A trip down an American dream

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Like Ian Smith (TESS, May 26), I too have had the opportunity to visit two American schools in New Jersey on three different occasions. I also would not want to draw any generalisations from my visits.

However, what I did observe was not only impressive but most stimulating and, at times, inspiring. The banner I saw when entering each school, unlike Ian, was one of welcome to "A Nationally Recognised School of Excellence".

The facilities in each school were beyond any of our PPP (public private partnership) dreams - parking for staff and students, wide corridors and large classrooms with most classes having up to 20 pupils. The sports facilities were outstanding: not only were traditional American sports catered for, but acres of football (soccer) pitches were in evidence around the school.

On my second visit in 2003, the superintendent was in discussion with the school governors and groups of parents about how they could develop athletics facilities. On my return in 2005, both schools had eight-lane tracks with grandstand facilities. Delay is not in their nature.

Quality improvement through regular classroom observation is the norm.

Full-time pupil guidance staff have responsibility for observing, mentoring and coaching staff in order to ensure the classroom practice is continually improving.

I witnessed confident young people who relate well with others.

Communication, self-drive and ambition are qualities most young people have in abundance. Life seems hectic, with many pupils arriving at 7.15am for a 7.45am start.

A "can-do" attitude seems to permeate the school day which continues into late afternoons of many extra-curricular activities. Yes, some young people's confidence and self-assurance seem overpowering. Perhaps that is not a failing on their part, but something in our particular reticence - or maybe it is just me.

As my visits were around Easter time, they coincided with the allocation of college places to senior pupils. This seemed to be a highly competitive business and, as a result, students did not confine their horizons to their local state or eastern coast. They were adventurous enough to consider their college life throughout each of the American states. A wall map of North America highlighted the destinations of all students with very few gaps appearing.

In an age of increasing accountability, the system requires pupils to undertake tests and we all must encourage each child "to do their best to pass the test", a philosophy which has served Scottish education well. The next time I visit my doctor, I want to be assured that he has passed all his tests.

If we are to capture a drive which will propel young people along the journey of exploring excellence, our comparison with two high schools in Northern Valley, New Jersey, will assist us in our travels.

Ian D Scott

Education officer

Dumfries and Galloway Council

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