The First Minister takes a supply job?

Jack McConnell should go behind the PR glitz to see what today's schools are really like, says Gordon Cairns

Anyone who takes even a passing interest in our national press is guaranteed to see two things in the papers every week. The Daily Express will have a cover story about the cover-up over Princess Diana's death and the Scottish papers will carry a picture of Jack McConnell in a school surrounded by clean, freshly pressed, smiling children.

His diary probably reads: "If it's Tuesday, it must be Springburn Academy."

Apart from providing positive photo opportunities for the First Minister and the school, what is the actual point of these lightning visits? Can Mr McConnell take an accurate reading of what is happening in Scotland's schools if he doesn't see inside a random classroom or speak to a child who has not been vetted?

Schools jump through hoops to please our leader, regardless of the effect on pupils or teachers. I suppose the visit is a feather in the cap of the headteacher and it would be a brave one who decided that Mr McConnell should take as he finds.

But there are numerous stories of the ridiculous lengths to which they will go to create an unreal impression of the school. I know of one establishment where the time of the pupils' interval was changed so it wouldn't clash with the arrival of the official limousines, in case the children milling around would offend the ministerial eyes. In the same school, a pupil with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) was moved from his normal classroom in case the First Minister should hear him shouting.

When Mr McConnell visited another school on the second last day of summer term, teachers were told to have all of their classes working in case he should drop in unannounced. Without wishing to disparage our leader's teaching abilities, I'm sure even he wouldn't have been teaching maths as his colleagues were showing the pupils Gregory's Girl for the nth time or getting the board games out.

In another school, the chemistry class prepared an experiment for him to watch but, rather than be carried out by the S5 class timetabled for that period, the senior management team asked specially selected former pupils to come in to impress the First Minister, including one who hadn't ever studied the subject. The school even splashed out on new crisp white shirts for the former pupils to wear especially for the audience with Jack.

By marshalling these carefully choreographed visits, headteachers are showing a distinct lack of faith in their teachers and pupils. I have been at two schools where the First Minister has made his tightly scheduled visits, but have yet to glimpse the great man. In fact, the only evidence of his presence is the arrival of the police, media and a lot of men in dark blue suits.

Just as the Queen thinks that the United Kingdom smells of new paint, Jack McConnell must think every school in Scotland has fresh displays on the wall, all male teachers wear suits and ties and all children have middle class accents.

Unlike the Queen, however, Mr McConnell has experience of the real world and actually has the power to make decisions on the schools he visits.

The ironic thing is we are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of someone who, as a former teacher, must remember what a school is like. Or does he believe that the Scottish Executive's policies have filled Scotland's schools with shiny, happy people? If that is the case, then the words of the Czech author, Milan Kundera, in his novel Immorality could apply to our teaching force: "We have become the brilliant allies of our own gravediggers."

Just as when teachers collaborate to cover up the day-to-day realities of school life when an inspector visits, so we hide from Scotland's top decision-maker how it actually is when he comes to call. So how can we complain that schools are underfunded, that their hands are tied over discipline, or that class sizes are too large when the only thing Mr McConnell sees with his own eyes are positive, smoothly running learning communities?

If Mr McConnell really wants to see what a Scottish school is like, he could reinvent the children's classic novel The Prince and the Pauper as The First Minster and the Supply Teacher. He could disguise himself under a few days' growth and then ask to be sent into a class with a long-term absence to cover to get a true picture of how our schools can be.

Gordon Cairns teaches in Glasgow.

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