There was a time, not long ago, when Scottish youngsters were regularly outshone by their peers from other countries. Not in the personal skills or academic abilities they actually possessed, but in how good these seemed to be to strangers. Scottish kids couldn't sell themselves.
It wasn't their fault. They had been taught not to try. Scotland has a long tradition of making sure children don't get above themselves. It did them no favours. While we preached the virtues of modesty and reserve, schools elsewhere sent young people out with the confidence to stand up, make themselves heard and demonstrate how good they were.
But traditions don't have to hang around forever and, propelled by a kick in the pants from the new curriculum, this one may be headed for the door. It certainly is if the recent performance of a party of sixth-year scholars from all over Scotland, on an organised day of activities at the European Parliament, is anything to go by.
Euroscola is a prestigious day of presentations, questions, discussions and voting on important issues, hosted 10 times a year by high-ranking Parliament officials for 500 or so young people from schools across the European Union.
On the journey back to the Strasbourg youth hostel where several national groups have been staying all week, Gerry Toner, who leads the young Scots, summarises the day's achievements for a bus full of buzzing youngsters.
"You were 25 from more than 450 young people today, and one country out of 19. That's 5 per cent," he says. "So if we did better than that, we were punching above our weight."
To loud cheers from the youngsters, Mr Toner reels off some simple stats that make few demands on his maths-teacher experience.
Four questions out of 15 were put by the Scots - all in French - during the daunting morning plenary in the hemicycle at the heart of the European Parliament. "That's 26 per cent."
Scots were even more impressive in the afternoon sessions, which saw students divided into six large international groups, each occupying a committee room that resembled a hi-tech lecture theatre, to discuss an important topic, such as citizenship, human rights, freedom of information or the future of Europe.
Groups first had to elect a president and a rapporteur to run the discussions and prepare a presentation for the second plenary back in the hemicycle. Candidates for both posts put themselves forward, then stood up and briefly explained the merits of voting for them to 80 people they had just met that morning.
Two out of six rapporteurs were elected from the Scottish contingent, Mr Toner tells them.
"We did even better with the presidents. We had three out of six. That's an easy sum - 50 per cent."
Back at the hostel on the Rue Finkmatt, the youngsters reflect on the day's events, and it soon becomes clear that we have not suddenly been transformed into a nation of unrestrained self-publicists. Mental barriers to seeming big-headed, with their foundations deep in Scottish culture, remain.
"I didn't really want to go for rapporteur," says Kate Ballantyne from Balfron High, who was elected in the environment working group. "But I knew if I didn't do it, I would think back all my life that I could have spoken in the European Parliament, but didn't. That's why I went for it, and I am so glad I did. I've gained so much confidence."
The toughest part for Ainsley Lynch, from Trinity Academy in Edinburgh, was doing the survey in the streets of Strasbourg, the first day there.
"You had to go up to strangers, have the confidence to pull off the French accent and get them to talk to you," she says. "It really built our confidence for the Parliament day. A lot of us spoke and put ourselves forward then, when at the start of the trip we wouldn't have."
The barriers are still in place, it seems, but they are being scaled - and the teachers, who might once have added a few bricks, are now giving the kids a leg-up.
"All the activities we did this week helped us," says Amanda McIntyre, from Park Mains High in Renfrewshire. She was elected president in the freedom of information group.
"They made us more confident. They helped us make friends, which we had to do first in our own language, before doing it in different languages," she says.
While the Scots' achievements were satisfying, a Euroscola day at the European Parliament is not a competition between countries. The ethos is collaborative, and the most striking aspect of the day's activities was how well the organisers created a mantle of co-operation - and how readily the young people from right across Europe adopted it.
In the first plenary, two students from each national group took centre stage and introduced their country. A question and answer session followed, with senior officials of the Parliament giving serious attention to issues raised by students, ranging from racism to armed forces and education.
But it was the afternoon sessions that showcased most clearly the synergy that can be created, by sharing perspectives from up to 27 countries.
"Everything depends on education," said one girl from Greece in the environment discussion. "This is where we have to go first."
"Personal carbon dioxide limits are now being discussed in the UK," said Laura Danskin of Strathaven Academy. "These could work well. If someone buys more than a certain amount of petrol in a month, say, it costs much more. We also need governments to legislate for things like better insulation in houses."
"That is a good point," said Rafael from Germany. "We have something called `passive houses' in our country. You don't have to spend any energy to get them warm, because the warm air keeps inside. We need to build more of these."
Many companies are environmentally and socially friendly in Austria, said Valentine. "Of course, the oil and car companies will be crying and saying, `No you can't do this.' But they must cry. If nobody cries, there won't be any change."
Invitations to Euroscola go out to EU countries in proportion to their populations, Mr Toner explains later. "Scotland gets two a year. I organised our first Euroscola in 1989, and later began taking groups out from Glasgow schools."
The Scottish Parliament office then asked if participation could be widened, using a Rotary Club model that was working well in Ireland, he says. Greater Glasgow continues to accept one Euroscola invitation a year, but the other is now organised and funded by Rotary Clubs around Scotland. "That gives us wide participation. So we've had students from Stornoway, Shetland, Inverness, all over.
"We had one girl last year from a school in the east end of Glasgow, who had to get leave of absence from two part-time jobs to come. She needed a fair bit of support at first, but ended up being a rapporteur and speaking to 600 people in the Parliament. What a great role-model for kids from disadvantaged areas."
Preparing young scholars for their Parliament day is vital, says linguist and language teacher Mark Pentleton, who has played a growing role in recent years and takes the lead next year, when Mr Toner retires.
"There's the survey in the street that Ainsley talked about. We tell them how to approach people and rehearse it with them," he says.
"The following day, we set them a series of cultural and language challenges, which they have to research on the streets of Strasbourg, and then present in French to their colleagues."
The preparations are progressive, explains Mr Toner. "We keep it tight on the first day. We help them, then stand back for the sondage. In the challenges, we wait to see what they produce, and in the Parliament we sit at the back and play no part at all.
The one event of the week that takes little preparation and presents no cultural barriers to Scots is the ceilidh on the last night.
"It's a celebration of everything they've achieved," says Mr Pentleton. "But it's more than that. We invite other nationalities and, for many of those, ours will be the first Scots they've ever met. That's a massive responsibility and our kids are very aware of it."
For Hannah McCarthy from Stonelaw High in Rutherglen, the ceilidh was the most memorable part of the whole week.
"We had people in from all different nationalities. They couldn't believe it," she says. "One of them said to me, `You people are the most fun I've ever had. I want more ceilidhs. I want to come to Scotland.'"
For information about Euroscola for students and teachers go to: www.rotary-ribi.orgdistrictscommitteedetails.asp?DistrictNo=1230 amp;DistSubCtteeID=1964
- One of the best sources of information on Euroscola is: www.euroscolaonline.com
- Video of Euroscola day: www.euroscolaonline.com?p=31
- UK office of the European Parliament: www.europarl.org.uk
- Edinburgh office: www.europarl.org.ukedinburgh
- RadioLingua by Mark Pentleton, with progressive in French, Spanish and other languages, much of it free: http:radiolingua.com
Europe made real
Euroscola aims to make real and concrete something that can seem abstract to young people, says Otmar Philipp, a senior administrator at the European Parliament, Strasbourg.
"The morning session is for information. Then the afternoon is for working groups. An essential element of these is that students from one country are separated right away, even at breakfast."
Another key element is non-intervention, Dr Philipp explains. "A member of the Parliament begins the sessions, but from then on it is up to the students. We do not intervene or direct them. It is their day. They are not here to impress their teachers, but to learn, to ask questions, to express opinions.
"One of the most interesting questions this morning came from a young girl who wanted to know how she could promote the European Union in her own country. I told her there would be associations that do that. There are also many schools that have European clubs. She should join them. Or start her own."
- Original headline: Young Scots find their political feet on the international stage