All that mollycoddling has to stop

11th March 2005 at 00:00
here's no pleasing some people any of the time and it is into this category of regular dissatisfaction that I placed myself when, during my recent half-term, I attended a lecture at Glasgow University with my student daughter.

What next? Moaning about the universities? On the contrary. The lecture was well constructed, informative, sometimes humorous, expertly delivered and stuffed to the gunnels with facts, figures and research evidence . . .

enough material to keep the students occupied for many hours afterwards. As I sat there, I was struck by how little had changed since my student days at Edinburgh University.

OK, so the lecturer employed a bit of Powerpoint. But otherwise - in terms of style, content and level of vocabulary - everything was the same. This, incidentally, is not intended as criticism of the lecturer: the lecture could have graced any academic forum in terms of performance.

What I found myself pondering was how spoonfed and mollycoddled pupils survive after they leave school and find themselves having to concentrate in lecture theatres for an hour. There are no concessions - quite rightly - to explaining challenging diction. It's assumed that students have taken responsibility for familiarising themselves with the appropriate lingo. The lecturer delivers his thoughts at normal talking speed and the students are expected to assimilate the ideas and take notes simultaneously.

So it's intriguing, isn't it, that teachers are now under more pressure than ever before to deliver the most diverse and scintillating lessons, characterised by variety, pace and differentiation. This expectation runs from P1 to S6. Experiencing that recent lecture led me to reflect on whether we are equipping the post-16 pupils with what they need for university.

My daughter and her friends were quite happy to discuss the issue. No, school is not good preparation for university. Being thrown a remit for a 3,000-word essay with an extensive reading list - some of which is only available for a 24-hour loan - is a baptism of fire. The students themselves find it frustrating to discover people in their tutorials who don't know how to write essays. How can you have an A grade in Higher English and not know how to write an essay?! It doesn't make sense.

Something is very wrong.

A colleague recently complained to me that, despite giving her Higher history students a step by step guide for an essay, most of them, for whatever reason, did not read the guide properly and then failed to meet the deadline date. Where are schools going wrong?

Pupils are masters of the preposterous excuses . . . the computer blew up, blah, blah, blah. Then they hit university and, bingo, marks are deducted for every day the essay is handed in late and medical certificates are required to authenticate claims of illness.

At the risk of succumbing to repetitive nag injury, I regularly stress to students that at university they will be responsible for their own learning. There won't be a safety net if they haven't listened carefully enough in class. School teachers juggle and juggle a multitude of balls in the air to steady the sinking sands for pupils who seem incapable of motivating themselves.

We are doing them a disservice. We should be demanding a great deal more from our potential university population. Sadly, teachers pencil in for themselves the learning that should be the responsibility of the pupils.

Take reading, for instance. Many colleagues testify to the increasing failure of senior pupils to read challenging material. Paucity of vocabulary is a major issue. Educationists may claim that standards have not fallen, yet the evidence on the ground suggests the contrary. Whatever is studied at university, reading will be a major demand.

Maybe you should take yourself to a university lecture in your subject - it's a sobering experience.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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