Celebrate the birth of comprehensives

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Those who seek to bring back selection and elitism betray Scotland's aspirations, says Ewan Aitken

thought I had seen all that could go wrong with a nativity play but the offering at my local parish church this year once again proved me wrong.

The play was climbing to its finale in the stable, surrounded by kings and shepherds in various versions of dressing gowns and tea towels, angels and animals in tinsel halos and floppy ears. Things had been going perfectly smoothly. Songs had been sung and words recited, little donkeys had trotted and cattle had lowed - when suddenly things stopped.

There was silence, then a commotion. Stage whispers abounded: "Where's Mary, she's on now?"

Silence again, then a hissed reply: "She's on the toilet, she had to go!"

Much laughter, then the one-liner from the back: "Well, I know Jesus came for the needy but this is ridiculous."

I went into the ministry and then into politics to serve that selfsame needy. Many teachers did the same when they chose their profession. That is why, for many, it is much more than a job; it is a vocation.

Comprehensive education was developed to ensure that everyone, including those most in need, was given fair and equal opportunities. Sadly, our collective ability to deliver those experiences has been hampered by an abuse of the freedom of information legislation, the principles of which I support completely.

It is being hampered by those who wish to use so-called evidence, allegedly only acquired through FOI requests, to "prove" through the deliberate misuse of statistics taken out of context that comprehensive education has failed.

It is an allegation that I reject absolutely. There is much more to do, and recent developments such as A Curriculum for Excellence, the removal of age and stage, and additional needs legislation are all part of that "much more to do" agenda. But the quality, standards, depth and variety of opportunity available to pupils in 21st century Scotland are light years ahead of what was on offer 30 years ago. That's a tribute to teachers, parents, pupils, and policy-makers.

The problem we face is not that these mischief-makers want to help those in need in a different way. They don't. They hate comprehensive education and they want to re-create selection, a two or even three-tier system, excluding those who have the biggest hurdles to overcome. They dress their arguments up as being about accountability, but this is a deeply ideological battle.

The solution, however, is to use the weapon they use against us, the principles behind the Freedom of Information Act. That act is based on the premise that "the more we know, the more we will understand". That, of course, assumes we are willing to analyse what we know. But, if that is a given, then the change in culture the act brings is a good one.

All of us involved in education need to become proactive with the information we give out. Not only telling people what we are doing but also how well we are doing it. We need to think how we tell our very good story well, and not fear the Scottish cringe in doing so. Let us learn to be proud of what we have achieved and what is achieved day in and day out in schools up and down the country.

That means finding meaningful statistics that tell of pupils' progress.

This is not about one size hits all ("if you haven't got level E by S2, you're a failure"), but showing where pupils began from, where we thought they would get to and how many did. In essence, it's the product of personal learning planning.

Let me give you an example. I heard of a west coast school where five struggling pupils were given the opportunity to work with a top chef. The difference was remarkable. Eventually, the five were able to cook a restaurant meal for teachers, examiners and others to a standard unthinkable only a few months before. A target was set and the five more than achieved it.

Sadly, the qualification they received won't help that school's league table position because it wasn't a Standard grade or a Higher. But the creativity shown by that school has set these five young people up for life in a highly skilled career.

Somehow, we need to learn how to quantify those kinds of educational experiences, along with all the others we know happen across the country, and then tell the story. That is how we will deliver a high-quality experience for all young people and be free to do so without those who wish to destroy comprehensive education hampering our ability to achieve that most significant of aspirations.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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