Change is the same done differently

5th September 2008 at 01:00

The day after term ended we headed, as over many years, to Arran, a reviving break after the year's pressures. Our daughters are grown and have their own lives, but each joined us for part of the fortnight. The pull of past holidays is strong for them too.

Leonard Cohen at Edinburgh Castle gave me a night to remember for ever. This was no lone, troubled troubadour with acoustic guitar but a pin- striped, fedora-hatted, lusciously backed 72-year old, performing from his latest as well as his earliest albums. His tracks took 8,000 spell-bound fans through his and their lives with re-crafted, modernised classics: "Sisters of Mercy", "Suzanne", "Bird on the Wire".

At the International Summer on School Leadership, Andy Hargreaves also mesmerised as he spoke with humour, experience and compassion about teaching. His most powerful activity was separating us by the decade we entered teaching and setting each group the tasks of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of these early days.

It was a reminder that each generation brings its own strengths to our schools and profession. It reminded those of us who entered teaching in the 1970s that we were overwhelmingly the children of working-class families, first-generation graduates who brought to teaching a determination to change a stuffy, tradition-encrusted order and put social justice on the schools agenda.

In the 1970s, the belt was the norm and, with it, violence was given official validation. The courts finally ended belting in Scotland, but many teachers, departments and schools courageously pioneered that move. The school-leaving age was raised. We had not only to teach the initially reluctant conscripts but prepare a curriculum for them as we went along. Above all, comprehensive schooling became the norm. The old seniorjunior secondary divide had condemned two-thirds of children to educational failure at age 11.

Other changes inevitably followed: certification for all, a differentiated approach to teaching and a recognition that the old authoritarian approach to relationships could not continue. All of these reforms were achieved despite the bitter opposition of a cynical old guard.

Our generation also made mistakes. We threw out content babies with elitist bath water. Because they seemed to thrive without too much intervention, we de-prioritised work for the most able. The vast bulk of our values, however, remain valid today. We can look to our past and hold up our heads with pride at our contributions.

There are also, however, new generations of committed, enthusiastic teachers, with equally powerful and valid, but different, values. Cohen sings the old songs but sings them differently. Nothing endures but change itself. Pride in our past should be a reason for looking forward confidently to the future, not for resisting it. The new generation of teachers needs our support to build tomorrow's schools. The best gift we can give that generation is to ensure that the cynicism which marred our early years is not repeated.

Alex Wood is acting head of Tynecastle High, Edinburgh.

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