Stornoway Gazette Letters 15/11/12

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PARENT COUNCILS’ SUBMISSION

Parent Councils are increasingly concerned as regards Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar’s policy to remove the itinerant teaching provision in the Western Isles.

The Council continues to stress that it is not legally obliged to provide itinerant teachers as part of the education provision and that it is looking to save in the region of £500,000 from the education budget by removing this resource. Parents, teachers and the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) oppose this change and believe that this decision is being made without an analysis being made on the impact on the children’s education.

Itinerant teachers provide a very specialist service to the schools and come with a high degree of training and experience in their disciplines.

Classroom teachers do not usually have specialist subject training and in this case would not be able to provide advanced tuition to those pupils that need it particularly in music which is an extremely important part of the lifestyle and culture of the Highlands and Islands.

There is little or no provision for the teaching of art skills outside of schools in the islands and there is no opportunity other than the teaching provided by the specialist art teacher for chidren who have an interest in, and show creative skills, to advance.

Whilst there are sports clubs available outside of school the choice is limited and the locations can make them inaccessible for children whose parents do not have personal transport. Indeed the itinerant teachers may well be those driving these activities.

The itinerant teachers play a strong role in whole school activities and extra curricular activities. With the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence it would appear to be a backward step to remove this specialist provision from schools and removing the opportunities afforded by this from our children’s education.

The removal of the itinerant teachers can only be detrimental to the education of children in the Western Isles and the opportunities available to them to develop their sports skills and art and music skills. Education committee chairwoman Catriona Stewart has stated in the press that ‘education would not suffer if they were phased out as many pupils played sport and music outwith school’. This is obviously only available to those children who can afford to pay for the tuition and indeed have facilities available outside of school that they can make use of.

This is clearly not always the case particularly in the Western Isles where the population is widely dispersed and the pupils may live some distance from where any provision is available. This is clearly not in the spirit of the inclusive aims of the Curriculum for Excellence and excludes those without the financial means nor the location to benefit from tuition outside of school. The Council has a duty to provide an equal education for all children and the removal of the itinerant teaching provision removes that equality from our education system.

The Scottish Government has made funding available to increase PE provision in primary schools, is promoting initiatives such as Health and Wellbeing and is looking at ways to reduce childhood obesity in Scotland. Removing specialist PE provision and the extra curricular activities provided by these teachers is contrary to these policies. For Scottish Ministers to absolve themselves of responsibility in these issues is not acceptable.

It seems that the Council is making its decision purely based on cost and not on the provision of the best quality of education for our young people. Indeed the Council has given no alternative to the lack of provision of specialist teaching provided by the itinerant teachers other than to obtain it privately. It therefore places our young people at a disadvantage in comparison to young people in other parts of Scotland where these facilities are easily accessible.

The Parent Council invites the Council to reconsider its proposal and protect the education of our young people and the opportunities that this specialist teaching gives them.

Parent Councils from Sgoil Bhaile A’mhanaich, Sgoil An Iochdair, Sgoil Eirisgeidh, Sgoil Loch Na Madadh, Sgoil Dhalabroig, Sgoil Phaibil

PLAYING POLITICS

The decision by SNP councillors to opt out of discussions about cuts to the budget of Comhairle nan Eilean beggars belief. Why did they stand for election if they were not prepared to participate in difficult decisions?

Instead of working to protect the interests of those who most rely on council services, their only interest is in playing politics by pretending that the inevitable cuts have nothing to do with the SNP and are everyone’s fault but their own.

The opposite is the truth. The SNP-run Scottish Government has chosen to impose disproportionate cuts on local government. They are also responsible for the distribution formula which fails to take adequate accounts of the particular problems of depopulation and sparsity of population which exist in the Western Isles.

As an excuse for their opt-out, the SNP say that they want all 100 per cent of council spending to be included in the “cuts” consulation. This is simply ridiculous. Do they really want to consider sacking all teachers and home helps? Do they really believe that abolishing refuse collection is an option for consultation?

Anyone with any sense of responsibility recognises that the vast majority of council expenditure goes on non-negotiable essential services and meeting statutory obligations. The particular difficulty for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is that the very low proportion of revenue which is collected locally makes us disproportionately vulnerable to cuts imposed from Edinburgh. If the SNP want to do something useful, they could argue the case of the Western Isles to their colleagues in Edinburgh. Pretending that cuts have nothing to do with them and that they will not soil their hands by getting involved in the process will deceive nobody. Can they advise us of any other SNP council group in the whole of Scotland which has adopted the same approach?

Councillor Archie K Campbell, North Uist

COMHAIRLE SAVINGS ON FUEL

We all read of the impending council cuts, savings have to be made. May I suggest that in future the Council buy all fuel for their vehicles in Lewis and Harris from Gordon ‘Diesel’ Maclennan, Back. The 9p per litre saved could be used to pay school bus fares for the poor children that are expected to walk to school in all kind of weather. I suspect an interest by some would probably block such a proposal.

Ronald Macinnes, North Uist

READING BETWEEN THE LINES

Reading between the lines, I may be missing something along the way,  in light of recent developments within the building industry, but something seems amiss, when, it seems building contractors (or any contractor) can one day announce job losses and financial ruin, yet in the space of no more than a few days, can suddenly reappear under a different name, and somehow, with nothing said, re-tender for contracts.

Mabye there is a simple explanation, but, I find it strange (as it appears to me) that creditors who are left out of pocket to the tune of thousands, and in some cases, hundred of thousands of pounds, are unable to prevent this happening, and can only watch from the sidelines, as the same people set out on the same road yet again.

There seems to be a loophole the size of the Grand Canyon, and everone that wants to take a chance, appears to be able to jump through it, unhindered by any of the relevant bodies, at local or national level.

This is not confined to the Western Isles, but a practice that is widespread in the UK,  how this can be allowed to happen, is beyond me.

Donald Morrison, Stornoway

COMHAIRLE SILENCE ON FUEL

The present situation with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar concerning fuel distribution and retailing in the Island of Lewis and Western Isles is reminiscent of the Royal Family when they failed to react initially at any rate to the death of Lady Diana.

The overwhelming public outrage at that time not only promulgated immediate action but changed the face of the British Monarchy for ever.

The Royal Family and Royal Household’s fundamental error was simply their failure to gauge public feelings and opinion when Lady Diana died. There was unprecedented national outcry at their lack of public response.

And so it is in these Islands whereby our (note “our”) Comhairle will not publicly support the efforts of those who have for the first time in our history brought about parity in mainland and Island fuel prices.

There is already sufficient evidence in the public domain to demonstrate that our Comhairle, MP, MSP and other Public Sector Development agencies have for years questioned the reasons behind significant fuel price differentials between the mainland and the Islands with the objective of securing lower and fairer Island fuel prices.

Remarkably and overnight one Island fuel retailer was able to pass on a huge fuel price reduction of 9 pence per litre (40.91 pence per gallon) simply by freeing himself from a contract with Scottish Fuels.

Initially Scottish Fuels described Gordon Diesels Services Ltd’s action as a “Publicity Stunt” but upon realising differently offered to release all Island based fuel retailers from their contracts.

On 7th November 2012 Kyla Brand, Office of Fair Trading said (among other things) in a reponse to GDS Ltd “The file you have supplied is receiving the fullest consideration, and the recent developments are of significant interest. Your campaign has yielded a full post bag and we understand the strength of feeling on the issues.”

This is a very positive response and it is heartening that OFT recognises that “recent developments are of significant interest” and that in addition they “understand the strength of feeling on the issues”.

Contrast this with the deafening silence of our Comhairle.

A local journalist having emailed all 30 councillors has published responses from eight. This statistic must be used cautiously as there are bound to be individual councillors who do not accept a blog as their preferred means of communicating with their electorate. Perfectly understandable. However there are many other channels open to them to communicate their views to the electorate as we all well know at Election time. Cllr Charlie Nicolson’s commendable, detailed and revealing response will no doubt invoke the ire of some of his political opponents within the Comhairle.

What is not understandable is that an initiative which has 100% backing of the local population does not appear to have the backing of our community representatives - collectively The Comhairle.

Surely it is past time that our Comhairle, corporately, issued a public Press Statement endorsing and welcoming the “recent developments of significant interest” concerning local fuel distribution and retailing.

If for reasons, presently unknown to the public they serve, our Comhairle is unable to support and welcome cheaper fuel prices, then will they please in public interest and so as to demonstrate their Accountability and Transparency in the discharge of their duties simply tell us Why they cannot afford us the privilege of such a statement.

Personally I fully accept that those councillors who have declared an interest, whether pecuniary or otherwise, will have taken no part in any discussions about fuel distribution and pricing in the Islands.

As the Leader of the Comhairle has and continues to declare a pecuniary interest in this matter surely it is clear that he cannot be held to have any responsibility for the Comhairle’s failure to make a public statement. Perhaps it is precisely this lack of Leadership which is a contributing factor in the Comhairle’s lack of action?

Inevitably as a a direct result of the Comhairle’s inaction and silence, immeasurable damage is being and continues to be caused to its reputation locally and nationally and public perception is that there is something amiss within the corridors of Sandwick Road.

How long can this go on? The Comhairle urgently requires to issue a statement either in support of or condemning the “recent developments of significant interest” concerning fuel supply in these Islands.

John J Maclennan, Stornoway

Editor’s note: Mr Maclennan’s letter was submitted before a statement was released by the Comhairle. For details of the statement made on Monday and all the latest news on the fuel situation, see our story on page 3.

NON-SCIENCE SHOULD BE CHALLENGED

As a scientist, I felt that Keith Rushworth’s letter, dated 8th November should not go without response and while it is not my intention to upset people with strongly and passionately held beliefs, I regret that for a few it may be, inevitable. I do not object to anyone holding their personal beliefs. Indeed, I have much respect for those who maintain their faith in an increasingly secular world. However, I do object to faith based beliefs being pressed upon others while erroneously claiming to have a sound scientific basis to do so.

Scientific evidence has been amassed by many thousands of diligent, intelligent and methodical scientists, in many different fields of study over hundreds of years, in most cases, for no reason other than to understand the truths that nature holds and the intellectual challenges such endeavours provide. Many theories have long been overthrown by the scientific community once there was evidence to disprove them. Evolution is not one of them.

Regarding Mr Rushworth’s challenges to the theory of evolution, I counter with; species do evolve and we have seen it happen in recent recorded history, intermediate fossils do exist and beneficial mutations have been discovered as well as harmful ones. That some people find it objectionable that random, beneficial mutations might hang around the gene pool due to the advantage they bestow on offspring is somewhat puzzling to me. Simply suggesting that belief in evolution is merely the result of repetition in schools and media is not just a case of the pot calling the kettle black, it’s wholly incorrect. Evolution’s persistence is based on a wealth of scientific data and evidence.

His statement regarding the Second Law of Thermodynamics demonstrates at best, an incomplete knowledge of the physics.

By his argument, it’d be impossible to build a sandcastle because it has more order than a pile of sand. That sandcastles, and indeed life are possible is due to the input of energy to produce localised order at the expense of a greater widespread disorder. Further energy needs to be supplied to maintain that order or your sandcastle will blow away. This energy, for life or sandcastle building originates, directly and indirectly from the sun.

The nature of reality is so complex that it has required many individuals to devote their entire lives trying to unravel secrets which, in many cases, nature is reluctant to relinquish. Scientists do not have the luxury of cherry picking data to fit our preconceived beliefs or ideas. Theories are the result of a long and laborious process of testing, review and retesting based on all available data. The longer a theory is established, the more robust the data will become, or it will be overthrown.

That evolution remains after 150 years is due to the robustness of these data and to dismiss the work of scientists based on the notion that “it says so in the Bible” is more than a little disrespectful.

I am saddened that so consistently, many diverse groups of people will reject or ignore scientific evidence only to misrepresent quotes or use skewed data, just to satisfy their own points of view or actions.

This letter is unlikely to change anyone’s opinion. I ascribe to Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “A person cannot be reasoned from a point of view that they were not reasoned into”. However, it is important that fundamentalist beliefs shrouded behind a thin veil of poor or non-science be challenged for what they are.

R McCafferty, Port of Ness

SCIENCE SHOULD BE ACCURATE

In the letter dated Nov 8th by Mr Keith Rushworth claims were made based on scientific understanding with regards to the process of evolution. As a science teacher with many years of experience I feel that the science used to form such an argument should at least be accurate. With that in mind I will now proceed with each point made in turn in the letter.

Today even if not one fossil had ever been found the process of evolution would still be on a firm footing, especially as all the disparate sources provide remarkably similar answers. Sources of evidence include the geological record, morphology, ontology, atavisms, sub-optimal structures and most recently the molecular evidence provided by genetic analysis.

There are also many transitional fossils. Recent fossil finds in China have shown remarkable transitional forms between birds and dinosaurs, the jaws of mososaurs are transitional between snakes and lizards and there are many fossils of different hominids which can be used to draw a line between them. These are a few examples, but there are many more that could be cited.

Micro-evolution can be used as evidence for macro changes as there are no known barriers preventing the accumulation micro-changes. The transitional forms mentioned above also bear witness to macro-evolution. Macro-evolution has been observed in nature on multiple occasions. The closest to home is in fact a new species of mosquito that appeared on the London underground having undergone speciation. Again other examples exist.

Complex structures can arise through the gradual accumulation of small changes. Darwin described this himself in ‘Origins’ with regards to the development of the eye. ‘Irreducibly complex’ structures have always been shown to have alternate/simpler arrangements which retain an advantage over the lack of such features in their entirety.

The 2nd law of thermodynamics was also invoked in the article. There were a number of issues regarding the author’s understanding of the 2nd law but suffice to say here that it assumes a closed system with no outside inputs. The Earth cannot be considered a closed system as the Sun provides a constant supply of energy that plants in particular use to organise matter into complex organic matter.

Lastly, beneficial mutations do exist and are commonly observed. To give one example in humans a mutation exists that increases bone strength. Mutations that are beneficial are also observed in antibiotic resistant bacteria (which is certainly an advantage to the bacteria if not so advantageous to us).

Martin Dand, Point

COMHAIRLE’S PUBLIC CONSULTATION ON COMMUNICATIONS

No-one who has spent any sustained period of time in the Outer Hebrides in the last six months, and who has observed the various crisis and public debates around such issues as charging school children to use a school bus, can be surprised that the Comhairle is now looking at its communications policies and strategies.

Such issues have presented the Comhairle as a disorganised, shambolic and indecisive organisation with little coordinated sense of direction in the face of incredible pressure on its budgets. This PR mess may or may not be a fair reflection of the state of local government in these islands, and what actually takes place in the council chamber, but what is sure is that some of its communications have created at best public confusion and at worse, have greatly added to public anxiety about the service and budget cuts.

I willingly therefore followed the link to the Comhairle’s on-line consultation and disappointingly found a process in which many of the big decisions about how the Comhairle communicates with council tax payers, for example, have already been made and are not the subject of the consultation itself.

Worryingly, but also typically, the opening statements of the consultation describe one of the key benefits for the Comhairle in having a ‘good’ and ‘effective’ communications strategy is that the organisation will be able to better inform the world of its ‘achievements’. But who in the Comhairle decides what is an achievement and how? Is it really the role of the Comhairle’s corporate service to engage in vanity communication?

Is it an achievement if unpopular decisions are covered up or if wasteful, ineffective departments get away with delivering second class services? Is it ‘effective’ communication that ensures that all of the current sitting councillors are re-elected at the next local government elections? If not, dear Comhairle, tell us what you mean by such subjective and ill-defined waffle as ‘good’ and ‘effective’, and tell us who is going to decide what you will tell us, and why. Should we, the people who are paying for all of this, not have the opportunity, as part of this consultation, to tell the Comhairle what information we want to have, and how we want to get it?

Reading the entire survey left me with the feeling that there is also far too great a confusion and cross-over in the Comhairle’s corporate communications strategy and the communications of political parties, councillors and others with a stake in the political decision making processes and its outcomes.

But what is really and sadly lacking in this consultation is any kind of vision that might repair the damage of recent times. At this time of huge pressure on the Comhairle, it would be totally right for the Comhairle to respond by striving to become the most open and accessible local authority in Scotland in terms of freedom of information, and this new strategy should include measurable goals to be achieved such as an aim to reduce the number of meetings that are held behind closed doors and a decrease in council papers marked ‘private’.

The public are not asked in this consultation if Comhairle employees should be given greater freedom (whilst respecting statutory requirements for confidentiality) to comment in public debates about Comhairle policies without fear of disciplinary action. Why not?

Controlling the flow and accessibility of information is a means of controlling and managing public perception. When we as council tax payers are being asked to understand the predicament that the Comhairle faces, we need confidence that we are getting the information we want, and in an accessible manner, to be able to know how decisions about information are made, who makes them and why. In such times, there must be no room for doubt about spin, cover-ups and the like.

Public perception is, it seems, a more valuable commodity to politicians than accessibility of information, and that is what is wrong with the current communications strategy, and this consultation.

We, the tax paying public, must at the same time reassure our elected politicians that deciding on a commitment to increased openness is not like turkeys voting for Christmas. We know times are hard, and openness is fundamental to resolving the current crisis effecting the Comhairle, and the current crisis effecting public confidence in the Comhairle.

A lack of public confidence in the openness of the Comhairle, and the on-going decline in public trust of the Comhairle, creates apathy. But this can be addressed through the communications strategy if it is based on increased openness and accessibility of information as defined by us the public. As it stands this will not be achieved.

Peter Urpeth, Back