of grassroots energy that characterised the 2014 independence referendum, I feel very much at home here.

I may be more than 3000 miles from Scotland but, after the explosion of grassroots energy that characterised the 2014 independence referendum, I feel very much at home here.

As the morning progresses, the flow of people, the enthusiasm and the noise increases. There is a buzz, a real sense the work being carried out here is important.

The door just keeps on opening, with more volunteers joining the action. They come in pairs, in groups or even alone. They come to make calls, to collect canvassing materials or just to ask what they can do to help.

In a city as diverse as New York it’s not surprising to find that the motivations for getting involved are varied but, as I speak to different people, one key theme emerges – these people want to see a radical, structural shift in the way their country operates.

Almost all of them seem to have voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but this time it feels different. Sanders, they tell me, represents real change in a way the current president never did.

Bernie, not Barack, is the one they’ve been waiting for.

The people here are angry –about inequality, about corruption, about the failures of their healthcare system and about what they see as increasingly limited futures for their children.

But anger is not the emotion that radiates most strongly; instead, there is an overwhelming feeling of hope which is utterly infectious.

Sanders’ supporters are not just raging against the dying light of the American dream, they’re setting out to reignite it.

Sanders’ supporters are not just raging against the dying light of the American dream, they’re setting out to reignite it.

To these people – and so many others across the country – Hillary Clinton is just another establishment candidate tied to Wall Street and the influence of what Sanders calls the “billionaire class”.

His campaign has been fuelled by small donors – Americans giving $25 or $30 a time – not corporations trying to buy power. “Paid for by Bernie (not the billionaires)” is printed on every leaflet and poster I can find. As several volunteers are keen to point out to me, “Bernie can’t be bought.”

It seems fitting that this is all taking place in Brooklyn and not just because Sanders, whose local accent remains unmistakable, grew up a few miles away in the Flatbush area of the borough.

Even when you can’t see them, the skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline – one of which bears the name of Republican hopeful Donald Trump – loom over everything. Billion-dollar empires are just a subway ride away but, for the people who call this brilliant part of the city home, they might as well be in another world.

One of Sanders’s key campaign messages is that, “There is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little.” Even here, in this relatively up-and-coming area of Brooklyn, it’s not difficult to understand why that narrative has energised people.

One of Sanders’s key campaign messages is that, “There is no justice when so few have so much and so many have so little.”

Even here, in this relatively up-and-coming area of Brooklyn, it’s not difficult to understand why that narrative has energised people. Sanders is quite obviously correct and New York, perhaps more than any other city in the entire country, proves it.

But for all the enthusiasm and dedication of the people there, the real strength of this campaign isn’t found in the official HQ. In a place where even the street art is political, the power of “movement politics” should surprise no one. Like all worthwhile movements – the indyref campaign included – the most important work is being done on the streets.

That effort is epitomised by what I see a few days later on the ground floor of what looks, at first glance, to be a semi-abandoned block of flats on Seneca Avenue.

This is where I meet Amber, who has been running regular “phone-bank parties” from her studio for several weeks, inviting complete strangers into her home to pool resources and enthusiasm.

Once again, she doesn’t know I’m coming and, once again, I receive a remarkably warm welcome.

I have arrived early but, even so, I’m not the only one here. Steven – a regular at these events – is already sitting with his laptop open, ready to get started.

He is enthusiastic and well informed, able to readily provide detailed information on
legislative changes and key policy decisions which, he says, have brought America to where it is. He is also deeply invested in this movement and desperate for it to succeed.

Steven said: “This is the first time I’ve been involved in a political campaign.

“People have been waiting to hear this message for a long time. Issues around wealth and inequality are so important and now we have someone willing to talk about them.”

“People have been waiting to hear this message for a long time. Issues around wealth and inequality are so important and now we have someone willing to talk about them.”

Does he really think that Sanders can beat Clinton, either here or nationally?

“A lot will depend on New York and Pennsylvania. If Sanders wins in New York then the Clinton campaign is in real trouble. Right now we’re probably around 11 points behind, but we can close that gap in 11 days. It’s definitely possible and we’ve got all the momentum.”

Amber is quieter and, she says, less knowledgeable than Steven, but her confidence and
determination are impressive.

I ask if, like Steven, this is her first campaign and get a surprising answer – she previously did some work supporting Ron Paul, an unsuccessful libertarian candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

“I liked some of his policies,” she said, matter-of-factly.

It’s obvious that she has been drawn to Sanders not by a sense of identity, but by his support for certain key policies and the belief that he is the best candidate to deliver the sort of change she feels is desperately needed.

Amber approves of breaking up the big banks who caused the financial crash in 2008 but, for her, the issues are even clearer. She added: “Universal healthcare mainly and free college education – that would be great.”

“Tactically, it probably makes sense to tell people this is a once-in-a-lifetime shot but I don’t think it is. I don’t think he’ll be the last revolutionary candidate.”

She goes on to explain that the US seems to lag a long way behind other countries in these areas, before opening up about why the issue of healthcare matters so much to her.

Amber said: “I had a roommate a few years ago, and one day he didn’t get out of bed. I assumed he was hungover but later on went in to check on him. He’d got hurt on the way home and hit his head and I thought he might have a concussion.

“And you know what? I was scared to take him to the hospital. I knew he didn’t have insurance and was worried he wouldn’t be able to afford it. He could have died.”

It’s a situation familiar to millions of uninsured Americans, and one in which Amber has also found herself.

She said: “I went without healthcare for six months or so. During that time I got pretty sick, but I couldn’t afford to go to the doctor. I just had to live with the illness and hope I would be ok.”

I tell them about the posters in the HQ and that a sense of hope is what’s struck me most during my brief experience of US politics. I ask whether they think it just might be enough to drive Sanders on to the victory they crave.

“Hope is invaluable and this campaign provides it,” Steven replied. “It’s all about giving power to those who have felt powerless for so long.

“We may not get another chance like this. It isn’t like other elections – it’s the most important in a generation, maybe more.”

Amber agrees but adds a caveat: “Tactically, it probably makes sense to tell people this is a once-in-a-lifetime shot but I don’t think it is.

“I don’t think he’ll be the last revolutionary candidate. He’s got such a movement going people will follow in his footsteps.”

She pauses for a moment, then adds: “I’m hopeful.”

FOI Watchdog Censors Herself | Daily Record

First published on 29 March, 2016 by the Daily Record: 

IN JUST 37 days Scotland goes to the polls to choose its new government.

Of course, the whole electoral process depends on one, utterly vital commodity – information.

We need to know who is standing and what they stand for to select our next batch of representatives but we also need to be able to hold the existing government to account.

If we don’t know how our government conduct themselves, then no amount of campaign slogans or glossy manifesto pledges will fill the democratic void we’re left with.

Fortunately, we have laws which exist to facilitate this process – Freedom of Information (FOI).

FOI allows us to ask official bodies – including the Government – to release information we consider to be in the public interest.

Often such organisations attempt to block the publication of material and, if an initial appeal fails, it falls to the Scottish information commissioner (SIC) to decide if the information should published.

In recent years, FOI disclosures have shone a light on the £7million of bonuses paid by public sector bodies in Scotland, the extent of corporate interest in fracking, serious concerns over safety at the Faslane nuclear base, and the fact the Fife police division being investigated over the death of Sheku Bayoh faced assault allegations almost every fortnight.

SIC interventions have also ensured that a number of extremely serious stories – such as government “feedback” leading to changes in a Scottish Police Authority report on officers carrying firearms – could not remain hidden from the people.

The SIC is, then, a hugely important feature of Scottish public life, charged with protecting the interests of the people and ensuring that government cannot prevent us from accessing information to which we are entitled.

But what if the opposite happened? What if the SIC hindered rather than helped accountability, openness and, ultimately, democracy?

In an extraordinary turn of events, that seems to be precisely what has happened.

In November, the website CommonSpace revealed that the SNP’s plan to impose standardised testing on schools was based on just four emails from two individuals.

This information was given to me after an FOI request to the Scottish Government.
Unfortunately, the emails were censored as the Scottish Government attempted to keep the contents secret.

The case was therefore taken to the SIC, who accepted the legitimacy of my appeal and a final decision was expected within weeks.

But then everything changed.

Last Tuesday morning, I received an email informing me that the SIC had “decided not to issue any decisions that might put forward a critical view of the ministers” prior to the Holyrood election.

The email continued: “In discussion with the head of enforcement, it has been decided to delay the issue of the decision on your case until after May 5, 2016.”

Put simply, the information I have requested may be uncomfortable for the Scottish Government so, even if the SIC agrees that it should be released, she intends to withhold it until after the votes are counted.

It doesn’t matter which political party you support – this is serious.

The people of Scotland need more information during an election campaign, not less, and it is clearly unacceptable for the SIC to initiate a policy that could lead to important information being withheld until it’s too late for voters to consider it.

FOI is vital to the functioning of our democracy, as is the absolute impartiality of the SIC.

In this case, however, it at least appears that the SIC has made a political decision and, in doing so, potentially protected the Scottish Government from criticism during an election period.

This is made all the more serious by the knowledge that purdah rules, which impose impartiality on civil servants during an election, do not apply to the SIC and have never before been invoked to delay the publication of material, critical or otherwise.

We must, therefore, ask: why now? What is it about this request that provoked such an unusual reaction?

We must also guard against any attempts to normalise this sort of situation or dismiss it as “typical politics”.

FOI is supposed to protect citizens from secretive governments and unaccountable public bodies, not shield politicians from difficult questions in the weeks before an election.

It is a right we must defend, even if that means scrutinising the very people who should be on our side.

When party-politics costs lives

First published 10 Feb, 2016 by CommonSpace; republished 12 Feb, 2016 by the Daily Record

OK. Cards on the table.

My wife, Ruth, has Cystic Fibrosis (CF), a genetic disease which primarily affects the lungs and digestive system . More than 10,000 people in the UK suffer from the condition which, at present, claims around two lives per week. There is no cure and no vaccine.

There was a time not so long ago when it was unheard of for sufferers to reach their 20s; that half of those affected now survive beyond the age of 41 is seen as incredible progress, a fact which highlights just how devastating this disease really is.

Though a range of treatments to mitigate the symptoms of CF exist, there is a very real chance that, like so many others like her, my wife’s life will one day depend upon a successful lung transplant.

I cannot, therefore, view the issue of organ donation dispassionately. I make no apology for this but, conscious of my own limitations, I have thus far chosen not to write about this particular topic. To be completely honest it is something which I have found simply too difficult to confront.

And then this happened:


The accusation – from a sitting MSP no less – is quite extraordinary: that some on the government benches put petty, party-political concerns before the lives of actual, living (for now) human beings.

Having seemingly attempted to blame Labour’s tactics for the failure of Anne McTaggart’s Transplantation Bill , the SNP MSP for Glasgow Shettleston has in fact delivered an extraordinary indictment of the conduct and character of some of his colleagues.

It’s quite clear that some in the SNP are simply unwilling to give Labour an inch, regardless of the context; Mason’s statement strongly suggests that this Bill was voted down at the first stage precisely because allowing it to progress would have looked too much like a Labour victory.

Rather than have the current Bill amended at stage two (a move supported by the SNP’s Kenny Gibson, for example), the government will now bring forward their own version in 2017, have their members wave it through and then, inevitably, crow incessantly about their achievement.

And in the meantime, people will die.

This is what callous, calculating, business-as-usual politics looks like. Plus ca fucking change.

Back in 2011, a motion from SNP MSP Humza Yousaf endorsing an opt-out system for organ donation pointed out that “three people die needlessly each day due to the lack of donors”; though that number has since declined, it remains the case that people are dying as they wait for a transplant which might never come.

The Organ Donation Scotland website states that “around 560 people with life-threatening illnesses are on the transplant waiting list”. That’s 560 mothers and father, sons and daughters, whose continued survival depends upon the availability of organs for transplant, and who are now forced to endure an agonising extension of their time on what Frank Deasy described as an “invisible death row” .

If John Mason is correct – and there seems little reason to legitimately assume otherwise – a Bill intended to help save some of these lives has failed because a number of SNP MSPs don’t like Labour’s Jackie Baillie, whose prominent position “inevitably … lost votes of waverers”.

And yes, I know that there were MSPs in the chamber with other, legitimate concerns (though, for the record, that’s precisely what the parliamentary process is designed to deal with).

Yes, I’ve read the various desperate attempts to paint this as the fault of the Labour party which, unlike the SNP, imposed the party whip for the vote. Yes, I fully understand the compulsion of the party faithful to find a way – any way – to defend the indefensible as they try to justify what happened last night.

But you know what? None of that changes the very obvious fact that an SNP MSP has publicly stated that this Bill lost at least some support for party-political reasons.

Given that the Bill was defeated by just three votes, it has thus been killed specifically by the behaviour highlighted by John Mason; most damning of all, it won’t be long before we are forced to apply that same statement to a human being unable to wait any longer.

That being the case, you’ll forgive me if I find this particular development to be worthy of comment.

You’ll also forgive me if I find the alleged behaviour of the (thus far anonymous) MSPs in question utterly abhorrent, if I ask how the hell they managed to sleep last night, or if I suggest that our parliament would be a far, far better place without them.

And to anyone even tempted to adopt any variation of the ‘Labour-bad SNP-good’ line, thus dismissing the suffering of men, women and children all over the country, you’ll forgive me if I afford your position the respect it deserves: none.

Australia’s dark history and why it matters today

First published Jan 26, 2016 by Commonspace –

JUST 12 miles off the coast from Perth, the largest city on Australia’s western coast, lies beautiful Rottnest Island. With up to half a million visitors a year it is one of the country’s most popular holiday resorts; a quick search on Google reveals images of a beautiful island paradise, all white sands and turquoise seas nestling under perfect azure skies.

It is, without doubt, idyllic, but behind the glowing smiles and glossy photographs of the tourist brochures lies a dark past: for nearly 100 years Rottnest was an Aboriginal prison, Australia’s equivalent of Robin Island. Between 1838 and 1931 around 3,700 indigenous men and boys (some as young as seven) were incarcerated on Rottnest – 10 per cent of them died there, the victims of disease, malnutrition and torture meted out by a brutal, racist regime.

Some of the buildings within which these people were held still stand, but now they serve as luxury accommodation for tourists, with Australia’s largest mass grave just a few metres away. In so many ways, Rottnest is a crushingly effective symbol for Australia – the ‘lucky country’ whose dark history hides in plain sight.

Back in 2002 I was lucky enough to spend a month in Australia as part of a ‘world challenge expedition’ organised by my high school. Over four weeks we travelled from Adelaide to Darwin (via the mesmerising ‘red centre’ of this continent-sized country) and then on to Sydney.

We were even able to spend several days in the Mutitjulu Aboriginal community at Uluru, an experience which remains one of the greatest privileges of my life.

It was, in a word, extraordinary, but even among all the teenage excitement there was something else – a pervasive, persistent sadness which at 15 years old I did not understand, and at 29 am unable, and unwilling, to shake.

It took years to even begin to properly process the way I felt about Mutitjulu. For a long time I believed that I was responding to the obvious injustice of the historical loss and ongoing suffering of a community, and a people, whose warmth, generosity and dignity touched us all.

But the truth is worse. The truth is that my feelings at that time were, more than anything else, a pained and utterly uncomprehending response to something which I am only now, as an adult, able to name: dehumanisation. I may not have understood what I was seeing, but I knew that I hated it.

Nearly 14 years have passed since those days, yet that feeling has never really left me. It simmers away under the surface and boils over, magnified by age and the burden of understanding, whenever I read articles , watch documentaries or see speeches about the treatment of the first Australians.

And on this day each year, a day which, depending on your background and perspective, is known either as Australia Day, Invasion Day or Survival Day, it all comes flooding back.

All of this might seem far removed from the politics of this smaller, colder island, but the truth is that the dehumanisation behind Australia’s shameful treatment of its indigenous population – both historically and in the present day – is really a reflection of the British imperialist world view, the echoes of which still reverberate into the 21st century.

The reduction of those who are ‘not like us’ to beings of lesser value continues to this day, and though the means by which this is achieved are necessarily more subtle, the motivations are largely the same.

The brutal reality, whether we wish to face it or not, is that the ghosts of the Terra Nullius philosophy – which legitimised the theft of a quarter of the world because those living there were at best uncivilised and at worst sub-human – have never been exorcised, and we are all haunted by them.

In Australia this is manifested not just in the treatment of the Aboriginal people (who still die far younger than non-indigenous Australians and whose children are more likely to go to prison than to finish high school), but also in the plight of asylum seekers and refugees herded into internment camps on the islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Here, 9,000 miles away from Australia’s beautiful yet blood-soaked lands, that same inhuman ideology – forged in the fires of imperial expansion, exploitation and extermination – persists in our response to a refugee crisis which bears all the hallmarks of being the great challenge of our age. We may not have a ‘Great War’ to define us, but we are not short of suffering.

Faced with more than 50 million displaced people worldwide – many of them fleeing conflicts in which we are directly complicit – the UK Government (led by a man who saw nothing wrong with describing desperate human beings as a “swarm”) grudgingly agreed to accept 20,000 people over a five year period.

Now, when it is rumoured that Britain might move to help 3,000 of the unaccompanied child refugees in Europe (26,000 of whom arrived last year alone) the international development secretary is only willing to say that they will consider whether Britain, one of the richest nations on earth, “can do more”.

Nobody wants to see the bodies of drowned children washing up on European beaches, but so long as they are not ‘our’ children they are dehumanised, their suffering delegitimised. Just like Australia’s indigenous people they are condemned – first, foremost and forever – by their ‘otherness’.

Terra Nullius is the ideological thread which runs through so much of our interaction with the world. We – the civilised people – occupy the highest, most privileged position in a grotesque human hierarchy which has justified, and continues to justify, acts and attitudes of such inhumanity that they are as close to real evil as you are ever likely to experience.

So long as we refuse to face up to this we will be unable to learn from history, and we know what happens then: man’s continued inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.

Faith, Education & the Curse of ‘Aye Been’

First published 8 Dec, 2015 by Humanitie –

Spend five minutes listening to the grasping, ill-informed assertions of Scotland’s politicians and you could be forgiven for thinking that our whole education system is on the verge of collapse, the victim of ill-conceived and dangerously radical ideas.

The reality is, unsurprisingly, quite different; in truth, Scottish education is an area where genuine radicalism has been sadly lacking for far too long.

Despite our proud and progressive educational history, too many of our assumptions are now bound up in a fundamental stubbornness, an insidious conservatism which resists change for all the wrong reasons and can be summed up in just two words: ‘Aye Been’.

This attitude is the enemy of progress, encouraging us to cling to what we know even when it falls demonstrably short of our expectations and potential. It is a self-imposed ideological straightjacket masquerading as a safety net and ensuring that we continue to fail the next generation.

Despite our proud and progressive educational history, too many of our assumptions are now bound up in a fundamental stubbornness, an insidious conservatism which resists change for all the wrong reasons and can be summed up in just two words: ‘Aye Been’.

You can see this problem all over the education system, from the reluctance to properly embrace the sort of technology which has already changed the world to the ongoing obsession with ring-fenced individual subjects. Right now, government plans to introduce (or, more accurately, reintroduce) national standardised tests are casting a harsh light on our apparent inability to move beyond old, failed approaches to assessment. Plus ça change.

Another area where this mentality stifles vital debate is the question of religious faith in our schools. Viewed entirely objectively, the status quo is simply indefensible: were we building a public schooling system from scratch in the 21st Century, would anyone seriously be arguing that we should segregate four year old children based on their parents’ religion; that local authority education committees might be forced to appoint three unelected religious representatives; that children should have to be opted out of, rather than in to, religious observance; or that around a fifth of publically-maintained schools be permitted to operate openly discriminatory employment practices?

Even if such arguments were made, can we imagine a modern, democratic state with an increasingly irreligious population acquiescing to these demands if they did not have the weight of historical expectation behind them? Of course not, yet a collective blind-eye is repeatedly turned to blatant injustices because confronting them is seen as controversial, risky, difficult and – as far as politicians, policy-makers and various vested-interests are concerned – unnecessary.

It’s ‘aye been’ that way – just accept it.

A collective blind-eye is repeatedly turned to blatant injustices because confronting them is seen as controversial, risky, difficult and – as far as politicians, policy-makers and various vested-interests are concerned – unnecessary.

But sometimes change, however small, becomes possible; sometimes events have consequences which we don’t initially foresee; sometimes cracks appear in the hulking edifice of fearful stasis and through them creeps just a little light. This could – and certainly should – become one of those times.

Last year, Scotland’s 16 and 17 year olds took part in the largest democratic event in the history of this country as they were enfranchised for the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Across the length and breadth of our nation, young people listened, researched, debated and finally decided whether or not they thought that Scotland should be an independent country. Despite the well-worn assertions of those opposed to the move – who would have you believe that young people are a disengaged, uninformed underclass whose opinions are of no interest or value – Scotland’s youth did all of us proud by engaging with and participating in a decision which would affect their entire future.

As a consequence, 16-and-17-year-olds will now have the right to vote in all future Scottish elections. This long overdue shift is a victory in its own right, but it also opens up new and important questions about the rights and responsibilities of young people.

One of the specific areas where we should now be challenging the status quo is the issue of religious observance in schools. At present, only a parent can legally withdraw a pupil from acts of religious observance or instruction (and most parents are not fully aware of their right to do so) but this arrangement is no longer tenable – if young people are to be trusted to make decisions about the future of our whole country then surely they should have the right to decide whether or not they wish to participate in activities which may not reflect their own beliefs.

If young people are to be trusted to make decisions about the future of our whole country then surely they should have the right to decide whether or not they wish to participate in activities which may not reflect their own beliefs.

In the case of 16-18 year olds, the right to withdraw should be transferred to the students themselves, and must apply regardless of the type of school in which they are studying. If we really want young people to become Successful Learners, Confident Individuals, Responsible Citizens and Effective Contributors then they must be trusted to form their own opinions and make their own decisions.

Religious groups would likely line up with various voices from the education establishment to tell us that it can’t be done, that chaos would ensue if and when large numbers of students exercised their rights to have their beliefs respected; in doing so they would – ironically – prove that reform is urgently needed.

Such a change would be resisted precisely because it would represent a small but vital blow against the ingrained – even deliberate – complacency which shackles Scottish education. It could also prove to be a first tentative step towards challenging the normalisation of religious privilege throughout the education system by making one thing absolutely clear: ‘Aye Been’ is no longer good enough.

Arran’s communities threatened by private land ownership

First published Aug 26, 2015 by Commonspace –

WITH rolling farmland, brooding ridges and peaks, two castles, gorgeous white-sand beaches, spectacular bronze age stone circles, an award-winning spa, numerous excellent restaurants and much, much more, the Isle of Arran really is ‘Scotland in miniature’.

For many Scots, especially those who remember the days when family holidays involved a trip to Saltcoats rather than Salou, the island retains a special place in their heart; even for a good deal of those who have never been there, the sight of that distinctive granite skyline rising out of the Firth of Clyde has enhanced many a journey around Ayrshire’s sadly-declining coastal towns.

From the 19th century until its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Scots, mostly from the nation’s industrial heartland, made the journey to Brodick – the island’s ‘capital’ – to spend their holiday on the beach beneath the towering peak of Goatfell.

For decades, Brodick Beach – complete with beach huts, boats for hire and countless happy families – was one of the crown jewels of Arran’s tourist appeal; today it has all but disappeared, it’s loss the consequence of rapid erosion precipitated by the practice of extracting sand for export.

Despite the work of the Save Brodick Beach campaign little progress has been made in halting the decline and now the remains of the beach, a coastal footpath and the village’s extremely popular golf course are at risk.

A similar, though arguably even more serious, problem exists for the residents of Lamlash – the largest village on the island and its administrative centre – who now face the prospect of watching their village green fall into the sea.

Like Brodick’s beach, Lamlash green is a central and vital feature of the life there, offering space for visitors to make their way along the shoreline; connecting the popular Corden holiday park to the village’s largest pub via a number of hotels, restaurants and shops; and, especially during sunrises of spring and early autumn, offering one of the finest views available in the whole country as a carnival of colour unfolds around Holy Isle out in the bay.

But the green is much more than a tourist draw for the village: in a purely practical sense it acts as a crucial defence against flooding of the buildings (both residential and commercial) closest to the water and holds back the sea from the single road which runs through the village and around the coast of the island as a whole (closure of any one section of which can result in 30-mile, hour-long detours for islanders). The local sewage pipe is also buried two metres beneath the green.

As the out-pouring of anger from both residents and regular visitors shows, however, the importance of Lamlash green cannot be measured in terms of raw practicalities – it is also an important aspect of the quality of life for the village’s residents.

Throughout the year it hosts public events such as Christmas celebrations, Bonfire Night and the local gala while also providing a focal point for wider village life – it is where people walk their dogs, meet their friends, spend time with their children and generally enjoy living in this beautiful part of the world.

Arran’s economy may now depend on tourism, but the value of these public spaces goes far beyond the seasonal financial boost generated by the island’s many, many visitors.

For the 5,000 people who live there all year round – a third of whom reside in Brodick and Lamlash – the loss of village beaches and greens would be devastating. It would also do further damage to attempts to draw new residents to an island with a declining and aging population.

While critical gazes often fall on local authorities under such circumstances it is important to note that the council does not actually own the land in question; as such, its ability to intervene (and willingness to spend significant amounts of public money) is limited.

Both Brodick Bay and Lamlash green can be saved but, as things stand, residents of these villages are at the mercy Arran Estates (the company controlled by landowners the Ffordes), North Ayrshire Council and a number of public bodies such as Marine Scotland and SEPA.

At present, the council leases more than 50,000 square metres of land from Arran Estates at an annual cost of PS33,812. The bulk of this – PS32,595 – buys access to the semi-industrial area to the south of Brodick pier where the waste transfer station, landfill site and roads depot are located; just PS191 (0.6 per cent of the total cost) is spent annually to lease ‘public’ areas in Brodick and Lamlash (with the foreshore in Whiting Bay costing an additional PS26 per year) from Arran Estates.

The Local Authority has received significant criticism for its handling of these issues, much of it justified (waiting for the erosion of Lamlash green to threaten the road in 10-30 years is, for example, appallingly short-sighted).

That said, its reluctance to spend six-figure sums of limited public money rescuing land which is privately owned is understandable, especially when the costs involved would, according to a recent report, dwarf even a 500-year lease fee for these same spaces.

A number of options have already been considered by locals but, for now at least, it seems that the best solution would be for the ownership of both Brodick Beach and Lamlash green to pass from the Fforde family to North Ayrshire Council.

From the point of view of the landowners, offering to hand over these areas to the council in exchange for a promise to restore, protect and maintain them for public use would allow the Fforde’s to emerge as the heroes of the piece at a cost of less than PS200 per year.

Of course, local authority control of public space is no guarantee of progress for a community – a fact highlighted by the scandal around Argyll & Bute Council’s handling of the Castle Toward affair earlier this year – but with public ownership would come, if nothing else, democratic accountability and the financial clout to protect these vital local resources (and with them the villages and their people).

As the Our Land campaign has highlighted, communities across Scotland face challenges rooted in our appalling patterns of land ownership and management, whether that be the threat to community spaces in isolated island villages, the proliferation of derelict land in urban centres, the chronic dearth of affordable housing across Scotland, long-term mismanagement of the marine environment, prevention of local renewable energy projects or the scandal of titles to three quarters of a million acres of Scottish land being held in tax havens.

Despite initial praise for the Scottish Government’s forthcoming Land Reform Billthere are concerns that much of what was originally proposed has been either watered down or removed entirely, leaving little prospect of genuinely radical reform of the way in which Scotland’s land – the nation’s greatest resource aside from its people – is owned and managed.

Meanwhile, the people of Brodick and Lamlash look on as the future of their villages is threatened. In cases such as this the private control of what any reasonable person would regard as public land is not just demonstrably unsustainable, it is also morally indefensible and, crucially, is clearly not in the interests of the people who should matter most: the local community.

For the landowners the areas in question have little, if any, real financial or commercial value (and will have even less once they disappear under the waves); for the communities built around them, however, this land – their land – is priceless.

Picture courtesy of Joanna Paterson