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It's positively ideal at this comprehensive

Regular readers will be aware that I am a child of my time - the Sixties - and those who have taught during the same period will be well aware of the struggle to keep hold of our original principles and ideals. With age, of course, comes pragmatism and a slight adjustment of position - never thought you'd get me in a suit. But some things are just non-negotiable - like the comprehensive ideal.

I've heard Kenneth Clark suggest he was lucky to attend grammar school because it was just the sort of education that suited him. That may also be true for me, but I'm less comfortable than him in espousing a system that suits a very small proportion of the population. However, there are times when your belief needs the oxygen of affirmation, and I received that last week.

Sitting down to lunch, I was joined by two first years, still at that age when chatting to Sir is a treat rather than punishment. Opposite me was Jan, one of our Polish pupils, recently arrived but already fluent, if formal, in his English.

Unwrapping his ham sandwich, he caught my eye: "I am very happy today. I have just had a French exam and I came top. I worked very hard for it and I am delighted to have received 19 out of 20. I will receive a certificate from Miss Daly and a praise postcard posted home. I am very happy. The second in the test got 16, and she was a French girl."

His eyes were positively gleaming.

Next to me was Jimmy, with additional learning needs but forthright in communication. "Hey Jan," he beamed. "That's brilliant! Keep on working hard like that till fifth year and you'll get the qualifications for a job or college or something! Well done!"

I was goggle-eyed. What was this but the comprehensive ideal writ large at the lunch table: an immigrant pupil with a strong work ethic and obvious ability chatting to a local lad with difficulties in school - and both of them enthusing about the rewards of hard work and academic success.

The lump in my throat may well have been the excellent cod in batter provided by Andrea, our superb dining supervisor, but I suspect not. You could say my joy was - comprehensive.

Sean McPartlin is depute head at St Margaret's Academy, Livingston.

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