A compulsion to learn comes from deep inside

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
You know that old chestnut. "I don't want to go to school today, my tummy hurts, I hate the teachers, all the kids hate me" - followed by the punchline: "Get up, you've got to go, you're the headmaster." Well I still find it funny.

I find it funny because I hated primary school. Through long, boring afternoons, I would look at the teacher and wonder why she'd come back to school voluntarily. To work through Holmes's Comprehensive Arithmetic all your life. To read the same stories in the same books time and time again.

Oh there were lighter moments. We were issued with library cards and could trot to the branch library after school and linger outside in the cold until it opened. If we were lucky, the janitor would take pity on the waifs waiting in the rain, let us into the reading room and allow us to sit at a big table, gently steaming, forbidden to utter a sound. Then he would take a pile of books and dish them out to each, like dealing cards, regardless of interest and non-negotiable. On a bad day, I'd get The Topical Times Football Book.

Despite that Dickensian experience, I ended up teaching. How on earth did this happen, I ask myself nowadays over porridge at 7am on a wet and cold Monday. And that old chestnut runs through my mind and it still makes me smile.

We are running a pilot scheme at the moment to improve on attendance and head off potential drop-outs. That's learners, right, not lecturers. I now record attendance in a class register, and individual absence on a set of colour-coded sheets of pink, yellow and white. That's not counting a regular supply of yellow stickies and memos issued to team leaders.

Now I know it's important. Bursaries are affected by non-attendance and, just as crucially, progress is impeded. But aren't we going overboard here?

Davie was researching our local landmark, the Old Steeple, and as I directed him to the bank of information on the council's website, I asked:

"Have you seen this webcam?" We watched Monday afternoon shoppers. "Zoom in and see who's walking round the shops when they should be in my class," I suggested.

There was a moment's stunned silence, then Davie looked at me in awe: "Is that what you do?" Enough.

We have to stop thinking in terms of jail and start thinking about how to reward attendance. We need to think about social spaces, clubs and activities that draw in our learners, regardless of whether they are scheduled for classes. For some learners, it would prove an added social dimension. For some groups of disaffected learners, it's clear that learning opportunities could grow out of these activities.

There is probably a lingering perception that a real education shouldn't be fun. If it's going to do you good, it has got to hurt a little. One of our universities scored really well in attracting students with the pretty daring phrase "serious fun".

Attracting learners is only half the battle. You have got to keep them.

Sometime it feels as if the odds are stacked against attendance. Part-time work, money problems, relationship difficulties, ill health - there are lots of genuine reasons for a learner to fall by the wayside.

Turn that old joke on its head and you come to college because it's a positive force in your life. You come because the lecturers like you, the other learners are your mates and just being there makes you feel good.

Dr Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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