Less than glorious food in Scotland’s schools

We can all be very proud of Martha Payne and her parents.  But, oh the shame.

Scotland’s school dinners (or at least the offering from Argyll and Bute) are the talk of the steamie all around Europe.  The story of Martha’s blog, Never Seconds, showing photos of her daily school dinner has been picked up by news outlets in Spain, Germany and Denmark.  Folk have left comments!  One Spanish child even shared a photo of one of her dinners for comparison.

All of which is great and demonstrates that the internet is a great way of linking communities of interest globally.  Children talking to each other across the ether comparing notes about their school dinners is wonderful. But did the catalyst really have to be how awful ours are?

A Call Kaye phone-in on Radio Scotland on the subject had people piling in with their own, often polarised views of the quality and substance of school dinners in their own area.

Allow me to add my tuppence worth.  The dinners the Big Chicklet got in Dumfries and Galloway many years ago were fantastic.  Some of the best cooks in the region were in charge of producing these meals – many of them had their own businesses on the side catering for weddings and corporate events.  They were fab and regularly won dinner lady of the year competitions.

When he moved to Edinburgh, he stopped.  The portions were too small, the quality was poor.  He went to a PFI secondary school.  There was no proper dining room in this brand new school, the food always ran out, it was expensive, it was largely fast food, there were never enough seats, he and his pals used to go elsewhere.

Since the chicklet began school, there have clearly been attempts to improve things in Edinburgh but this week’s menu choices include a fried food option every single day (as well as fruit and salad bowls)  and there’s not a lot of cooking from scratch going on.  And this in a school with its own kitchen – a rarity these days.

It says something about a nation when the state of our school dinners has become a hot topic.  The issue came up at a recent Nordic Horizons event which explored if there are lessons in Finnish education for Scotland.  Pasi Sahlberg explained that the Finns invested time and effort on school dinners.

Children come together and eat meals, freshly cooked and prepared which are put down in front of them with minimal choices- part of the learning experience is new tastes and appreciating the food that has been cooked for them – and the concept of eating socially is an integral part of the day, valued and respected.  It lasts an hour.  Yes, they have their fast food moments but by and large, the attitude is that healthy eating is vital for healthy bairns’ bodies and minds and lunch is a key part of the school day.

In Scotland, we have devalued the currency of the dinner hour so that it is barely 30 – 40 minutes in some areas.  It is time to be squeezed out to make way for the curriculum.  In order to make sure our children have time to eat, toilet and play in their alloted free time, many schools operate rotas with older classes taking turns to be top of the queue.

Because the time is so constrained, every week I have to impress upon the wee chicklet that he really has to go to the toilet during lunchtime.  All too often, boys in particular will cut out this vital step to make more time for play.  And yes, I’m sure I’d still be having to do this, even if they had two hours to eat, pee and play, it says something about us that the timescales needed by little children in particular, to factor in managing all three are largely ignored.

Worse, in the chicklet’s school, children in primary four and above who take packed lunches have to eat them outside.  In all weathers. Some schools don’t have a dining hall at all:  in fact, in fit to bursting East Craigs primary school, the lack of a dining hall became something of a local campaign issue in the council elections.

It’s not just Edinburgh:  plenty other local authorities treat food for children largely as a fuelling exercise.  We are forgetting the important social aspects that eating together should be teaching our bairns.

We can measure the value we place on school dinners by also examining the cost.  The last figures publicly available are for 2010-11.  In that year, we in Scotland spent £213 per school pupil per year providing them each with a school meal (670,511 pupils in total).   There are approximately 180 days in the school year, so I make that as a spend per child per school meal of £1.18.

The statisticians warn against comparing local authorities as they all include and exclude certain information from their calculations, so I won’t.  But the average cost is divined from local authorities which spend much more, and those spending far less.  And this is not just the spend on food – in most areas, staff costs will have been included.  The amount actually spent on food is probably a fraction of this (not that school dinner people are paid anything like decent salaries).

Joining the dots – as Susan Deacon urged us to do with early years – is something we should be doing in other policy areas too.  We have had to set ourselves targets to cut obesity rates among children;  we are warned daily about the implications in the medium and long term from the forecast obesity epidemic;  indeed, just yesterday I heard someone on the radio talk about how certain cancers – breast, prostrate and others – were linked to obesity.

And we are now spending a fortune on nurses and other public health professionals to try and fix the problem by working with children and adults to lose weight and change their habits after they become obese and offering expensive clinical and surgical treatments for weight-related illnesses and conditions in other areas of our health service.

Yet, we spend little on school meals, the commitment to healthy eating in schools is scarcely borne out by the food provided in many areas, we give children hardly any time in which to eat them, and we treat lunchtime as an inconvenient necessity in a busy school day.

It’s not hard to make the connection.    Martha Payne can.  We can.   So how come local authorities can’t?


Be careful what you coalesce for

If it had been me – and it’s probably a good job it wasn’t and isn’t – I’d have taken a few soundings locally.

I’d have asked the people who had just voted for me what they wanted.  I’d have consulted community leaders and influencers for their opinion.  And importantly – given that I was probably elected by only about 10% of the people living in my ward – I’d have asked a representative smattering of people who didn’t vote for me and didn’t vote at all.

And I’d have factored those views into the whirl of instruction from the party central.  For Labour and the SNP, that appears to have amounted to a Get Power strategy.   And just over a week after the elections, the colour of local government in Scotland is becoming clear.  I hesitate to suggest that the rainbows breaking out all over the country will last for the next five years, because I doubt many of them will.  Scotland’s need in the medium and long term has lost out to short term advantage, fuelled purely by party political considerations and attendant tribal enmities.

The usual mould for coalitions is a big party and a wee one or several ones, and that is what we have largely got.  A sprinkling of majorities aside and that seemingly noble experiment in Edinburgh, it’s either SNP or Labour leading, with Tories, Lib Dems and independents trying out their committee chairs for size.  It’s all rather worked out better for Labour who appear to have been more willing to buy off/in the wee-er groups.

But these are not usual times. In two elections in quick succession, one national, the other local, the section of the populace that voted has largely rejected the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.  Even the number of Independents has diminished.  They have voted for more SNP councillors and significantly in small party terms, for more Greens.  Yet, both have been frozen out.

The SNP is harrumphing that it’s all a Unionist plot.  On the surface, it does rather look like this but it’s probably more complicated than that.  Negotiations involve giving way on key policies and more practically, key convenorships.  I’m not sure the psychology of all this sits well with the mindset of many in the SNP.  There’s also the issue of naivete, in its truest sense.

A lot of the SNP councillors elected are new and unfamiliar with the wiles and guiles of local government.  Some groups might have struggled with the negotiations and their concept and purpose.

The Greens, meanwhile, appear happy to occupy the high moral ground of principle.  Some of their groups of one are also new and would not necessarily have wanted to jump straight into administration while learning their craft.  If this has happened, then expect a slide back next time round.  A wee party on the up needs to get its hands on the levers as quickly as it can.  As Councillor Steve Cardownie pointed out this week, the point of politics is power.  Not power in itself, but power to achieve a purpose.  And if you stay on the sidelines you can be ignored.

On the opposite side, so alien is the raison d’etre of Green politics to the establishment parties that in some areas, they will simply not have been factored into the mix.  Ignoring the electoral arithmetic from last Thursday and the trends in favour of donning comfy old political slippers is a dangerous approach.

Maybe this is what folk want but I doubt it.  Had the councillors just elected consulted people in their communities about the big issues bothering them and what influenced how they voted on 3 May, they would have heard a lot about fear.  Fear of cuts, fear for jobs, fear for the future.  If they had bothered to ask who they are most fearful of, the Tories would have been the response.  It’s become a reflexive reaction that might not bear much connection with reality, but it is what it is.

Moreover, people who might once have been proud to call themselves Liberal Democrat voters now sneeringly refer to the party in pejorative terms.  As a credible force in the current political landscape, the Lib Dems are finished.  They are on the slide and haven’t yet reached rock bottom.

And more than anything else, people want security and stability.  They want reassurance that there are people in charge who know what they are doing and who can be trusted to put local interests first.  And the parties people trust, by and large, are the SNP and Labour – something the groups in Edinburgh almost uniquely managed to grasp, either by necessity or design.

Labour’s eagerness to get its hands back on the tiller – clearly, a deliberate strategy from on high – has pushed it into alliances which might work now but did anyone bother to look at the budgets forecast for the next few years?  The cuts they are a-coming.

Between now and 2015, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government is scything Scotland’s funding settlement, leaving us with nearly £1 billion less to spend in revenue and almost £300 million less on capital.  In real terms.

The grant from central to local government for general and non-ring fenced expenditure will be cut by over £400 million over the next two years.  Not because this SNP Government wants to, but because it has to.  The money simply isn’t there, simply isn’t coming from the Westminster Government.

Effectively, Labour has put itself in charge in most parts of Scotland of managing an unprecedented era of cuts to services.  All those promises to maintain and preserve some services and improve still others?  Might as well rip them up now.  And who have you got helping you in this endeavour?  The very parties who got us into this mess in the first place.  Yep, be careful what you coalesce for and with whom.

The SNP might not, at this stage, have wanted to be on the outside but actually, bearing noisy witness to the wreckage about to befall us, might not be a bad place to be.  Just like Labour managed before 2010, the SNP will be able to play the opposition card at this level of government.  And Labour only has itself to blame.

For as they survey the rainbow coalition administrations forged in their areas this weekend, can people feel satisfied that they – including the ones who stayed away – were listened to last Thursday, that how they voted is reflected in the make-up of coalitions?

Can they look ahead, confident that the parties have set aside tribal enmity and all thought of party political advantage to work together, to lead their communities through the terrible times to come?

Or will they shake their heads and silently mutter what’s the point of it all anyway?

Why Labour won in Edinburgh and Glasgow

Yes, the SNP won the local elections overall, had the biggest share of the vote, and ended up with most councillors.  And yes, overall control of two local authorities and a share of power in several more is a great result.  All of it remarkable for a party in government at the midterm.

And yes, the party made significant gains in our two largest cities. But it was Labour wot won ’em.  Even though in Glasgow, in reality, they were really only holding.

Beware the power of narrative and expectation to distort the facts….

But even if those on the ground didn’t really believe the hype, even the most hardened activists thought they’d do better than they did.  So what went wrong?  Or rather, why did Labour beat the SNP in Edinburgh and Glasgow?

1.  Voter strategy Labour’s was better in both cities: the SNP went for broke and it broke.

The aim to extract two and even three councillors out of some multi-member wards worked better for Labour than the SNP.  Some of this will be explained by the unintended consequences of alphabetical listing of candidates in some wards;  in others, it will come down to low and differential turn-out, as well as the ability to make votes transfer across preferences (and Lallands Peat Worrier has performed miracles in setting this all out).

Was a role also played by the SNP starting from the wrong baseline of support? If where to place multiple candidates was based on the 2011 Scottish Parliament election showing, it was wrong.  The baseline should have been the 2007 council result.

Was there enough voter identification done during and crucially, before the election to test the strategy?  To some extent, it is a moot point:  if the SNP was to take enough seats to be the dominant force in both cities, it had to go for it.  But the failure to make the strategy work in all wards has resulted in the SNP losing experienced and committed councillors – Rob Munn in Edinburgh, for one – and missing out on having some excellent candidates elected – for example, Jonathan Mackie in Glasgow and Alison Lindsay in Edinburgh.

2.  Candidates Johann Lamont promised a shake-up of who stood for Labour and duly delivered.  Yes, there were still a lot of worthies and time-serveds around.  But in Glasgow they had a big clear out.  And in Edinburgh, they picked their new candidates carefully, people like Karen Keil in my own ward who is well-known in the area and has years of community activism behind her.  She got elected.

There were some like her standing for the SNP, but not enough.  In truth, the secret to selection for the SNP is contribution to party and cause, not to community.  It’s an approach that doesn’t always work.

3.  Leadership Gordon Matheson had a better and bigger profile;  Allison Hunter did not, and for all her various and enormous strengths, being a frontispiece for the country’s highest profile council contest was never going to be one of them.  The SNP could have managed this much more effectively than it did and saved a woman who has given a lifetime of service to the party she loves from public ridicule and humiliation.

Leadership played less of a role in Edinburgh, except for Steve Cardownie and Andrew Burns both surviving scares and only getting back by the skin of their teeth.  Edinburgh voters were lashing out generally at its political establishment, methinks, but for the SNP, in particular, it’s time to change the leader.

Then there’s the Salmond question, which has been much commented on elsewhere.  Did the Murdoch stuff have a bearing?  Possibly.  Scots, after all, are renowned for their attitude to luminaries who get above themselves.  And Lamont’s performance in recent weeks, playing the couthy card, representing the view of the common people, might also have helped shape the psychology of voters to a small degree.

4.  Manifestos Okay, now that hostilities are over, I can speak verily.  The SNP’s manifestos for Edinburgh and Glasgow were rotten.  They were so safe (anodised and neutralised by HQ no doubt) as to be meaningless.  Labour went bold and gave electors something to vote for.  Innovation and creativity in Edinburgh;  big commitments in Glasgow (some might say, giving pensioners a cheque at Christmas amounts to bribery…).  And it had an impact.

The SNP knows from its spectacular successes in 2007 and 2011 that a party needs to give people things to vote for.  For some reason, this basic premise was forgotten in 2012.  Far too many ifs, buts and maybes in the Glasgow document;  not nearly enough specifics in Edinburgh’s.

5.  Resources  The SNP did not put nearly enough of its central resources into winning these prizes: its war chest is being filled for the coming referendum.  By contrast, this election was one where Labour had to show some sort of a comeback and the threat to Glasgow was too big to ignore.  Apparently, Glasgow Labour had two full-time party staff and a secondee from London, as well as all the usual full-time union officials working on their campaign.  It showed.

The SNP might have emerged from this campaign with resources scarcely dented but at what cost in terms of momentum and electoral infallibility?

6.  Philosophy  This relates to the fundamental approach of both parties.  Labour’s is one of bottom-up;  the SNP largely of top-down in political terms.

Labour’s historical essence is grassroots – from community base into local government and then onwards and upwards.  True, it had taken this approach for granted in recent years, but Johann Lamont is nothing if not a traditionalist.  She realised – as others did – that the first step to recovery was to reconnect with its grassroots.  To start building again, from the lowest base.

Holding Glasgow, making gains in Edinburgh – and in other areas like Fife – gives the party a solid base upon which to continue the recovery.

The SNP has always been a party where people arrive from adherence to the core cause.  They come in from the top and the side and are then organised into branches: often, there is little connection to community nor engagement with community beyond party structures.  Moreover, there has always been disinterest – and in some cases, disdain and scorn – for the role local government plays in the political firmament.  Things have changed in the SNP in recent years, but not nearly enough.  There is still insufficient support or respect for councillors from the centre:  local government is viewed as an add-on, rather than the bedrock.

The key to success in Glasgow and Edinburgh is to learn lessons from cities like Dundee and areas like Angus where it has achieved real traction, connection and success at all electoral levels.  All the building blocks of organisation and capacity are nurtured and resourced.  In both local authority areas, there is a real synergy and connectedness across the layers of government in how the party approaches elections.

But the SNP in Glasgow and Edinburgh should not be disheartened:  it made significant gains in 2012, just not enough to claim first prize.  There are lessons to be learned, for future council elections, and even parliamentary ones.  Crucially, resolving some of the weaknesses exposed by the 2012 campaign will aid the Yes campaign.

And for Labour, well, it’s a start but there is still a long way to go before the party can claim to have won back the hearts and minds of voters.  Glasgow was a good hold:  Edinburgh represents a decent gain.  But one swallow – or even two – does not a summer make.