Guernsey Press

Nodding donkeys and rattlesnakes

Last week’s States debate on secondary education was far from pleasant but the toxic pall that had hovered over the chamber seemed to lift once it was over, says Richard Graham

Deputy Rob Prow missed a golden opportunity to tell us all how good the new school system will be.

IT WAS as a young army officer in the middle of the 1970s oil crisis that I first visited the western Canadian province of Alberta.

We landed at a military airfield somewhere out on the vast prairies and were driven to our camp by coach. Everywhere we looked were oil pumps. The entire landscape was dotted with these nodding donkeys, so named because they nodded up and down like tormented beasts of burden, programmed by their masters to work as unthinking machines. Not only were they unsightly, they also produced standing pools of mucky, nasty-smelling dark stuff.

On my return journey six weeks later they were still there, nodding away. In between, I had learned how to kill, skin, cook and eat a rattlesnake, a life skill that has limited application in Guernsey.

All of this came back to mind – including the rattlesnakes – as I listened to the States debating secondary education.

The nodding donkeys were there, those worthy members of the majority ‘blob’ who had been so thoroughly programmed that they would have nodded obligingly to support building a brand new sixth form centre on Lihou Island with Mickey Mouse as its principal if that had been proposed by the ESC.

There was some of the mucky, nasty-smelling dark stuff, too, including an attack by the ESC president on Deputy St Pier’s late amendment, during which the Bailiff had to remind her that she was coming ‘perilously close’ to allegations of dishonesty, and in doing so, would ‘run the risk of incurring my wrath’.

And what had Deputy St Pier done to attract this gratuitous attack? He had had the temerity to lay an amendment which, point by point, and with forensic accuracy, reminded members of the many substantial flaws in the ESC proposed model.

Such challenge is of course intolerable to the current ESC which month by month sinks ever deeper into the murky pool of its own Orwellian version of the truth.

But the ESC president need not have resorted to this – by now she had the ‘blob’ eating out of her hands so that her committee’s beguiling promise of a world-leading education system was duly nodded through, as it was always going to be. The fact that only 23 people in the entire universe think the model is any good didn’t seem to matter.

And the rattlesnakes? I’m not going to go there.

Across the whole debate there was a plethora of stuff worthy of comment but in a sketch such as this there is not space for it all. I select just three features that stirred my interest.

It was disconcerting to note that so many States members who had assembled for the express purpose of deciding the fate of our secondary schools had not done their homework. They hadn’t even bothered to learn how to pronounce the names of the schools and their sites. Beaucamps was pronounced as if its first syllable was French and its second English, while Varendes was mangled this way and that by a succession of deputies who, unconvincingly, professed to have engaged closely with the school there. Come on members, it’s not that difficult. Plenty of work for their coach Deputy Le Tocq it seems.

Fears were expressed that the ESC model, if approved, would lead to more parents deciding to send their children to the independent colleges.

Deputy Prow, a committed supporter of the ESC model, rose to put our minds at rest. He had an open door in front of him, a clear opportunity to reassure us that such was his faith in the model, so confident was he that it will be, as claimed, a world-beating model, that no parents in their right mind would wish to fork out £12,000 a year to send a child to a private school. Why on earth would they do so? Surprisingly, he declined to walk through the open door. Instead, he slammed it shut and insisted that there was no need to worry: no matter how dissatisfied parents might be with the new model, their children would be trapped within it because their parents would not be able to find the money to enable them to escape from it. How depressingly negative.

Yet again we heard a point that has been made countless times recently, almost as a ritual by some deputies – deputies Ferbrache and Inder prominent among them – that the real villains of the piece are those deputies of previous States terms who voted to end selection at 11 without having proposed a clear idea of how to replace it.

It is a fair point to make, but they are now exploiting it as a sort of Pontius Pilate device to absolve them from blame for the disastrous model that they are now inflicting on us. If they feel so strongly that it was a wrong decision to scrap selection at 11, why don’t they bring an amendment or a requete to bring back a selective system?

Four out of five P&R members have a record of publicly declared support for a selective system, so has the ESC president. The make-up of the current Assembly is probably more pro-selection than that of the previous two political terms. Reverting to a selective system that was fully operational until only two years ago would be easier and less costly than transition to a totally new, untried system, and would undo the injustice that the pro-selection deputies keep complaining about.

So what is stopping them? I say, either do it or learn to move on, as I did and continue to do.

As for me, now that yet another democratic decision has been made, I congratulate the ESC committee on its success in securing States approval of a model that does not enjoy support from the teaching profession. That is a considerable achievement in itself. I will now do what I did when I lost the debate over selection back in 2016/17 – in the best interests of present and future generations of students, I wish the new model to succeed as much as it is able to.

The end of the debate on secondary education seemed to lift the toxic pall that had hovered over the chamber. All of a sudden, it was as if amiability, intelligence and due respect for each other were combining to cleanse the air of its previous unpleasant odour and shine light on the dark mood that had persisted for two days or more.

Deputy Trott was right to observe that it was a credit to the Assembly that late on a Friday afternoon the debate on the regulation of Guernsey Electricity tariffs rose to the occasion. Deputy Roffey, as STSB president, gave a masterclass in how to introduce a potentially complex policy letter, ably followed by Deputy Ferbrache as P&R president and Deputy Parkinson, themselves former STSB presidents.

With few exceptions, States members commented, probed and questioned with appropriate good sense but I was not the only one to note Deputy Blin’s early bid for the position of Assembly ipsedixitist*. He had read something disturbing in the press and was determined to believe it. In vain the three committee presidents responsible for the policy letter (Roffey, Ferbrache and Inder) advised him that he really shouldn’t believe everything he reads in the newspapers.

Deputy Blin would have none of it – as far as he was concerned, it was in the newspaper so it must be true. Mmmm!

The routine business of the States included filling the committee vacancies created by Deputy Le Tissier’s suspension.

Deputy Aldwell was elected unopposed to serve on Home Affairs, where we all hope she will feel able to attend committee meetings in person.

Deputy Murray’s unopposed election to the Development & Planning Authority maintained the Guernsey Party’s significant influence there while Deputy McKenna did a brilliant job of concealing his enthusiasm on being lured into membership of the notoriously undemanding Transport Licensing Authority.

It meant that all States committees are once again fully charged, ready in two weeks’ time to provide their solutions to the next big conundrum – how to find £75m. each year via increased revenue and reduced expenditure. We can’t wait to hear them, can we?

*An admittedly esoteric term which you won’t often hear used in the Waitrose check-out queue. It means: one who makes a dogmatic assertion of a fact because they heard someone, somewhere, say it.