I’m just about old enough to have had a school friend who was hit by his teacher. Andrew (we’ll call him) was in P3 in the early 1980s. He hadn’t misbehaved, he just couldn’t do his sums.
An impasse was reached: Andrew tried to work out the answers in his green SPMG textbook but got stuck each time. Any attempt to ask the teacher for help was rebuffed – he had to do the work himself, she said. Finally, after two weeks marooned at the same point, the teacher tired of his protestations and rapped him over the knuckles with a wooden ruler.
Andrew had had enough. The next morning in the playground, he told his best friend that he was going to avoid another run-in during maths by running home instead. Little Andrew wandered the four miles back to his house, calmly following and crossing busy commuter roads with no sense of the panic now seizing various adults.
He thought his mum, sitting at home on her own, would be delighted to see him earlier then she usually did on a weekday. But she had taken a call saying that Andrew had disappeared; as a non-driver, and in a time before mobiles, there was little more she could do than sit sobbing by the phone, hoping for another, happier, call.
When Andrew appeared on the doorstep, his mum’s blind panic collided with searing relief and he got another tongue-lashing from an adult – Andrew thought he just couldn’t do anything right.
But he was lucky. After his parents learned about what had happened over the past fortnight, the school became the focus of their ire. Then his dad, a scientist, set about giving Andrew a crash course in arithmetic. Decades later, that effort more than paid off: Andrew became an actuary.
You don’t have to look far to find things to complain and worry about in Scottish education in 2017. Flick on a few pages and you’ll find pieces about teacher pay and the recruitment crisis in schools. But a new BBC Two documentary series starting next Thursday at 9pm, Growing Up in Scotland – A Century of Childhood, suggests that Scottish schools are far better places than they were a few decades ago.
A nuanced picture of Scottish education emerges. Yes, Scotland was a pioneer of universal education, and Scots long prided themselves in having one of the best education systems in the world. But from vox pops with myriad people who came through that system, another picture emerges: Scottish schools were, for a long time, highly authoritarian and failed the many children not equipped to navigate their rigid demands.
Scottish schools were, for a long time, highly authoritarian and failed many children
School exerted a form of “social control”, we hear, a selection test at 11 acting as a “sieving of the working class”, as one contributor puts it. Obedience was valued over initiative and, recalls author and former bishop Richard Holloway, school was “something you had to get through” – you made it to the other side, if you were lucky.
A symbol of these times was the dreaded Lochgelly tawse, inflicted on pupils not only for bad behaviour but also when they came up short academically. To see some of today’s primary pupils holding a tawse in the BBC programme, turning it over like some alien artefact with no idea what it was for, is a powerful reminder of the progress that has been made.
Scotland’s current policy mantra of “getting it right for every child” is in danger of becoming a cliché – but it’s worth remembering that such an aspiration was not always a given in our schools.