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Burns’ Cottage

“O wert thou in the cauld blast….” It seems right to start with one of Burns’ wistful love-songs on this cauld Burns Day. “Or did misfortunes bitter storms around thee blaw/ Thy bield (shelter) should be my bosom/ To share it a’.”

We’ve been having a cauld blast all week with roads snowed under, 150 schools closed in the North East and the Borders and lots of pictures in the media of children on sledges, cars buried in snow, dented vehicles by the roadside, pandas at the zoo making friends with snowmen, and Shetland ponies dressed in Shetland jumpers. Even the hedgehogs have been suffering from the cold, with a rising number being handed in to the Scottish SPCA (707 last year).

The snow has led to worst tragedies too. In one of the worst mountain accidents for years, four climbers were killed in an avalanche in Glencoe. They were swept a thousand feet down Bidean Nam Bian in what the first minister described as “an appalling accident”. Two of the party survived, though one of them was seriously injured. They were all experienced climbers, from various parts of the UK, and Glencoe mountain rescue team, who went to their aid, said afterwards that the party were simply unlucky and had not done anything foolhardy.

We also learned that two Scots were among the 38 victims of last week’s terrorist attack on the gas plant in the Algerian desert. The politicians have been saying that the attack highlights the need for greater security for oil and gas workers and for the West to focus more attention on the threat of Al-Qaeda-inspired groups swarming through North Africa.

The unemployment figures have shown another fall, to 207,000 or 7.8 per cent of the workforce. But it has not led to any rejoicing, since the figure disguises the fact that many people have simply given up looking for a job. The number in work is down 24,000. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that the number of young Scots out of work has doubled to 90,000 since the recession began and those in part-time employment has also doubled to 120,000.

Among the unemployed are the 5,000 Scottish construction workers who are said to be on an employers blacklist because of their trade union activities or simply because they have raised health and safety concerns. The blacklist only came to light when the Information Commission raided the offices in Droitwich of an agency calling itself the Consulting Association. Trade unions say 40 leading British companies have been using the Association to vet its prospective employees, including firms working on the new Forth bridge. Shocking.

It’s been another referendum week – not Alex Salmond’s but David Cameron’s. Mr Cameron promised that if re-elected, he would hold an in-or-out referendum on the European Union. Mr Salmond used question time in the Scottish Parliament to tease the Conservatives by saying it appears the only way Scotland could remain in the EU would be if it became independent. He accused Mr Cameron of “making for the exit door of the European Union” while at the same time urging the Scots to stay in the British Union.

The opposition parties brought him down to earth a little by pointing out that the latest opinion poll, based on the annual Social Attitudes Survey, put support for independence at only 23 per cent. That’s sharply down on the figure for last year (32 per cent) and the experts are attributing that to a rising “fear factor” as the economy worsens. However support for a stronger form of devolution remains high, with 67 per cent saying the Scottish Parliament should either make all decisions or all except foreign affairs and defence.

It will be interesting to see how the two referendums play out against each other over the next few months and years. Will they define the political debate or will they be pushed to the sidelines as people worry more directly about the economy. Both Mr Cameron and Mr Salmond will probably have to learn the lesson of Burns’ famous mouse about best laid schemes o’ mice and men ganging aft agley.

And if that’s not frightening enough, try the last verse of that poem, in which the mouse has the advantage over the man:

“Still, thou art blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee.
But och, I backward cast my e’e
On prospects drear
An’ forward tho’ I canna see
I guess and fear !”

By the time you read this letter, I may be dead. Indeed you may be dead. We may all be dead. Christmas may never come. Because today, Friday 21st December 2012, is supposed to be the day the world ends, according to the Mayan calendar. The news bulletins have been full of it, as if we were wishing it may actually happen.

My sister-in-law is an anthropologist specialising in the language and culture of the Maya people in South America. For the past few months she has been explaining the curiosities of the 5,125 year-long cycle of the Mayan calendar to a somewhat alarmed public.

But in case you think eschatology is a thing of the distant past or of distant places, remember that we came very close to it in the year 2000 when our computers were supposed to malfunction and bring airplanes and power supplies crashing to a halt. Here in Edinburgh we still have a Victorian church building, beautifully decorated by the artist Phoebe Anna Traquair, which should never have survived the year 1900, according to its millennialist founders.

Of course, the world may end at any moment from a meteor strike, or a large volcano or a nuclear explosion. And it will certainly end one day, when our sun runs out of energy – it’s already into its middle age. But we may go on for some time.

So if this is the last week of our civilisation, then what has it been like? The war in Syria has continued. We are all still in shock at the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Here at home, the weather has been dark, wet and apocalyptic. East coast towns are recovering from last weekend’s storm. Harbour walls from North Berwick to Lossiemouth were breached. People were evacuated from their homes in Peterhead and Stonehaven. A sailor was lost at sea from an oil rig vessel in what was described as “a perfect storm.”

But we have survived. In fact we have thrived. We learned this week that Scotland’s population is at a record high 5,295,000. There are more people coming to live here, the birth rate has risen and more of us are living longer. But, worryingly, there are now more people over 65 than there are under the age of 15, for the first time ever.

We learned also that poverty is spreading. The areas of deprivation are no longer confined to Glasgow. Ferguslie Park in Paisley is now officially the most deprived neighbourhood in Scotland and parts of North Lanarkshire are now in the top 15. There is also an increasing divide in the school system between poor and rich areas. The latest exam results show that Boroughmuir High School in Edinburgh and Jordanhill in Glasgow are the top performing state schools in Scotland. But Boroughmuir and is just a few miles from Wester Hailes to the west and Castlebrae to the east where not a single student gained a Higher pass. And Jordanhill is just up the road from Govan where only 5 per cent of students gained three Highers or more.

The Labour Party leader Johann Lamont said this week that our education spending needs to be targeted more wisely. In a speech marking her first year as leader, she said free university tuition was not sustainable and she called for the re-introduction of graduate contributions. Meanwhile, the education secretary Mike Russell has allocated an extra £10m to universities to help them provide more places for students from deprived backgrounds.

On Wednesday, we welcomed home a contingent of 60 soldiers from Afghanistan. The Royal Scots Borders have been brought home for Christmas, three months ahead of schedule. They are part of the quickening run-down of British forces from Afghanistan announced by the Prime Minister that same day.

David Cameron also announced that, after 70 years, the men who served on the arctic convoys in the Second World War are to be honoured with a special medal acknowledging their bravery and commitment. The convoys set sail from Loch Awe on the west coast of Scotland in bitterly cold conditions on what Churchill called the “worse journey in the world” to provide our Russian allies with supplies to the northern ports of Archangel and Murmansk. The families of the men – only 200 of the 66,500 who sailed are still living – have been refused a medal for 70 years because Russia became an enemy in the Cold War and the rules of the honours system became, shall we say, a little entangled.

Another Christmas present was the settlement of the rail disputes which had threatened chaos for passengers on Christmas Eve. The RMT union called off a series of strikes after talks with Scotrail and with Virgin Cross Country. The Cross Country dispute was over pay and conditions. The Scotrail dispute was over the sacking of a ticket collector. Neither side gave details of the agreements reached and it all looked like negotiation by brinkmanship in the run up to Christmas.

And so we enter the period of peace and goodwill. Look out for the star in the east, Jupiter. And let’s hope the dark clouds and the bright Christmas lights allow us to see it. If, that is, we are still here.

bacplogoBy Stuart Crawford

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has renewed calls that there should be a trained counsellor in every Scottish school. The BACP has over 1,500 members in Scotland (35,000 across the UK), who work across the private, public and voluntary sectors.

Counselling and psychotherapy cover a range of “talking” therapies, and offer an alternative route to tackle some problems that might otherwise be countered by prescription medicines, including antidepressants. These talking therapies can help people with problems as diverse as bereavement, relationships, educational problems as well as anxiety and depression.

Usually delivered in a safe, confidential environment by therapeutically trained practitioners, therapies allow people to talk through sometimes painful, confusing and uncomfortable issues with someone who can help improve things.

This, sadly, also includes young people. In 2004, over 55,000 Scottish children were identified as suffering with mental health problems – roughly 8 per cent of the age group population. One can only wonder at how many more might remain unidentified, or who do not seek or have access to the appropriate help. Current provision throughout the country is patchy at best.

Successive Scottish governments have been aware of this, and have attempted to tackle the problem of mental ill health in young people. In 2005, the then Labour–Lib Dem Scottish executive produced the report The Mental Health of Children and Young People: A Framework for Promotion, Prevention and Care, which called for the provision of confidential, accessible, and non-stigmatising counselling support for all young people by 2015.

Despite this commitment, there has been little movement towards this target during succeeding administrations and there is still no Scottish national strategy for its implementation.

Evidence does show that school-based counselling is associated with improvement in a range of problems that young people might face – for example family issues, eating disorders, bullying and anger management.

Recognising this, both Wales and Northern Ireland have their own national strategies in place for school-based counselling. Both provide ringfenced funding for the provision of these services in every secondary school in their countries. Indeed, such counselling services that have been implemented in Wales have helped thousands of children and young people and are associated with improved attendance and greater confidence in school.

But not yet in Scotland. It may be, of course, that the idea has fallen victim to politics north of the border. The pledge to place a counsellor in every school in Scotland was made in 2005 by the Labour–Lib Dem coalition. The SNP has formed the administration in Holyrood since 2007, and possibly it has slipped down the priority list as the party seeks to implement its own policies.

However, what can possibly be more important for the country, as it movees towards an independence referendum, than the wellbeing of its young people? They are the future of Scotland.

Accordingly, the BACP is once again voicing its recommendation that all Scots children and young people should have access to professional, qualified counselling services at school. There should also be alternative provision within community settings for those who prefer not to access the service at school.

The BACP fully understands the fact that such facilities would have to be authorised and implemented at local authority level, but is keen that the Scottish government should put a fair wind behind it.

That’s not really a lot to ask, is it?

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conserv2Graduates would have to contribute up to £4,000 towards the cost of their degrees, the well-off would have to pay for their own prescriptions again, but some children would be able to leave school at 14 – if the Conservatives win the Scottish elections in May.

Scottish Conservative leader Annabel Goldie unveiled her party’s election manifesto in Glasgow today, promising to “tell it like it is”.

Insisting that the country had to face up to the massive deficit left by the Labour government, Miss Goldie said this meant that some sections of society would have to pay more.

In a pitch which was clearly designed to put considerable political distance between the Conservatives and their three rival parties – all of whom have promised a series of spending commitments and resisted calls to raise revenue elsewhere – Miss Goldie said money would have to be raised as well as spent.

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Among the high-profile commitments in the Scottish Conservative manifesto were pledges to:

* Introduce a variable graduate fee of up to £4,000, payable when graduates start to earn a solid income.
* Offer a new school-leaving age of 14 for those who wanted to leave and who had a trade apprenticeship or college place to go.
* Bring back prescription charges, of £5, for the well-off.
* Keep free pensioner bus-travel, but only for the over 65s, not all those aged 60 and over, as at present.
* Continue to freeze council tax and provide a £200 cut in the council tax for pensioner households.
* Protect the health budget.
* Create a Scottish Business Start-up Fund of £154 million to support new jobs and provide training opportunities.
* Make enterprise training at colleges and universities.
* Create a new minister for enterprise and jobs at cabinet level.
* Invest £135 million in new superfast broadband for the whole of Scotland.
* Allow hard-shoulder running on the M8 and M77 to get traffic moving.
* Use new borrowing powers to finance the new Forth Bridge.
* Hold referenda on elected provosts in Scotland’s main cities.
* Create a pothole fund to repair Scotland’s roads.
* Freeze public sector pay until April 2013 for all those earning more than £21,000.
* Allow educational charities and parents to set up new schools, independent of local authorities.
* Reform the process of teaching reading, writing and arithmetic in primary schools.
* Introduce free universal health checks for everybody aged 40–74.
* Re-introduce prison sentences of less than three months and end automatic early release.
* Introduce compulsory drug tests for prisoners.
* Merge health and social care budgets.

Miss Goldie said her party’s manifesto was properly costed.

“I will tell it like it is,” she said. “The others are telling it like they wish it were – but it isn’t. They are, quite literally, unbelievable. Whether it’s the Deficit Deniers of Labour or the Fantasy Economics and secrecy of the SNP, they are more interested in self preservation than in the common good.

“But that is not my way. It is not the Scottish Conservative way.”

And she added: “My goal, my driving force in this election, is to bring more of what we have delivered for Scotland in the last four years, into the Scottish parliament over the next five years. We have been pivotal in the past – and we will be pivotal again.

“We will deliver Common Sense for the Common Good. I am proud to deliver this manifesto and to have it compared with the others. I am proud that this is a manifesto for families, for business and for communities.”

In response, Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour leader, said: “This is a half-hearted attempt to disguise their cosy pact with the SNP because it is pretty clear the Tories want the SNP to win the election.”

And he added: “The Tories are trying to do Scotland what David Cameron and Nick Clegg are doing down south. It is a back-to-the-future manifesto showing they learnt none of the lessons of the 1980s and are destined to repeat them…

“The Tories are trying to dismantle the very fabric of Scottish society in their relentless pursuit of right-wing ideas.”

The SNP seized on the Conservatives’ failure to mention upgrading the A9 in the manifesto.

The SNP’s Dave Thompson said: “The Tories – and their deputy leader Murdo Fraser – has talked big for the last four years but when it comes to the crunch with the publication of their manifesto have delivered precisely nothing. For the Tories – who failed to dual the A9 in their 18 long years in power at Westminster – the A9 doesn’t even rate a mention. This is the height of Tory hypocrisy.”

But this then attracted an angry rebuttal from the Conservatives, with Murdo Fraser insisting that the manifesto included a pledge to take forward the Strategic Transport Projects Review, which includes dualling the A9.

“Dave Thomson and the SNP have blundered badly here,” said Mr Fraser. “Being an honourable man, I am sure he will want to apologise for getting his facts wrong. At the same time, he should apologise on behalf of the SNP for their broken promise to the people of Perthshire and the Highlands at the last election to dual the A9.”

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Children writing on a blackboardJust 15 minutes of exercise in the classroom can improve a child’s ability to concentrate later in the school day, researchers have found.

Tests on more than 1,000 Aberdeen schoolchildren showed that those who undertook moderately intensive exercise performed significantly better in tests to measure concentration than those who hadn’t done the exercise.

The results have implications for the way we think about exercise in schools, the researchers say – and even raise the question about whether short attention spans are down to a lack of exercise.

Researchers at the universities of Aberdeen and Leeds devised the study after PE teachers in Aberdeen asked the university’s child health scientists if physical activity could make a difference to school performance. Six schools took part, involving pupils in primary four to seven, and the results have been published in the journal Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology.

The researchers devised a study to find out whether an exercise that could be practically delivered in the classroom could make a difference to academic performance.

The PE teachers created a series of aerobic exercises lasting 10 to 15 minutes that were just vigorous enough to get the children beginning to sweat and a little breathless. They included running on the spot and hopping to music.

Meanwhile, to measure concentration in a realistic classroom environment, the researchers came up with a series of mental tests that were recorded onto CD and played to the children at the end of the school day while they were still at their desks.

It instructed the children to do tasks such as adding up numbers; recalling numbers in reverse order; judging whether statements were true or false and remembering the last word in a sentence, and putting a series of items in order of their size eg pencil, table, whale.

The children did the physical exercises behind their desks around 30 minutes after lunch and the mental tests at the end of the school day – suggesting that the effects of the exercise on concentration lasted several hours.

PhD student Liam Hill, who ran the study, said: “Our study showed that physical exercise benefits cognitive performance within the classroom and the degree of benefit depends on circumstances.

“Most people have found that a brisk walk helps when sustained concentration is required. Children spend a lot of time sitting within a classroom so perhaps it is not surprising that they benefit from a burst of vigorous exercise.”

Dr Justin Williams, Senior Lecturer in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Aberdeen said: “This is the first and largest study of its kind and our results show that 15 minutes of exercise in the classroom improved performance on cognitive tests conducted later in the day.

“While further research is required, this could change the way we think about exercise in schools. As well as being important in tackling obesity and promoting a healthy lifestyle, exercise can help with learning.

“It also raises the question of how much the often-reported decline in children’s attention span in modern day life stems from a lack of physical exercise.”

Professor Mark Mon-Williams, formerly of the University of Aberdeen and now at the University of Leeds, said: “Lots of research in elderly participants has shown that exercise helps the brain to function. This study is the first to show that exercise has similar benefits in children.

“How exercise helps children to concentrate is not yet clear and future research is needed to determine the brain mechanisms involved. But however exercise works, this research is important because it suggests that exercise in schools might actually help academic learning.”

A Scottish government spokesman said that participation in physical education, physical activity and sport were important aspects of developing healthier and more fulfilling lifestyles for young Scots. “That’s why the Scottish Government, in partnership with local authorities, is committed to pupils throughout Scotland receiving two hours of quality PE every week,” he said.

“More widely than PE, we are also encouraging young people to take up to one hour of moderate activity at least five days a week. The Active Schools programme – funded by the Scottish government and involving some 2,500 schools – has been highly successful in providing more opportunities for young people to experience and increase participation in physical activity and sport.”

A blackboardThe provision of school nurses in Scotland has become the focus of the latest pre-election spat between Labour and the SNP.

The Nationalists won the 2007 election on the back of a manifesto which contained the following promise: “We will introduce annual health and fitness checks in schools, delivered by doubling the number of school nurses.”

Labour published new figures yesterday which, it claimed, showed that the SNP administration had not only failed to live up to the school nurses pledge but that it would take 27 years to fulfil the commitment at the current rate.`Jackie Baillie, Labour’s health spokeswoman, argued this just was the latest in a line of broken promises, referring to the Scottish Government’s failure to stick to its promises to provide children with two hours of PE and five days of outdoor education too.

Other high-profile pledges, including £2,000 grants for first-time buyers, bringing in a local income tax and the scrapping of student debt, have also been ditched in the three years since the SNP took office.

But the Scottish Government hit back, insisting that there had been a 16 per cent rise in the number of school nurses in Scotland since 2007 and a new pilot project was being launched to provide better health care for children at school.

Labour obtained the figures under the Freedom of Information Act. According to these figures, the number of school nurses in Scotland has gone up from 308 to 330 since 2007. Labour insisted this increase fell short of the “doubling” which the SNP claimed it would achieve in office.

Ms Baillie pointed out that, according to the figures, the number of school nurses has actually gone down in some areas over the last three years: in Dumfries and Galloway, Ayrshire and Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

Ms Baillie said: “This is yet another example of a broken promise from the SNP. They promised to double the number of school nurses, but at the current rate of progress it will take them 27 years to meet their pledge.

“In many parts of Scotland, the number of school nurses has actually fallen in the past year. Ministers have completely failed to match their commitments with sufficient resources for the NHS or local councils to deliver them.

“The SNP’s failure to deliver on school nurses is a real problem. They have also broken manifesto promises to provide children with two hours of PE a week and five days of outdoor education a year. I want to see ministers taking the health of our children much more seriously.”

But a spokeswoman for the Scottish Government stressed that according to their own figures, the number of school nurses had gone up from 221 to 257, an increase of 16 per cent.

She said: “Between 2009 and 2011 we are investing an additional £2.5 million to target support for the health and wellbeing of Scotland’s school children.”

And she added: “In addition to this the Scottish Government is piloting a school health team model aimed at improving children’s health in four demonstration sites. The sites, which aim to ensure we have the right staff in place with the right skills, are testing a range of models to deal with local issues and will run until March 2011 before being independently evaluated.”

There are, then, two sets of figures, one published by Labour which obtained them from health boards from a series of Freedom of Information Act requests and one from the Scottish Government, compiled by independent statisticians who put together the Government’s health statistics.

They do show marked differences and the Scottish Government figures actually show fewer school nurses than the Labour figures.

What neither of them, do, however, is show a doubling of school nurses or any substantial progress towards that mark which would suggest that the target is attainable in the next year before the Holyrood elections.

Here are the two sets of figures:

First, Labour’s figures:

2007 2008 2009
Scotland 308.27 328.13 330.53
NHS Ayrshire & Arran 33 37 35
NHS Borders 13 13 13
NHS Dumfries & Galloway 12 14 11
NHS Forth Valley 13.56* 14.05 14.21
NHS Fife 25.2 27.5 28.4
NHS Grampian 40.1 44.1 46.1
NHS Greater Glasgow 67 76 73
NHS Highland 45.8 47.7 47.7
NHS Lanarkshire N/A** N/A** N/A**
NHS Lothian 31.63 27.98 34.03
NHS Orkney 1.45 1.45 2.1
NHS Shetland 1 1 1
NHS Tayside 23.53 23.35 23.99
NHS Western Isles 1 1 1

* Figures including a decimal point relate to number of Whole Time Equivalent or Full Time Equivalent school nurses.
** NHS Lanarkshire provided figures for ‘public health nursing’, rather than specifically school nurses. The numbers were 237.16 in 2007, 237.16 in 2008 and 267.69 in 2009.

Now, the Scottish Government’s figures:

2007 2008 2009
Scotland 221.8 232.0 257.5
NHS Ayrshire & Arran 28.6 31.2 35.1
NHS Borders 4.0 4.7 4.5
NHS Dumfries & Galloway 5.6 5.8 6.8
NHS Forth Valley 12.0 13.5 15.3
NHS Fife 25.9 22.2 20.6
NHS Grampian 27.4 33.5 37.1
NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde 45.5 52.5 53.4
NHS Highland 16.9 19.8 20.4
NHS Lanarkshire 37.2 33.6 31.5
NHS Lothian 13.9 12.2 14.3
NHS Orkney 1.4 1.4  
NHS Shetland 0.7    
NHS Tayside 2.7 1.5 18.5
NHS Western Isles      

A gym: not for most pupils in Scotland

A gym: not for most pupils in Scotland

SNP ministers will find themselves under fire tomorrow for missing another educational target and manifesto commitment: this time on physical education.

Caledonian Mercury understands that statistics will be published tomorrow showing that the Scottish Government has missed its target of two hours of PE for every schoolchild by a massive margin.

It is understood that only a third of all schoolchildren meet the two hours’ target with thousands of pupils getting next to no proper exercise at all.

The figures are also expected to show that some schools have no indoor sports facilities at all, no gym hall or any sort of area where children can exercise in the winter.

The target of two hours of PE for Scottish schoolchildren has been in place for the past six years but successive administrations have missed it. The Labour-led Scottish Executive under Jack McConnell was committed to hitting the two hours’ target but it failed to do so.

Ministers blamed councillors for not raising the amount of PE in schools and a report to the Scottish Parliament in May last year showed that, in 2008, only a third of the 237 primary schools inspected provided two hours’ PE for their pupils.

It is understood that tomorrow’s figures are more comprehensive – covering every council in the country – showing little or no improvement on the 2008 report.

The SNP government came to power in 2007 with a number of educational pledges, of which this was just one.

In its manifesto, the SNP stated: “To help Scottish children develop the habit of physical fitness, we will ensure that every pupil has two hours of quality PE each week delivered by specialist PE teachers.”

But tomorrow’s statistics are expected to show that no real progress has been made in this area in the three years since the SNP was elected to office. There is now no time for the pledge to be delivered before the next election.

The statistics have been compiled by the Tories who submitted a series of freedom of information requests to local authorities and have now compiled the results.

They show the level of PE in every council area but also the state of sport facilities. Some are understood to be good but many schools, having lost sports fields to developers, now have slight or negligible facilities for their pupils.

Former Scotland and British Lions rugby Captain Gavin Hastings will be backing the Tories’ call for more sports facilities and more PE tomorrow. He will be joined by Jeremy Hunt, the UK Shadow Media, Culture and Sport minister, at the launch in Edinburgh.