Be proud, it's noble work we're doing

12th November 2004 at 00:00
As a primary school pupil I loved grammar. I had a particular fascination with parsing sentences. I don't think the phrase "turned on" existed in those days but had it been around, I would have had to admit that I really was turned on by complex adverbial clauses.

I retain my interest in language, fostered in those early days by parents who encouraged a love of reading, by teachers I fondly remember and by being part of a generation whose formative years pre-dated televisions in the home.

I know instinctively that an adjective is a describing word. What single word would each of us choose to describe our daily work in schools?

I accept that teaching in the 21st century is so demanding and diverse that to reduce my question to one encompassing adjective is virtually impossible. Even so, I am going to share one word with you, and its origin.

I hope you may be as uplifted and encouraged as I was when the word was shared with me.

The background is important. I had been asked to receive a headteacher from the Gambia, who wanted to understand how a Scottish secondary was managed.

Faye Suso was a wonderful, charming guest and meeting him enriched me possibly more than it helped him.

Devising a structured day for Faye was not a problem. Like all schools, St Paul's High is blessed with quality teachers and a varied programme awaited him.

As opening batsman, my task was to outline the priorities of managing the school. Headteachers across Scotland will have been involved in very similar briefings. You have to present your school within its own context.

This time, though, I sat slightly uncomfortably with my prepared thoughts.

The word "deprivation" is unavoidable in discussing the challenge that staff in this school face in their daily delivery of quality education. I'm only too aware that other schools face the same issue. Indeed, our colleagues in the inspectorate recognised this fact when they accepted that poverty and deprivation in Glasgow made comparison with any other authority impossible.

My discomfort was not in raising the issue, but in the certainty that my colleague from the Gambia would surely challenge my perception of poverty with his own experiences. What followed was fascinating and, certainly for me, humbling.

I presented some of the usual measurements to Faye: single-parent families, high unemployment, a fair degree of poor housing stock, crime statistics.

There are others but, as British measurements of deprivation go, they will do.

Faye listened intently. I asked him to outline similarities in his own country. In Gambia, subsistence farming keeps families together and alive.

Education is hugely valued but young people often cannot access it as their family's need to survive takes priority. Agriculture is still labour intensive and working comes before learning. However, families who can afford it, or who make sacrifices to release a child from the fields, can benefit from schooling.

Gambian schools bear no comparison to our own in terms of building quality or resources. Class sizes are usually 40-50 pupils but can rise to 100.

Discipline is not an issue: pupils who go to school go to learn.

Scottish deprivation seemed, in the circumstances, to be an embarrassment.

Faye grasped my discomfiture. He said: "Rod, poverty and deprivation come in many forms. There is deprivation of the spirit - and that is worse than material poverty."

I outlined for Faye some key policies and strategies being used in the school. Which leads me to the adjective. At the end of our session, he said: "You do noble work."

I had simply described some approaches that reflect not only on staff in St Paul's High, but on colleagues in schools throughout the land. If asked, teachers might have chosen from a wide range of available words to describe our work, from "essential" to "hard", from "undervalued" to "rewarding".

I've never reduced it to one single descriptor. Yet here was a vision from a distant land and clearly from a hugely different background.

How uplifting it is to have anything in which you are involved described as noble. To have your work with young people so described is inspiring. So I share it with you as I see work all around me in this school, in this city and by colleagues I meet throughout Scotland whose quality deserves to be recognised as noble.

Rod O'Donnell is headteacher of St Paul's High, GlasgowIf you have any comments, e-mail

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