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The fun school of hard knocks

A RESEARCH report which concluded that 16-21s regard outside school experiences as more significant than schoolwork may have surprised those who put their faith in the power of the formal curriculum. But the findings that pupils place skills learned in informal settings above those of the curriculum will not have surprised those of my generation who spent their school and student vacations in a variety of jobs.

Between the ages of 14 and 22, I spent every summer holiday and a few Christmas breaks in some kind of part-time employment, ranging from the mundane and boring to the challenging and downright dangerous. There may have been no paper qualifications to be gained but, boy, did I hone my interpersonal, problem-solving and communication skills.

My first holiday job was at the tottie-howkin. This had nothing to do with the modern usage of tottie as a laddish and sexist term for attractive women; in Baillieston we never said "tattie".

For 10 bob a week I tried to keep up with the punishing speed of a tractor driver who released the spuds from their "dreels" so fast we couldn't keep up with him. I thought I was being creative when I attempted to problem-solve by pressing the Kerr's Pinks into the soil with my heel rather than howk them, but my father told me that this dodge was nothing new.

Many of my fellow howkers were elderly women and with the deference and respect for age with which most young people of that time were endued, I helped fill up their baskets when the wannabe Juan Fangio put us under pressure, though my respect for them took a dunt when I heard the things they called their oppressor.

The following year I forsook the tractor for a very large and heavy Post Office bike as I delivered telegrams. Coping with boredom was an essential skill. I seemed to spend more time sitting on the steps at the back door of the post office waiting for business than on the bike, though things picked up towards the end of the summer when the Government started sending telegrams to Army "Z" reservists in the build-up to the Suez crisis of 1956.

I was dying to say, "Hey, missus, your man's goin' to Egypt", but could never pluck up the courage.

Transport once again featured the following summer when the Milanda bakery in Glasgow's east end took me on as a "supply" worker, filling in for van boys who were on holiday or who hadn't made it to work on time. The 6am start ensured that I got plenty of work, involving first-time visits to exotic places like Yoker, Rutherglen, Drumchapel and, joy of joys, Helensburgh. Working with others took on a whole new meaning when one of the drivers became a bit overly interpersonal; it was clear why his regular boy hadn't turned up.

Two summers spent at the salmon fishing on the river Tay further broadened my outlook. I mingled for the first time with older, and certainly more worldly, students and acted as a chaperone every Saturday night to a group of hard-drinking Lewismen.

As the only teetotaller on our shift (yes, there was such a time), I was entrusted to make sure that they got back to the bothy safely after a night out in Perth. The evening usually included a visit to the City Halls for the dancin', where I once suffered the indignity of being "bounced" when a private of the Black Watch picked a fight after he thought I was trying to chat up his girlfriend - and me the only sober one in the hall.

The biggest problem in that job was how to avoid falling overboard from the motor boat during wild weather when the net was being pulled off the stern, especially important for me because I couldn't swim at the time. I solved the problem by ignoring the rules and sitting down, trusting that the net would not foul the propeller.

Unfortunately, it did just that on one occasion, resulting in my gaffer adding considerably to my vocabulary when he communicated his displeasure at my dereliction of duty.

My last two summer jobs were as a labourer in the building trade and then a kitchen porter at the Butlin's camp in Ayr. But by this time I could no longer be entrusted to chap-erone anyone after a late night revel, and was often in need of such services myself.

I'm not so sure that I agree with the young people in the survey that the skills learned in an informal setting are more important than, for example, literacy and numeracy, but I am sure of one thing - they are generally more fun.

John Cairney

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