In a world of our own;Opinion

16th October 1998 at 01:00
An American exchange teacher's view of the Scots system is salutary reading for the Millennium Review, says John Cairney.

THIS APRIL while at the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, I felt a nudge at my elbow and heard a tentative "John Cairney?" It was a Scottish secondary teacher on an exchange visit to a nearby school. During a brief discussion she described some of the differences she found there.

I thought it worth contacting her counterpart to write about her impressions of teaching in the west of Scotland. Initially she was happy with what I wrote following a meeting and phone calls, although she had not been entirely flattering to her host school. But then she phoned to ask me not to proceed with the article. I was not entirely convinced by her claim not to have had pressure from the school, where her disenchantment was widely known.

I still believed that some of the things she had said could be useful when many aspects of Scottish education are under review. So now that Anna (not her real name) is away from these shores, here are some of her thoughts about what we will call Westscot High.

The first difference she noticed was the shortage of time for pre-session in-service days and the absence of any camaraderie-building social functions. Back home she would have had at least four days before the pupils started, most of it "unencumbered", that is time when teachers were left with their own preparations and not attending whole-school meetings "of questionable value".

During the first few months she insisted that she had an open mind and tried hard to get the feel of things. But she felt there was insufficient support from the management and that most of the staff were not as welcoming as she would have liked.

She admits to finding herself "floundering", but by Christmas she "had learnt the system and realised that I didn't like it".

Attempts at communication had their lighter moments, such as when a boy asked: "ur we aff'n Thursday, miss?" Only by breaking down the question into its constituent words could she understand. She was also taken aback when a girl stood up in class and asked for what she thought was a well-known feminine hygiene product, but turned out to be only Tipp-Ex.

The range of abilities in her classes came as "a bit of a culture shock". In her own school there were three categories for the less able - those with learning disabilities, the emotionally disturbed and the mildly mentally retarded (sic).

She estimated that as many as a third of her first and second-year Westscot classes were in one or other of these categories and she was unprepared for that. Back home such pupils would have received "daily practice in self-contained groups", though she did acknowledge that this was easier with a learning support department of 12 for 1,200 students compared with two learning support teachers for Westscot's 650.

She felt that the width of ability was "pedagogically unsound" and that the extent of learning support which was needed affected the way she taught. She was used to group work and "student-centred learning" in which pupils were expected to, and generally did, take responsibility as part of a group, displaying self-confidence - "whether they were entitled to or not".

In Westscot, the pupils were more hesitant, did not want to share and were content to sit and work independently. The emphasis was on teacher-centred work and Anna felt she was operating more as a director and disciplinarian rather than, as she was used to, a facilitator.

As a classroom teacher she felt "disfranchised" in the overall running of the school. "I didn't like the rigid hierarchy of management and not being able to approach an administrator, not being able to contact parents directly. I certainly didn't like to be referred to as an 'unpromoted teacher' and being treated as something less than a professional." (Millennium Review, please note.) Her comments about the environment and cultural deprivation of the Westscot pupils make depressing reading. She realised "how much a school system can be a microcosm or reflection of the society in which it functions". She did acknowledge that she was responding to what she saw in one school and was careful not to generalise.

Direct comparisons with US experience are probably pointless, but perhaps there are lessons to be learnt on this side of the Atlantic as far as management, staffing and methodology are concerned, and not only for Westscot which in many respects is no different from many other Scottish secondaries.

Maybe it is just as well Anna did not know that when she flew home.

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