Scrap the free stuff — start
a war instead

It was quite the row, and it lasted most of the summer of 1985. In fact, ‘row’ doesn’t do it justice. It was a siege: weeks of attritional warfare, underhand tactics and ruthless strategy. The Geneva Convention was forgotten. Battering rams and trebuchets were wheeled out; flaming arrows and buckets of boiling pitch rained down.

It’s no way to talk about your parents, of course, but if I was Stalingrad, they were the German Sixth Army. I had just finished my final day of primary school when they informed me that I wouldn’t, as I’d thought, be starting at the local state secondary in Stirling after the holidays. Instead, they were sending me to St Aloysius’ College, a fee-paying, Jesuit-run school in Glasgow. It would be good for me, they said. Blood-curdling words such as ‘lawyer’ and ‘doctor’ were used freely.

I can’t remember how I phrased my response, but it was something along the lines of ‘aye, that’ll be right.’ And so began the long July of the great Deerin family dispute. They wanted to place me among the flower of prosperous Catholic Scotland; I wanted to stay with my pals and play Bloody Knuckles. The outcome was never really in doubt: I won, through the expert deployment of ear-splitting tantrums and huffs so large they were visible from the moon. Serves me well to this day.

Statistically — St Aloysius or not — life was always more likely than not to work out ok for me, not least because I had successful professionals as parents who would, unbidden, go the extra mile. But it wouldn’t work out so well for some of the kids I sat beside in the classrooms of St Modan’s, the school to which I turned up – triumphantly — that August. These were not the flower of prosperous Catholic Scotland: these were damaged children from broken areas such as Raploch and Cultenhove and depressed former mining villages such as Fallin, Plean, Cowie. Their family surnames were recognisable from the court reports in the local papers, and sometimes the nationals. They had grown up amid neglect, unemployment, violence, alcoholism and drug abuse.

They were tough: they arrived pre-tempered. By the age of 12 they’d settled into a way of things, moving around the playgrounds and corridors with the loose-limbed swagger of big cats; they fought with each other and, when they got bored with that, beat up the rest of us; they dogged it; when they did turn up, they deliberately provoked the teachers; they played stupid.

But they weren’t stupid. Most struggled academically, but you caught flashes, sometimes, of a sparkle beneath the surface – a terrifically sharp insight, casually delivered; a one-liner of dazzling wit; an expression of self-awareness that stopped you in your tracks.

And then they were gone. At the end of fourth year we left for the holidays, and on our return six weeks later found they had, to a boy and girl, vanished. There had been no goodbye — they might have been snatched by aliens. At the first opportunity they had, simply, baled out, because that’s what kids like them did, and were expected to do. Standard Grades, Highers, certificates, graduation ceremonies, degrees — these were the baubles and garlands of an invisible world.

Inevitably, you’d bump into people over the years. Some had found work, got married, had kids, grown out of the madness. But you’d hear too many stories of others who had slid into the abyss – crime, court, prison, drugs, death. Still do: a few months ago I read in the local paper that a girl from my year – with whom I’d got along well when we were 14 but who happened to have been born into a notorious family – had been found dead from an overdose. At least she reached 40.

Here’s the point: a grim fate is, for too many of our kids, preset. There is no possibility the angel will ever be released from the marble. And it strikes me that a humane society – especially one such as Scotland that does not wear its sense of moral superiority lightly and that rails against the apparent compassion deficit of Westminster – might want to do something about it. As might a new First Minister whose stated aim is to ‘tackle the inequality that scars our nation’.

A recent report by the Office for National Statistics contained some illuminating findings. Those with low educational attainment are almost five times as likely to be in poverty. This is no surprise, of course. But the factor most associated with poor educational performance in children is similarly poor performance among their parents – especially their fathers. And the study found that low educational attainment by fathers had a far greater impact on their child’s performance than did the state of the household finances. The implication is clear: character and stability matter more than money.

It’s now widely accepted, even scientifically, that a child’s future is determined long before they start school – perhaps before they are even born. The deprived are not only less likely to succeed in education, they are considerably more likely to suffer from poor mental and physical health, to be unemployed, to go to prison, to earn less, to die younger, to become teenage parents of children doomed to be trapped in the same cycle. They simply never catch up.

So if we in Scotland care about ‘social justice’, why don’t we make this our number one public policy priority? It’s not as easy as pressing a button that nudges up the minimum wage or increases benefit levels, conscience-salving as those steps are. It’s about the harder graft of getting in early, teaching parenting skills to those who are obviously going to struggle when the baby arrives – and then providing the support and mentoring to disadvantaged children that middle-class kids can take for granted. It’s about sticking with it.

Between 1962 and 1967, the Perry Preschool Project in Michigan taught self-control, perseverance and social skills, along with cognitive skills, to low-IQ African-American children aged three and four. Their mothers were given parenting lessons to increase their attachment to and interactions with their children. This has resulted in better educational, economic and life outcomes for those involved.

The Carolina Abecedarian Project gave cognitive stimulation plus training in self-control and social skills in the first few months of life to children born between 1972 and 1977, and parenting lessons to their families. The kids were given health checkups and health care, too, and their progress monitored over decades. There has been a lasting impact on IQ, parenting practices, educational attainment and quality of employment – and even lower blood pressure, lower obesity levels and less likelihood of heart trouble.

These innovations are expensive – they can be very expensive — but it’s how I want my tax dollars spent. As the economics Nobel laureate James Heckman says, ‘quality early childhood programmes for disadvantaged children more than pay for themselves in better education, health and economic outcomes. Our choice in these difficult economic times is not just whether to spend or cut, but whether to choose knowledge over conventional wisdom.’

Where can the cash be found? Well, let’s see: this year, the Scottish Government will spend around £600 million of our money on university tuition fees, bursaries, grants and loans. It will shell out a further £60 million on free prescriptions for all.

This is tokenistic guff. I don’t need or expect free prescriptions, and nor should anyone in regular employment. No one in relatively comfortable economic circumstances should choose a free university education for their children — an increasingly rare policy in the developed world anyway — over early intervention in the lives of those kids who have least. So, if we scrap the grotesque middle-class subsidies, we instantly make a few hundred million available.

Scotland is the perfect size for an attritional war of this kind – big enough for worthwhile, localised pilot schemes, small enough to roll out the most successful of them nationally. Ms Sturgeon could even begin in the deprived parts of Glasgow and Dundee, as a reward for those Yes-voting cities.

It doesn’t take independence to do any of this – it takes courage, clear-headedness and persistence from those who claim to have the qualities to lead. Ms Sturgeon may, like her predecessor, prefer playing Bloody Knuckles against her political opponents. Alternatively, she could unleash the battering rams, catapults and flaming arrows of Scotland upon the real enemies: disadvantage, deprivation and neglect. Let the siege begin.

(This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on October 6, 2014)