Debate reveals strange opinions

10th March 2000 at 00:00
I frequently wonder whether those who publicly express views on educational issues have just beamed in from some undiscovered outpost of the cosmos.

The entire debate over Section 28 has elicited remarkably virulent opinions from the Scottish populace. Over our heads the roll of battle has thundered incessantly, with both sides indignantly claiming for teachers safeguards and protections we didn't know we lacked.

It is difficult to discern why the Scottish Executive, besieged with flak arising from aberrant spin doctors, disappearing tuition fees and the soaring costs of their new pad, should have embarked on such an ill-starred endeavour. It seemed to highlight the political vulnerability of the Executive and the dangers inherent in the politicisation of schools.

The issues in Section 28 are important, and parents, teachers, pupils and even politicians are entitled to express views, as the security and dignity of every individual must be paramount in schools. However, in the new age of Scottish autonomy and enlightened democracy, it is debatable whether this unused law, never invoked and never challenged in court, merited such a torrent of impassioned invective.

The tabloid press thirstily pounced upon the sordid wee tale of a reported liaison between a male teacher and a teenage pupil. A town was rocked by the scandal, we were breathlessly assured. The editorial proclaimed the need for urgent training to protect teachers from the blandishments of senior schoolgirls, drawing unsuspecting teachers towards moral dereliction. The teachers I encounter are too hassled with Higher Still and too exhausted with the demands of preparation and marking to be distracted by the fatal attractions of adolescent girls. Most of us have reached the stage where we would require a massive infusion of musk and pheromones to elicit a second glance. It is intriguing that a mass circulation national newspaper would like its readers to think otherwise.

While ill-informed comment and criticism can be dismissed as an irritating intrusion, the insistent murmur of offstage debate can deafen society to the real an urgent agenda of schools. William Hague stepped forward with dire warnings of the consequences for anyone found peddling drugs in the vicinity of a school. This has appeal as a populist measure for assuaging public concern, but has no relevance to reality. The dangers of exposure to drugs are not incorporated in shifty criminals lurking at school gates. The real enemy is the increasingly widespread acceptance of the drugs culture in vulnerable families and communities.

Specious information can emerge from closer to home. The Independent Schools Information Service and affiliated headteachers claimed that parents are abandoning council controlled schools in Edinburgh in favour of the private sector. This news hit the streets just when Holy Rood was pressing Edinburgh council for additional accommodation to cope with admissions. A quick check with statisticians revealed that there was no evidence of the reported mass defection.

There must be some other explanation for the claim, but I know that the gravitas of its source would rule out crude marketing as a motive. We were assured that the success of independent schools was down to "mounting disillusionment with the state sector". It is difficult to see this rampant defection in our territory, as Holy Rood, Portobello and Leith are at capacity, and the explosive growth of these schools shows no signs of abating.

Misrepresentation of schools is exacerbated by our perceived impotence in responding to ill-founded criticism. Even the health service, dogged by medical blunders and administrative foul-ups, appears to defend its patch more effectively. In education, this would require national and local government and schools all to be unequivocal supporters of our endeavours.

Capping all other extra-planetary opinion was the earnest letter to a broadsheet editor, suggesting that a single, Scottish school uniform should be compulsory for all pupils in all schools, with individual establishments distinguished only by badges. This letter-writer simply needs to get out more.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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