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Golden chances still for the few

It was one of those warm, balmy evenings when your heart sings to be alive.

The girls were beautiful in their gowns, rustling and shimmering as they tumbled out of the limo, a mass of colourful silks and slinky satins. The boys were handsome in their kilts as they strode up from the nearest bus stop.

The sixth-year ball was a celebration of the end of school, and these brightest and best pupils had made it to the very end. Were we as sophisticated at that age? Our skirts were shorter, the boys' trousers tighter - but I doubt we had their confidence.

They danced, laughed and propped up the bar, forgetting about exams and assignments missing the deadline. Most of these pupils are bright. Some are exceptionally hard-working and will succeed, whatever they do.

But too many will not be able to cope with the self-discipline needed to get through university, and be unprepared for its academic demands. So I hope the recent vote at the Educational Institute of Scotland's annual conference to force the Scottish Executive to reduce class sizes to 20 is effective. This is especially important in English and maths.

Primary schools are fantastic places, the curriculum covering a breadth that is amazing. But it does it by cutting back on the basics of reading, writing and good old arithmetic. By the time pupils hit secondary school, many have illegible writing and few really know their tables. And primaries, too, are also suffering from classes that are way too big - especially when we consider the wide range of special needs pupils who may lack learning support.

The bright sparks find high school so easy they don't need to try very hard to get good grades, and the first real wake-up call is when they move from Standard grade into Higher and just don't know how to study.

Our children come up from a primary classroom where they all worked according to their ability, to a high school where practically everyone does the same work. And an S1 class can have reading ages ranging from eight to 15.

Smaller class sizes would mean teachers could differentiate work for the most able as well as for the less able. It would mean that these children would be asked to think and achieve in S1 and S2 - so they would automatically do it in middle and upper school.

It would also mean that teachers would have the time to keep track of older pupils and make sure that they were working as hard as they could, and aiming higher than they do just now.

Aye, it was a good night at the ball. Their mums would be proud of them.

And I hope I'm wrong in predicting how many of them will fail at university, simply because we (through too many demands on our time) failed our brightest kids in first and second year.

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