25 November 2014

Books, Books, Books - Love 'Em

The cultural fanfare that is Book Week Scotland 2014 opens its annual chapter on November 24–30 in a celebration of what literature has done and continues to do to enrich society.

In a speech I made to the former First Minister Alex Salmond as he left the Scottish Parliament for the last time in office, I noted that he was a man of privilege. I made the point that this was not due to money or connections, but was rather due to his experiences in his home town of Linlithgow, his caring parents, and the free education that started him off on his political career.

Many schools across Scotland provide an excellent standard of education and this is something that as a country we should be proud of. But in some areas we fall short and need to improve – for the sake of future generations.

The ‘Read On Get On’ campaign has revealed that in Scotland, one in five children from poor families leaves primary school unable to read well. This inability can cut children’s chances in life short, and will in turn make Scotland less of a fair society.

I believe that an event such as Book Week Scotland is an excellent opportunity to highlight the importance of reading from a young age, and the impact it can have on a person’s life.

Book Week Scotland is a week-long celebration of all things in book form that takes place every November with old and young alike taking part. Events are held in libraries, schools, community venues and workplaces to enjoy books and the art of reading. Also taking part will be some of the finest Scottish authors, poets, playwrights, storytellers and illustrators.

And what better way to experience the joy of a good book than to make use of the local library service. The public library is a resource that cannot be underestimated – providing free access to all ages and abilities, and expanding the mind on a wide range of subjects.

In November 2013, I was delighted when Moray Council decided against closing down a few local libraries - one of which was in Cullen. Libraries provide a vital service to rural communities, but in both rural and urban settings, the community who uses the facility will benefit.

I second what the deputy director of Scottish Book Trust, Sophie Moxon, when she said that “libraries are an integral part of communities across the country, providing a hugely important service that can often change the direction of a library user’s life.”

The Trust has launched its own ‘Love Letter to Your Library’ campaign to highlight how important a library is to everyone who lives in Scotland, and how they would be lost without it.

The Chief Executive of the Scottish Library and Information Council (SLIC) Amina Shah further added that libraries mean different things to different people.

She said:

“For some, they are a quiet space to get lost in a good book, while for others they are a social space to attend events, meet people and learn something new. Our Love Letters to Libraries campaign will give people a chance to show the full extent of their appreciation for these quiet guardians of the written word.”

I would encourage everyone across my Banffshire and Buchan constituency to look out for events associated with Scottish Book Week, and any others regularly held at local libraries.

There are many ways that we can strive to improve education across Scotland and I am proud to be a member of a party that is committed to this. But we should also make the most of what we have available to us, and not neglect the fantastic resources that could be just around the corner.

11 November 2014

Winning Locally and Beyond

Over the last month I have been delighted to witness the importance of people standing up for what they believe in.

Following a public march and much protest, proposals in Moray Council’s Sustainable Education Review to close schools across the region were dropped.

In my constituency, in the Moray Council area of my constituency, the future of schools in Findochty, Portknockie, Portessie, Cullen and Rothiemay, and Crossroads and Cluny schools and of schools nearby at Portgordon and Newmill was under review.

I met with campaigners in the coastal schools around Buckie and they were eloquent in their arguments refuting the findings of the council’s consultants. These arguments had been heard, and with unanimous support from SNP councillors, there will be no rural school closures anywhere in Moray for the foreseeable future.

Schools remain at the heart of our communities and with no clear educational grounds for their closure, the local community was right to fight for the opportunities provided on their door step.

In a recent speech I made about addressing the attainment gap in Scottish schools I criticised the proposals from Caledonian Economics for school closures. These Moray schools all hold a good record – they are not failing, and for school children to lose out due to economic circumstances was not a situation that local parents and campaigners were going to take lying down. Minimum choice and a lack of diversity was not a good enough option for locals in Moray.

We want the best for our children and a good education is crucial to ensure that they have the choices they need to make the most out of their lives.

More recently I led debate on School Bus Safety across Scotland – an issue that has been spearheaded by Gardenstown resident Ron Beaty who has campaigned for safety improvements in this area over the past 10 years.

After his granddaughter was left permanently disabled due to an accident in the vicinity of a school bus, he has been a ferocious champion of the cause. He is an example of what can be done when one person takes it upon themselves to fight for a cause that they believe in, with potential benefits for so many others.

Around two thirds of a million pupils make their way to around 2700 schools each day and many of these do so by bus. Therefore this issue is important and affects anyone who has children and grandchildren, as well as the wider community.

Education authorities and bus operators working for them to transport school students are acutely aware of the need to protect their passengers. What is needed is good clear signage that the bus is a school bus and its removal when it is not in this use. Flashing lights can be used on the bus to get a driver’s attention, risk assessments can be done and 20 mph speed limits can be introduced where this would help. We can and must do more, and Ron Beaty continues to challenge the current situation.

In Aberdeenshire and Moray a number of steps have been taken to improve safety, and Transport Scotland has produced guidance for our 32 local authorities on how they can help improve school transport safety.

With a greater focus on school transport safety in the north east in particular, we've not seen a repeat of the string of very serious injuries that we had a few years ago. Policy and practice changes may have contributed. Or the very bad winters which closed down schools and the comparatively mild ones that reduced weather risks, may have been a significant factor.

So the final word on this, I will give to Ghandi – “Be the change you want to see in the world” – it’s the only way to make it a better place for all.

Stewart Stevenson
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