Fog in Education; Continent Cut Off

Tuesday was a big day for 151,000 expectant Scottish pupils who received their exam results—and very well they did too. Praise is due to their efforts, plus those of their teachers (and hopefully, most of their parents) to bring in a record set of results as these young people start gathering the qualifications that will launch them on their many, varied careers. Some of the achievements deserve noting:

  • The pass rate for Advanced Highers increased by two points to 82.1%.
  • For Highers, the rate increased by 0.5 points to 77.4%.
  • Intermediate levels one and two increased to 77.8% and 81.8% respectively.

All the way up too the Scottish Government, the praise for all this rolled in. Angela Constance, Minister for Youth Employment and the MSP for Almond Valley was obviously chuffed to bits:

“I am delighted that so many have come out with strong grades, leaving them well positioned for whatever they choose to do next. The exam pass rates are building on a solid record of achievement, meaning that today is a time for celebration.

“Record pass rates in a set of rigorously assessed exams confirm Scotland’s strong record in attainment and I wish the class of 2013 the very best of luck in their next steps, be it another year in school, or moving on to college, university, training or employment.”

But good news and fine achievement though all this is, some alarm bells ought to be ringing among the more thoughtful pedagogues in Scotland—if not Mike Russell’s—just how focussed these results are on “their next steps”, especially when compared with our continental neighbours, with whom we could be in even more bare-knuckled competition, should the 2014 referendum choose ‘Yes’.

Firstly, of the 64 subjects offered for examination, only nine were foreign languages. Take out the handful doing Greek (8) and Latin (238), you are left with the  bulk doing European languages —French (4,236), German (1,050), Spanish (1,645) and Italian (238)—and a risible number doing languages likely to dominate the non-English-speaking huge majority of the world this century:

  • Urdu (109) —or 0.072% of all pupils
  • Chinese (66) —or 0.043% of all pupils
  • Russian (36) —or 0.023% of all pupils
  • Portuguese (0) —(’nuff said)

In other words, Scotland has just graduated a generation of our brightest kids with barely  one in one thousand able to speak ANY language of the BRIC countries. Were we an inward-looking country, more concerned with our own culture, this dereliction might seem more understandable, even as it was inexcusable. But, for all the stushie about Gaelic learning, dual road signs, kilts, heritage and the entire BBC Alba channel dedicated to the language, a mere 236 passes in Gaelic—either native or learner—were achieved. That’s a risible 0.15% and means Gaelic continues in decline as far more speakers than that died last year.

But to more substantive subjects. While there is every reason to study and lead successful careers in vocational subjects, they tend not to be the subjects leading to business and technical innovation that, in turn, furnishes economic growth and wealth for all. The 20,633 in Mathematics, 14,088 in Biology, 10,001 in Chemistry and 8,788 in Physics look like solid numbers—until you realise that this represents only 13.66%, 9.32%, 6.62% and 5.81% respectively. The next Stephen Hawking may be in there but the probability is low, purely because of the low numbers. Even more alarming, the proportion taking these subjects continues to fall.

This is not to say those now qualified in History (10,337), Modern Studies (8,027), Physical Education (6,883), Art & Design (6,493), Religious Moral & Philosophical Studies (4,136) Psychology (3,370) or Drama (2,638) will not to go on to fulfilling lives in financial comfort. But—Richard Branson and Michelle Mone notwithstanding—they are unlikely to win contracts for the Wood Group or discover the next superconductor.

But, rather than those thousands listed in the last paragraph all wanting to be the next Tom Devine or Chris Hoy or Gerard Butler, there is a terrible suspicion that many take such subjects—rather than science-based—because they are easier (quite apart from being cool). And the great pressure on pupils, teachers, examiners and government alike is to get more passes. The subject and its relevance to the future have become secondary considerations.

And the sad thing is that the mutually supporting conspiracy listed can get away with ignoring what goes on elsewhere. Between a residual hubris that the Scots have the best education system in the world and our tendency to compare things with the English (who have, incidentally been waking up to smell the 21st century coffee), we verge on being pig ignorant of the educational strides being made elsewhere, still less appreciating what that means for our own approach.

This blog has already pointed out the educational achievements in Singapore and Scandinavia but it is manufacturing giants like Germany that we need to consider if we are to compete globally in quality manufacturing. Rather than allow pupils to specialise after a couple of years of high school (and thereby get the chance to pick some ‘soft options’), the Germans insist on a suite of subjects.

After primary education, three basic options are available to German pupils. They may, after counseling by the elementary school teacher and upon the request of the parents, be placed in a Realschule, a Gymnasium, or a Hauptschule, the last representing a continuation of elementary education.

Those pupils attending the Hauptschule proceed with their study of language, arithmetic, geography, history, science, music, art, and physical education. After completion of a four- or five-year program of studies at the Hauptschule, the pupil typically enters apprenticeship training. This is not considered undesirable as skilled workers earn high salaries.

In Germany the term “secondary school” refers to institutions offering courses leading to the “Certificate of Maturity” (Reifezeugnis), a qualification for entrance to an institution of higher education. Realschule offers pupils further general education, some pre-vocational courses, and English-language study. At the age of 16, students conclude their program of studies and transfer to a vocational school or enter apprenticeship training.

If academically qualified, a pupil may also transfer to the Gymnasium. The Gymnasium, the third alternative for German youth, offers rigorous academic preparation for higher education. Like the lycée in France, the Gymnasium is designed for those students who have shown the most academic promise; and its curriculum, emphasizing languages, mathematics, natural sciences, and social sciences, requires a high degree of diligence throughout all of the nine grades. Unsuccessful students in the Gymnasium may be transferred to the Hauptschule. At the age of 16, moreover, pupils may terminate their academic studies and enter a vocational school.

This is not to argue that Scotland should immediately adopt the German system. But their acknowledgement of the difference of vocational training and its importance, that university education is both different from it and inappropriate for more than a relatively small percentage of students and the carrying of a broad set of subjects to the end of secondary school actually echoes Scottish education in its earlier days.

When did we adopt the English principle of mass university attendance when it would appear to serve both our young and our prosperity less well than what the dominies once dinned into everyone not so long ago?

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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