Scotland’s schools are on a mission to help every pupil

Henry Hepburn got a taste of what it’s like to be back in the classroom, and discovered the kindness of teachers is key

Schools are on a mission to educate everyone

I went back to school last week, for the first time in 26 years.

My job, of course, requires me to visit schools regularly, and sometimes to sit in on classes, or even play a small role in them, such as fielding questions about my profession.

However, I have not been an active pupil – expected to listen, cogitate and contribute like every other pupil in the room – since waving goodbye to secondary school in 1993.

I was at Falkirk High for a P7 transitions event. Parents and pupils-to-be had been invited in to look around the school and take part in mock lessons, where I assumed the teachers would hold forth and ask for an occasional contribution from the more enthusiastic members of the parent body.

In fact, when I sat at a table with three other parents, there was no hiding place. This was a geography lesson using team-teaching – an experienced teacher and a probationer took turns to lead – and the format required every pupil to contribute.

We were all numbered 1, 2, 3 or 4, with each number entailing different roles and responsibilities. We learned about megacities, were asked what we thought these might be, what you’d find in them and what problems they might face. At each stage, one of the teachers interrupted the group discussions so that we could report back to the room.

Geography was one of my favourite subjects at school and I had very good teachers, but this lesson was different to anything I experienced back then. There was a lot of energy fizzing around the room – partly because the teachers frenetically squeezed a 50-minute lesson into 20 minutes – and, after some initial coyness between parents who didn’t know each other, the ideas and discussion flowed freely.

The teachers’ enthusiasm rubbed off on the parents, and the onus on us to come up with ideas ensured there were no passengers. There was a spring in my step afterwards and, for two or three days, I kept telling people how much I had enjoyed going back to school. Plus, I knew more about megacities.

Of course, there was a certain air of artificiality to the proceedings – parents eager to see what their children will do in secondary school may be easier to enthuse than some classes of teenagers – but I thought back to my schooldays and how different they were.

Some things never change in school: when I passed a woodwork room, the smell of sawdust transported me back 30 years to a pleasurable few hours making a pencil case. But I also recalled pupils who gravitated to the fringes of classrooms and – in a tacit arrangement of mutual convenience – could be largely ignored if they kept quiet and didn’t disrupt those who were working.

A couple of comments I shared online last week seemed to resonate. At the Scottish Learning Festival, EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said that educators from other countries were struck by the “sense of common purpose” in Scottish education around issues such as poverty.

I also tweeted a quote from a pupil who, as part of Children in Scotland research, had been asked to define a good teacher and said: “If a teacher is kind, it travels across the class and puts everyone in a good mood.”

There is kindness in teachers who strive to ensure that every single child is learning – and there is common purpose in such approaches having become the norm in our classrooms.

Scottish education has plenty of problems to grapple with, some of which I wrote about in last week’s editorial (“Bold promises, sure – but they could damage Sturgeon’s legacy”, 27 September). In 2019, however, our schools are on a mission to improve the prospects of every child who comes through their doors – and that’s something to be proud of.

@Henry_Hepburn

This article originally appeared in the 4 October 2019 issue under the headline “Our schools are on a mission to educate every pupil – even me”