DC stands for more than Davy Crockett

8th May 2009 at 01:00

Hearing of my Easter visit to Washington DC, the editor suggested a "Letter from America", without clarifying whether that would be of the Alistair Cooke or Auchtermuchty variety. It seemed a tall order from a seven-day sample but, as an English teacher schooled in "impression marking", I felt sure I could capture the flavour.

American families flock to DC for their spring break, attracted by the beauty added to this handsome city by the cherry blossom in bloom, but also to pay homage to their country's government. Americans, regardless of political allegiance, remain in awe of government of the people by the people, and many insist on trips to Washington to see where it all happens. So there was plenty of evidence upon which to base my impressions of the effect of United States education, if not its details.

The media headlines echoed universal concerns, and there is no doubt that America struggles to reach the poorest children in the education system. However, I was seeking an impression from the young people themselves. What I found was a high level of politeness, self-discipline and interest in the culture around them.

In seven days, I saw no litter dropped anywhere, no public drunkenness and no anti-social behaviour. While it is true that all of that and more could well have been available in other neighbourhoods, it seemed fair to compare the tourist areas of America's capital with similar areas of Scotland's capital city.

The young people seemed confident and, judging by their sweatshirts and hoodies, proud of their schools and colleges; they had a good awareness of their country's history and politics, and a high level of self-awareness. Somewhere or other, there was excellence in their curriculum.

Attached to the front of the federal education building was a small log cabin, a reminder of the vast state trying to meet the needs of the smallest community. As a leftover from the previous administration, the sign over the door read: "No child left behind." I suspect that particular aspiration, in American argot, has some "way to go".

For all that, there were some signs that at least some parts of the education system were getting it right. My impression was favourable. Up to a point, yes they have!

Sean McPartlin is depute head of St Margaret's Academy, Livingston.

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