It was a scene repeated, no doubt, in many parts of Scotland last weekend: a carol concert in a supermarket, given by pupils of a local school. I saw from the collecting cans that its name was Lawthorn, an ordinary wee primary school in Irvine, and there was nothing remarkable about the performance – except that the young teacher was leading it with the use of sign language. Most expressive it was too; even rather beautiful.
I decided from her relationship to her pupils, the obvious commitment and love, that she was an exceptionally gifted teacher. But I could be wrong. Maybe there are thousands of young teachers just like her. If there are, I'd have to conclude that there is not a great deal wrong with Scottish education, whatever the latest stats tell us.
There was another feature of the performance in Sainsbury’s on Sunday morning that impressed me. It was the smallness of the group: a teacher and a dozen or so children, education on a human scale.
Isn’t that how it should be: human? Above all other considerations: human?
After the carol concert, for reasons that need not detain us, I was raking through some old cuttings (the electronic version) when I came across an educational row from 50 years ago this week. It concerned a plan to incorporate Braehead Junior Secondary School, in the Fife pit town of Buckhaven, into a large new comprehensive of 1,500 pupils. The parents didn’t like it; the teachers didn’t like it; the local community didn’t like it. Only the politicians liked it. Guess who won?
The article in the newspaper was illustrated by photographs of various school activities. In one, pupils were making skis in the technical department; in another, a boy was using a world map to point out places of interest for the daily news bulletin at assembly; in a third, a pupil was painting a mural. The article informed us that Braehead was the only school in Scotland that had been invited to send contributions to an international exhibition of child painting in Vancouver. ‘We are using art to develop the child,’ explained the teacher.
In the midst of this remarkable creativity, there was disdain for the formalities of education. At Braehead (reported Marjorie Orr in the Glasgow Herald), ‘exams are regarded as one of the most invidious aspects of an educational structure which rewards the student with a memory for facts and a mind which can manipulate them'.
It came as no surprise to read that the head teacher – headmaster, as we still called them in 1966 – of this unusual establishment was Bob (R F) Mackenzie, maverick, reformer, writer and dreamer. He spoke for the teaching staff: ‘We are in favour of the comprehensive intention, where every child is of equal importance. But in a large school – the size of the ones being planned – the pupils are going to feel submerged’. Braehead had 470 pupils, and according to Mackenzie the teachers had their hands full; the new establishment would have three times that number.
How quickly – with what ruthless and heedless efficiency – we destroyed the small school. A couple of decades later, after a column in Scotland on Sunday lamenting their loss, I was corrected by Robert Crampsey, a BBC sports commentator whose day job was head teacher of one of the big comps. Mr Crampsey assured me in magisterial
terms that I could not be more mistaken: that there was no merit in schools of under 1,000 pupils. (Interesting that the same assumption is now made to justify the increasingly large teaching hospitals.) Bob Mackenzie had recently died, and his philosophy of education may have died with him; we were now in the Scotland of the Crampseys, where size mattered.
I wonder: did anyone ask the children?
We are witnesssing the apotheosis of the factory school – in Kilmarnock of all places, where, at a cost of £45 million, the local council is merging two secondary schools (Kilmarnock Academy and James Hamilton Academy) and bringing them together with two primaries (New Farm and Silverwood) in – draw breath while you can – the William McIlvanney Campus. Yes, the same William McIlvanney who made his name writing hard man crime novels and whose essential props for any newspaper photograph were a fag and a large whisky. The ‘consultation exercise’ was so brilliantly successful that all the suggested names for the new ‘super school’ were rejected and the SNP cooncil decided they knew better, foisting the William McIlvanney Campus on an unsuspecting public.
I have read the various reports produced by East Ayrshire Council in support of this monstrous scheme. The logic, in so far as there is any, seems to be based on falling school rolls: Kilmarnock Academy is down to 600 pupils, James Hamilton to just under 700 (both of them considerably larger than Braehead in 1966). Rather than take advantage of these blessings by improving pupil-teacher ratios, it is deemed necessary to ‘impose building efficiency and reduce un-necessary [sic] expenditure’ – a task in which it is being assisted by the ‘Scottish Future’s [sic] Trust’.
There are few references to the new build as a school; it’s much too fancy for that. Instead it is ‘a state-of-the-art learning environment’ which will ‘facilitate a modern curriculum and learning experience’ (you can pretty well make up the rest of the semi-literate guff for yourself).
The wisdom of mixing two-year-olds (there's to be a nursery too) with the rougher secondary boys appears to be taken for granted; heaven knows how almost 2,000 children are to be bussed from various parts of the town to learning environment central, how traffic congestion is to be avoided and traditional local rivalries (KIllie v James Hamilton) overcome.
But these are minor matters compared with the overlooked philosophical questions: how are children to be properly educated, how are they to be guided and inspired, how are they to avoid being 'submerged’, how are they to feel safe and nurtured in so vastly impersonal a complex? In the fatuous groupthink of East Ayrshire Council, there is no attempt to address these questions, far less to probe their meaning or possible implications.
Is this really the school of the future? Is this really the Scottish Government’s vision for the education of our children? It sounds more like a recipe for social dysfunction and mental breakdown.
Photograph by Islay McLeod of a classroom scene at Kilmarnock Academy