Politicians of all stripes seem ferally inclined to have a go at one another. But one area on which even they all agree is on the importance of education. And, having led the world in getting its broad citizenry into schools three hundred years ago and through the Scottish Enlightenment a hundred years after that, surely Scotland should be some kind of educational superpower, no?
Er, no. While politicos knock lumps off each other on class sizes, on pupil/teacher ratios, on the merits or otherwise of Curriculum for Excellence, while teachers squabble over less pension for more work and their unions fixate on pay structures and in-service hours, kids are still being dumped at the end of our education production line like so many horse buggies in an automotive world. When employment was plentiful, this went little-noticed. Today everyone agrees youth unemployment is a scandal. We are no basket case, But we do compare poorly with other countries like Finland, Denmark, etc.
Ah, but how to fix it? In the noughties, Labour created slick youth employment schemes that did little more than slip numbers off the unemployed statistics for a year or two. The present modern apprentice schemes are more laudable but broadly equivalent to treating a brain hemorrhage with elastoplasts. Everyone wants quick fixes and education officials see the issues as theirs to solve. But, even in 1680, the world was a complicated place and no parish dominie worth his salt would have seen teaching his kids as his job and his alone.
A good education has always been a complex and elusive thing. But in this hectic world of specialists we have made of the 21st century, our streamlined thinking jams complex matters into facile categories. Just as when our car gets sick and the mechanic cures it, we expect the same from the hospital: it’s a service; we’ve paid for it; I’m entitled. The concept of responsibility for our own health is only beginning to be dimly perceived. And, until it is, our NHS will go on taking £1 in every £3 our government spends.
The same applies to education. Parents can be seen in two main types: 1) ambitious ones who want their child to succeed, seeing education essential to get there and; 2) indifferent ones who see school as kind of day care and expect it to deal with any and all their kids’ problems for them. Both approaches deserve criticism.
The ambitious parents fixate rather too much on qualifications. Vital though those are, there is seldom the kind of pro-active involvement which engages the child in activities outside of school, especially those that complement what the teacher may be doing. With both parents out working—often the case in ambitious households—the connection between the school day and the rest of life can be tenuous to the point of schizophrenia.
The indifferent parents are often not that way through choice. Again, both parents may work or it’s just a single parent at their wit’s end. Often the neighbourhood is one where academic, or any other kind of success, is a rarity. Not only the child but the parents themselves are presented with no local role models, nor support/advice that makes sense to them. ELC runs a project in Musselburgh called First Step that seeks to address this but it is one of very few drops in a bucket of daunting scale.
Why is this all so negative? Why are we not celebrating the fact that last year, exam attainment across Scotland again set a record? Because we’re lying to ourselves. From kids, through parents, teachers, schools, all the way up to the Minister, it suits everyone to have exam inflation, where exams get slightly easier; everyone can boast improvement. But it is self-delusion. Firstly, much essential education cannot be measured by exams and secondly, youth unemployment and business feedback makes it clear the system is poor at turning out employable people.
Tomorrow, a major summit by Holyrood’s Finance Committee will examine this ongoing, deteriorating issue of youth unemployment. In preparation for that, Arnold Clark has released a depressing evaluation on the employability of Scottish youth, in which 80% (1,850 out of 2,280 applicants to them) were declared unfit to work as apprentices. Now, we are not talking about calculus, nor the correct use of the Past Anterior here. As the report puts it:
““We are increasingly concerned at the state-sponsored babysitting nature of some college programmes, rather than the specifically targeted vocational training for near-guaranteed employment we believe taxpayers’ money should be being spent on.”
Students are work-shy, regarding the 18-hour week they attended college as already too onerous. Other criticism included a poor attitude to others, no concept of citizenship, poor communication skills, a poor understanding of the standards expected and an “inability to make a decision based on anything other than ‘I want’.“
Blaming educators is the obvious remedy. But what is almost always overlooked are the 150 hours each week when the students are not at college or the slightly less time pupils are not at school. Three hundred years ago, parents, neighbours, ministers, etc were part of the education process. Even in John McLean’s time on Clydeside, the principles of self-improvement were still ingrained in their thinking. Today’s easy TV diet of soap operas, fantasy contests and overpaid ‘celebrities’ are poor substitutes for such rugged support.
But where present-day socialists seem to have it wrong is that education isn’t the great leveller—it’s the great raiser-upper. But only if the child has some form of extracurricular support to round out the rote of learning in school itself, the chance to apply what they learn and see their options. There another article in today’s Hootsmon that describes how even recently, growing up on a council estate but listening to Simple Minds still opened that window out onto the world showing even a third-generation on the burroo that there were other options.
And here’s the multi-layered dilemma. If the world were less complex and hectic, there would be more peace and time to focus. If we had fewer growing up on deprived estates, there would be less distraction and more support. If parents were better able to comprehend their kids and not see them as extensions of themselves. If we had more old-school teachers who know their kids and intervene with them when required.
Modern kids are no more stupid than those in 1680. But certificates are only part of education—and not even the most important part. If we can help kids navigate the pitfalls of the paragraph above, they will achieve much—not least developing their skills, their interests, their ambition, whether as surgeon or stable-boy.
STV is currently running the 56-Up documentary that charts a dozen 7-year-olds at 7 year intervals from 1963 to the present. They were of all social backgrounds but where they wound up—from cheeky Cockney jockey to Hooray Henry—was both predictable and yet surprising. Most stumbled somewhere along the way; those that did while still in education had the hardest times and harboured most regrets; all recovered under their own steam and were the better for it.
If tomorrow’s committee is just another bunch of politicos grandstanding for the camera and trying to knock points off their opponents, we’re no further on. But if they take the Curriculum for Excellence as their starting point, encourage social work to stop acting like they operated on another planet, inspired parents to be just that and teachers to remember the dominie’s social heart under his crusty black-gown exterior, we might leave a country better populated by the personal success stories to which we all aspire.