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View from Rutland: economic tensions in England's smallest county

Everyone really does seem to know everyone else  but then there aren’t that many people to know.

The journey from the village of Cottesmore in the East Midlands county of Rutland to the town of Oakham is four miles. It takes about 40 minutes by bus, which runs only every two hours. I lived in Rutland until I was 18 and this bus was one of several things about the area that made leaving an absolute imperative. This time, though, I’m just visiting. To an outsider’s eye, the gently rolling farmland and wooded avenues we meander through are beautiful.

Signs for the Plough, the Wheatsheaf and the Fox and Hounds slide past: pub names that suggest an ideal of rustic England. As the bus collects its passengers, it fills up with chat: who didn’t make this journey last week because they were working late shifts, what’s been happening at the depot. Everyone really does seem to know everyone else but then there aren’t that many people to know in Rutland. As well as being England’s smallest county, this is also one of the most sparsely populated, with just 38,000 residents.

Thanks to the 1975 sketch show Rutland Weekend Television, a surprising number of people think that Rutland is fictional. Actually, between 1974 and 1997 it didn’t strictly exist. Instead, it was merged into neighbouring Leicestershire, returning to unitary status 20 years ago;
and, having reclaimed its identity, Rutland is proud of it. Oakham is flocked in the county’s emblem: a horseshoe, hung legs down according to a local tradition that this stops the devil sitting in it.

Many of the town’s largest buildings belong to Oakham School, one of Rutland’s two independent schools (the other is in the county’s only other town, Uppingham). Fees for Oakham start at £5,635 a term and about half the students are day pupils. The shop windows of Oakham offer goods to suit such wealthy local people. In one, there’s a silver-plated champagne bucket shaped like a stag’s head. It costs £289.

Not many people in Rutland take the bus, and if you should need to, you’re unlikely to make it to work on time. Ownership of two or more vehicles per household runs above the national average here; getting by with fewer than one car for each adult is difficult.

The constituency of Rutland and Melton has been safely Conservative since it was created in 1983. You have to go back to the 1850s to find a non-Tory representative for the area. Travelling around the county the week after the election was called, I saw barely any sign of a contest: no posters, no placards and no canvassers on the doorstep.

Such uneventfulness means that Rutland rarely makes it into the news – until recently, when data journalists at the Daily Mirror uncovered a quirk in the most recent census. Among the twentysomething age group, Rutland is the most male-dominated county in the UK. For every 100 young men, there are just 68 young women. The website Vice even sent a journalist to Oakham to investigate: she claimed to have been “marching up and down the streets for a full day” to find six women to speak to.

She must have been very unlucky. When I visit Oakham, there are young women in the shops, young women in the cafés and young women collecting children from school. It’s not that there are no women in Rutland. Rather, the distortion comes from the three forces bases and a prison located within the county borders, four heavily male sites that easily skew the low baseline population.

What Rutland is short of, however, is working-age people of either sex, and in this it’s like many rural areas. “Rutland’s kind of for older people,” says Alicia, a Year Ten student at Casterton College. “It’s a bit boring.” Her plan is to become a lawyer, which will involve leaving the area to go to university, a prospect that – thanks to the poor public transport and the shortage of things to do outside school – she in no way regrets.

It’s not only aspiring professionals who leave. Rutland’s landscape is still a working one, and county by-laws reflect farming’s historical importance here, allowing for children as young as ten to take part in light farm or garden work. But there is little call for them to do so: agricultural employment is declining year on year. Many of the industries that once provided manual employment in the villages are diminished or gone: Ruddles brewery in Langham closed in 1999, and the cement works at Ketton has suffered progressive redundancies since the 1980s.

Meanwhile, older and wealthier people move in, drawn by the attractive countryside at commutable distances to cities such as Leicester and Peterborough. One result is that median house prices in Rutland run at nine times the median wage (the national figure is 7.6), and renting is similarly expensive.

“Young families tend not to move to Rutland, because they can’t afford to,” says Carl Smith, the head teacher of Casterton (like most of the staff, he lives outside the county). That is a problem for the schools, Smith says, which can struggle to recruit pupils despite good Ofsted reports. But it is also bad for the whole county: “For a community to thrive and be balanced in the long run, it’s worth making sure that you have a fair representation of different age groups.”

The losers will ultimately be that older population. The growth occupations of the future, as the county council’s economic strategy document points out, are in social care, providing for Rutland’s booming cohort of over-85s. The challenge will be finding these workers when so many young people can’t see a life for themselves here.

You can find the rest of our consituency profiles from the 2017 general election here.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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