Be a succesful Scot, but don't skip to it

16th April 2004 at 01:00
Recently, I was talking to an older gentleman who, as a boy, lived around the corner from our school. He remembered often climbing into the playground of our 1938 building and one day, in the early 1940s, watched the school railings and those on nearby houses being removed to collect raw material for guns and bombs.

To him and his friends the school building was a source of interest and adventure in an era when it was normal for children to spend most of their waking hours outdoors. They chased and hid around the playground, used the footholds provided by drainpipes and windows to climb the outside walls and, on many occasions, played football on the flat roof, four storeys above the streets of Perth.

The building hadn't changed he said, unconsciously passing judgment on the award-winning efforts of our playground enhancement group, but he was sure that his 70-year-old bones would prevent a repeat of his climbing feats.

However, we agreed that the present generation of children was in no danger of emulating his achievements with their sense of adventure stifled by the manufactured restrictions of safety-obsessed adults.

We laughed at the stories that are frequently reported. Skipping ropes banned lest they become entangled with ankles; children whose headteachers do not permit them to run in the playground; our artificial "traversing wall" where the children think they are climbing but are never more than a foot off the ground.

But my laughter was uneasy. That day I had received a risk assessment for a forthcoming football festival in which tackling would not be allowed. It joined another risk assessment on my desk, this one for an outdoor activities week which recommends that, before the packed lunches, I hand around antiseptic wipes. Indeed, the outdoor activities courses are less adventurous than they were 20 years ago. Safety preparations are now so meticulous that there is a shorter time for the activities. Names like "Death Slide" and "Assault Course" are considered so macho that they are replaced by "Zip Line" and "Challenge Course".

My hollow laughter also recognised the increasing documentation schools are receiving about enterprise in education. With enterprise now moving to a more central role in the curriculum, there is a new growth industry of quality indicators, award schemes and websites. It seems that our children and their schools are to have the responsibility for achieving the First Minister's "smart, successful Scotland".

Peter Peacock, Education Minister, states that young people must have "an entrepreneurial approach to everything they do". Tom Hunter of Sports Division fame hopes for a more entrepreneurial culture in Scotland. The Scottish Executive describes opportunities "to learn entrepreneurial skill at school". And after the children have learnt to spell "entrepreneurial" and considered its French origins, what does it mean? My Collins English Dictionary describes an entrepreneur as someone who is prepared to take risk and show initiative in the search for profits. Peter Peacock acknowledges that young people "need the confidence and self-belief to take appropriate risks".

So, when comparing the adventures of my school-scaling pensioner to his modern playground successors, my laughter was not uneasy or hollow, it was just plain false. The present generation of schoolchildren are increasingly restricted. They spend little time away from controlling adults. Their every activity is scrutinised to reduce risk. Their opportunities for adventure are severely limited. Yet our Government expects them to be risk-takers.

Enterprise in education is running with a strong gale in its face in the age of the school run and football matches where no one is allowed to win.

The best support from the Scottish Executive would be to sort out the risk-free, anti-enterprise culture which is imposed on our children. Until then, "smart, successful Scotland" may be only a dream.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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