Boot is on the other foot for secondaries

28th May 2004 at 01:00
I'm beginning to feel sorry for secondary schools. Now there's a sentence that surprises me. For years, I experienced secondary schools as bastions of misplaced arrogance, self-satisfaction and insularity. Secondary teachers were paid more than me, treated me as inferior when we met and had no interest in a child's previous education.

One secondary teacher, with whom I thought I was building a professional friendship, returned an article I had written after it had been passed around his department. There was no attempt to hide the dismissive, red-inked comment "specious argument" which was scrawled across it. A little sensitivity would have been welcome. If he had told me that his dog had eaten the article, I would have believed him. Thirty years on, I am none the wiser about the meaning of "specious". I just know that it's not a compliment.

But that is the way things were in the 1970s. Secondary schools and teachers could insult you on the general or the personal level and their attitudes were supported by education authorities which listened only to them and ensured that they received the lion's share of resources. That primary schools might wish to purchase anything more than Wide Range Readers and a few crayons was beyond their understanding. What was the point when education did not start until age 12?

Of course, times have changed. If I was a vindictive person I could marvel at how the mighty have fallen but I take no pleasure in the low regard now attached to secondary education.

Secondary schools are blamed for many of society's ills. Take your choice from illiterate and innumerate leavers, widespread bullying, underachieving boys, declining standards of the British workforce, teenage pregnancies and remedial classes in universities, among others. When exam passes fall, schools are criticised; when passes rise, credit is withheld - the exams must have been too easy. And from the bottom of the heap, primary schools have risen in general regard while primary teachers are even invited to bring their skills into S1 classes.

The most recent kick in the secondary teeth has been a report from an "independent think-tank" on the overall well-being of young people. A Guardian headline gives the flavour: "Move to secondary school hits pupils'

happiness". The report claims a significant drop in children's happiness when they move from primary to secondary school. It states: "Overall, secondary children seem to become bored, stop learning and no longer enjoy the activities associated with the school."

Mud-slingers have seized gleefully on the findings to label secondary schools as bad for children's happiness but they should not be so certain.

Reports often reflect their authors' bias. Last year, Health Behaviour declared that there is none so happy in modern Scotland as the 11-year-old boy. Indeed, from the age of 12, life seems to be a disappointment. Having known hundreds of primary 7 boys, I would not assume that their status at the top of the happiness tree is a reflection of a first class primary education. Boys in primary 7 are daft. They are not in touch with reality.

They daydream about the most fantastic of all fantasies - captaining Scotland to a famous World Cup victory. They stuff gunge into girls' bags and think it's funny. They guffaw, talk rubbish to their friends and fall off chairs with monotonous regularity. They crave, and generally receive, copious amounts of unearned food and cash. No wonder they're happy.

The apparent decline in happiness during the secondary years is nothing to do with any poverty of education and everything to do with growing awareness of the complexity of normal living. The think tank has got it wrong.

So this is the new me - criticisms of secondary schools are not always justified and I think we should stop being unfair to them. Just as long as no one calls my thinking "specious".

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

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