According to the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) league tables, we are about as good at educating our children as we are at playing world-class football. That is, we are not very good. New PISA results should be out this year, but at the last round in 2015, Scotland fell in the league table for science from 'above average' to 'average'. We have scored 'average' at maths and reading for some years.
Teaching should be one of the most rewarding pastimes possible. Education is the keystone of civilisation itself. Learning, like eating, is something we all naturally have an appetite for. It should be a pleasure. If a child goes off their food, we worry and look for the cause. Perhaps they are ill or there's something wrong with the food. Many of our children it seems are being put off learning, and that should worry us too. What are we doing wrong?
I'm a former teacher – there are plenty out there – from a family of teachers. My two brothers, two sisters, mother and father were all teachers. All of us left the profession early, most disillusioned and glad to get out.
It was not through the academic attainment of our pupils, or lack of it, that disillusioned most of the ex-teachers I know – it was the working culture. The never-ending stress-inducing discipline warfare. The archaic hierarchical relationship between heads and staff that leaves teachers feeling like they themselves are children. I think, and I am sure I am not alone, that if we are to improve our position in the PISA league, it is not a change in the curriculum we need, it's a change in culture.
I started teaching physics and maths in Bannerman High in Baillieston in 1984 – about the time the belt was banned. While doing my teacher training the year before in Auchmuty High in Fife, the then head of maths, after watching my feeble attempt to control a rowdy class, told me that the secret was to wait for an unequivocal misdemeanour from the weakest of the rabble and belt him. His reasoning being that if I belted the strongest and he laughed, my authority would be further undermined. It's a tactic used by authoritarians the world over I'm sure. I didn't do it, I've never hit a child in my life, and he gave me a bad 'crit' perhaps as a result – unfortunately not a bad enough crit to get me chucked out.
In my second year as a qualified teacher in Bannerman High, in a moment of insanity, I volunteered to go on a week-long school trip by bus to Blankenberge in Belgium. I remember the bald tyres of the bus hardly able to make it up any slight incline and the maths teacher I fancied flirting with every man in Belgium but me. Before departing, each teacher signed a form verifying that they were aware of being in 'loco parentis' – Spanish for 'being like a parent gone mental' and, in fact, behaving like a parent gone mental was the de facto replacement for the belt. Teachers took to shouting like Sergeant Major Tudor Bryn 'Shut Up' Williams, and have continued to do so to this day. I think it is time for this to stop. Shouting at children, like the belt, should be banned.
Can you imagine the change in culture that would bring about? It could be done. A small bell, a telephone app, with a tinkle like the gentle tinkle to mark the start of the speeches at a wedding would ring, and if some difficult child refused to pay attention, they would be quietly and politely asked to leave the room. A button on the electronic register – something used in most Scottish schools today – would text the parent with a simple message: 'Your son/daughter was excluded from French today because they would not ferme la bouche.' The parents could phone the child immediately and disciplinary matters could return to the place they belong. Gone the pulsing neck vein and iron-tight abdomen. Back peace, health, happiness and civilisation.
Where else in life are people shouted at in such a way? In the army and in prison. Do our schools really belong in that category? Don't get me wrong, I'm not a fan of exclusion and know, as most teachers do, that the troublesome children are the ones who need our support most. But there must be better ways to do it than shouting at them.
By the 90s I had escaped high school into further education and only now revisit the Scottish high school experience this time as a parent of a first-year pupil. At a welcome evening for new intake parents, we were handed a single-page document showing a family tree of boxes full of words. I discovered only when I got to the beginning that I was reading it backwards. My eyes were drawn first to the busy complex right side of the page, where the boxes were small and the writing denser. I assumed I would find important information there. I didn't. Scanning to the left the boxes got bigger but curiously, in an 'Alice in Wonderland' way, the words in each of them became fewer, with the largest left-most box shouting in capitals only two words: 'BECOME EXTRAORDINARY.'
Hyperbole inflation is epidemic. Official documents are littered with comic superlatives. Excellence is now 'extraordinary', as if by this hyperbole inflation and telekinesis we will somehow 'will' things to get better. Nowhere on the document of ever subdivided objectives could I find the word 'HAPPINESS'. Happiness, a right mentioned in the American constitution, is not it seems a right for our children or staff in our schools. My heart sank into a pit when the school careers officer was brought on to wind this welcome evening up. Oblivious to the inappropriateness of his appearance in front of the parents of 11-year-olds, he said nothing meaningful, his presence reminding us simply that this school was not in the business of making happy, clever young people – it was in the business of manufacturing workers.
My brother's daughter, one year younger than mine, started middle school in Jersey City this year. He posted a picture of her on day one standing in the sun. Wearing trainers and dressed in bright colours, she looked a bit like a wee Aberdeen supporter. I took a picture of my daughter too on her first day at high school, dressed in joyless black from head to foot, her white blouse the only thing likely to make her at all visible on a dark winter afternoon. It is a common school uniform across Scotland. A sartorial echo presumably of the mourning apparel worn by Queen Victoria after the death of Albert in 1861, the era in which many state schools were founded.
The fact that some of the older girls in my daughters' school have taken to removing their black skirt altogether turning up wearing only sheer black tights when there is snow on the ground is an additional reason Victorian uniforms, as well as the shouting, must go. It's a grim and oppressive way to be forced to dress, and invites protest and opposition. On occasional Fridays, the children are 'allowed' to wear smart-casual clothing, and when they do, they suddenly seem transformed into young responsible adults. Why can't they always go to school dressed like that? Perhaps because they also seem to be happier, and happiness is a threat – a portent of anarchy.
An Italian friend of mine offered some insight. He worked as an art teacher in an Edinburgh comprehensive. His observations of Scottish high school culture were astute. The children disliked the teachers and the teachers disliked the children, and all of them disliked being in school, were unhappy, and couldn't wait to go home. It did not help that the phonetic of my friend's surname, deliberately mispronounced in a Scottish accent, sounded a little like 'O' Fanny', a weapon the children quickly grasped and used incessantly to knock his spirit down to the level of his demoralised Scottish colleagues.
When a job came up in Italy, Mr 'O' Fanny' was off back to a world where school opened at 8am and closed at 1pm. Where many teachers had afternoon jobs. The FTT teacher made bespoke cakes, the technical teacher doubled as a joiner, the art teacher illustrated children's books. They did real world work that kept their skills up, got them out of the world of children into the world of grown-ups, and no doubt helped prevent them from going loco parentis.
My daughter's school is one rung on the ladder below the Edinburgh state school average in pupil attainment. Becoming ordinary would be an achievement. Like many other Scottish state schools, it is missing teachers due to shortages, but probably more due to daily illness. They are often sick. Sick of going to work. When my daughter reports that a teacher has been absent she gestures 'sick' with air quotes, so openly is this view held. It has seen cuts to support for students with extra needs and has all the usual struggles. Some of this could be solved with more money of course, but a change in culture? Fresh air. A new way of doing things? What would that do?
I know things are not as black and white as my daughter's uniform. I now teach for the Open University and one of my students this year is a young teacher bubbling with enthusiasm for the job. I can't say I'm worried about the next set of PISA results either. Being an average nation is fine by me. I don't want excellence or world-class learning, I want happiness.
John Scott writes:
Gerry Hassan starts his article on the use of the belt in Scottish schools (11 April 2018
) by noting how much opposition there is to making smacking children a criminal offence. From the results of an opinion poll, he concludes that there was a 'widespread tolerance of violence.'
I would draw very different conclusions from the same raw polling data. First, if a law making smacking a child a criminal offence were passed, it would amount to the posthumous criminalisation of many Scots' parents and grandparents. Second, there is little hard evidence that this is a serious social problem today; that children are actually being harmed by smacking. Many people in Scotland are concerned that such a law might lead to its misuse by officious bureaucrats. Banning smacking might lead to minor offences being aggressively pursued as an easy means of demonstrating commitment to the cause of child protection.
Viewed in isolation, it is easy to see why there is support for a law against smacking. Viewed in the wider context of the recent history of Scotland, opposition to it makes more sense. There is, among ordinary Scots, a great deal of distrust of officialdom, and this has increased in recent years. People view the criminal law as being manipulated, as a crude and unsuccessful means of social engineering, or, even more disturbing, a way for politicians to parade their radicalism when ignoring vastly more significant social problems. (The offensive behaviour at football act, the named persons scheme, and the designation of certain crimes as 'hate crimes,' are examples of legal measures supported by interest groups, but without the backing of a public consensus.)
A prime example of the more serious problem not being tackled is that of 'educational apartheid' – to use a phrase I associate with Gerry Hassan. This problem has been hiding in plain sight since Michael Forsyth forced schools to publish exam results a generation ago. Efforts to deal with it have been barely half-hearted.
John Scott is a retired teacher