A lesson for inept politicians from parents fighting to control their school

It was an act of unforgivable cruelty.

On Thursday, education secretary John Swinney stood up at Holyrood and dashed the hopes of hundreds of parents and children when he announced the Scottish Government would not support the campaign to save St Joseph’s. You might not have heard of this primary school in Milngavie, East Dunbartonshire but it is part of the fabric of that community and has been living under sentence of death for three years.

St Joseph’s is a good school with a fine reputation and so the local council decided to ‘amalgamate’ it with another primary in Bearsden. (How snivelling, how cowardly is that verb ‘amalgamate’. It’s a memo word — an officials’ euphemism because ‘close down a well-liked school and disrupt the education of its pupils’ is too unpalatable when committed to black and white.)

Parents were opposed. The Catholic Church was opposed. A consultation found 87% of the community opposed. Once again the bureaucracy, that anonymous army generously salaried to determine our best interests for us, decided that it knew best. In shuttering St Joseph’s, East Dunbartonshire Council was closing the only Catholic primary school in Milngavie.

The parents could have opted for an easy life and swallowed their medicine but their children’s education was at stake and they resolved to fight back. They put pressure on the Scottish Government and forced ministers to ‘call in’ the council’s decision — only for St Andrew’s House to take the side of the local authority.

But these tenacious mums and dads refused to back down and, with the 2015 General Election in the offing, shamed Nicola Sturgeon into meeting them and hearing their case. They didn’t simply complain and throw their hands up at the injustice of it all. They had a plan. If the council wasn’t willing to run their children’s school, they would. They brought together community leaders, businesspeople, and faith representatives and devised a proposal for St Joseph’s to ‘opt out’ of local authority control.

If successful, it would mark the first appearance of a free school in Scotland but they were careful to avoid anything that sounded too daring — the SNP wants to tear up 300 years of history and set up a separate state but don’t suggest anything as outrageous as letting parents and communities run their local schools.

After holding out hope for two years that they might allow St Joseph’s doors to remain open under this innovative model, the Scottish Government snatched it all away, with Mr Swinney spouting some cold, heartless jargon about ‘support frameworks’. How padlocking a popular school and herding the children to the next town constituted ‘support’ was not explained.

John Swinney is one of the more thoughtful ministers at Holyrood and he is better than this cowardly capitulation to Moray Place. The EIS and the rest of the educational establishment are a curious breed of radical, fighting to conserve a failing status quo while loudly asserting their stance as ‘progressive’.

The parents of St Joseph are disheartened but not defeated. Parent council chair Helen Williams says: ‘We are very disappointed that the Scottish Government is not supporting our proposals to keep St Joseph’s in Milngavie. After sitting on our proposals for more than two years, it would have been nice to get a phone call from John Swinney himself instead of an anonymous civil servant.

The education secretary ought to know that he won’t improve education by allowing good schools to close. All we were asking for was a pilot to prove that a community-led school could work successfully. This is a lost opportunity for everyone and time is running out.’

They are not giving up and vow to fight on. They deserve the backing and goodwill of every parent in the land. They should not find themselves in this position, mendicants begging remote officials for the precious right to give their children the best start in life.

Politicians have been letting us down a lot of late. Theresa May is nominally Prime Minister and yet she leaves our 91-year-old Queen to comfort survivors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy while she hides behind police lines. Mrs May is in the final days of a short, brutal premiership but the least she could do is bow out with dignity; her failure to rise to the moment suggests she was always the wrong person for the job.

The Parliamentary Labour Party, which fought for two years to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader, has rallied round him at the first, unexpected sniff of electoral advantage. The Scottish Government has wasted the last five years agitating for independence while school standards and healthcare provision slide and the economy slumps. The founding mission of the SNP and the political ambitions of Nicola Sturgeon trump the most basic duty, the only thing we really ask of politicians — good governance.

When government governs well, it can bring us together and give us the opportunity to make the most of our lives. North and south of the border — and indeed around the world — government has lost its way, held back by ideological zealotry and ministerial mediocrity. Until they can get their house in order, politicians should step out of the way and let us run our own lives. That starts with giving parents like those of St Joseph’s the choice to do what’s right by their children but it shouldn’t stop there.

Libertarian fantasies are a dead end; there is such a thing as society and we have mutual responsibilities and shared aspirations that government can help us achieve. We need politicians equal to that task but they are few and far between today. As long as we’re stuck with the current crop, the best thing they could do is leave us alone to get on with it — at least that way they won’t keep letting us down.

*****

Reasons to be cheerful are scant at the moment but there was good news at the weekend. JK Rowling was made a Companion of Honour, an exclusive award only Her Majesty and 65 others may hold at any one time.

The Scottish author is best known for the Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike books but is also a tireless philanthropist, donating so much to charity that she lost her billionaire status in 2012.

She is also a role model for young women.

This world is rough on girls. They excel academically but can never live up to impossible body images. Bullies torment them online, and exploiters lurk there too. Fanatics blow up their concerts. They are growing into a society where two women a week are killed by a partner.

But that’s not the whole story. Because there are women like JK Rowling — brilliant, fierce women — determined to write a happier ending for girls everywhere.

*****

On Friday, Israeli police sergeant Hadas Malka was stabbed to death while coming to the aid of colleagues under fire. How did the BBC report the attack? ‘Three Palestinians killed after deadly stabbing in Jerusalem’. It’s like reporting 9/11 as: ’19 Middle Eastern men killed after plane crash in New York’. The BBC’s pathological hatred of Israel is dark indeed.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk

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