Does it have to be so unexciting?

14th January 2000 at 00:00
HOGMANAY is the season for taking stock, and at the millennium cusp the sense of limitless possibilities is almost overwhelming. Awareness of an unknown and trackless landscape ahead inspires not a little awe, even humility.

Or at least we wish it would, in educational planners and politicians. Scottish parliamentarians have given little sign so far of a vision to excite. So why not look to Europe and learn from education systems abroad how other countries foster success for every child?

Back in 1991 the Channel 4 Commission on Education did just that with its report Every Child in Britain. A group of education heavyweights from across the political spectrum diagnosed a growing lack of practical skills in school-leavers, and set out to examine this problem in the context of comprehensive education.

What had gone wrong with the system brought in to end the perceived evils of the 11-plus? Why do so many children with practical abilities vital to the economy become disillusioned and drop out? The commission found problems still being regularly highlighted in Scottish reports almost a decade later: science and literacy results lagging behind Europe. In maths, they found the lower half of the UK ability range contrasted poorly with their German and Dutch counterparts - the young people destined to become skilled craftspersons and proud of it.

The conclusion reached was not dissimilar to the later Scottish analysis of Professor John Howie's committee: comprehensive education is too heavily focused on the needs of the academic minority.

Members of the commission found that practical education geared to jobs can excite children as young as nine and that 30 per cent of Dutch parents chose practical subjects for their children from the age of 11. The emphasis was on teaching basic workshop skills and precision techniques, and using enthusiasm for practica studies to bring academic success. From 14, children and their parents chose from academic, technical or vocational education, with high standards in general education expected of all streams. The technical stream was academically demanding, but the vocational stream could also lead to university.

Children in one vocational school north of Amsterdam could train for any job they liked, including waiter, chef, barman. But even waiters need science and maths. Trainee bakers sell their bread. Trainee mechanics service and repair real vehicles. Trainee caterers work in the school's restaurant and bar. Standards in English? Uniformly impressive.

A telling statistic from 1991: almost a sixth of the lower half of the Dutch ability range eventually reached A-level standard, with many going on to further and higher education.

All students stood to repeat the year - and for that matter in primary also - if they hadn't attained the standard to move up. Those who repeated "thought it important" and parents interviewed saw repeating as obvious and sensible.

This is a tough system which works. Far more are motivated to work hard and succeed than here. Parliament could make an obvious start with Scottish primaries. Moving up a class would be conditional on reaching the minimum standard in literacy and numeracy.

In the countries studied by the commission, university is seen as a possibility for all. Ladders and pathways are real. There is no stigma to leaving school at the age of 15: different pathways suit different young people. The common ethos is a belief in the rewards of high standards and hard work.

The commission concluded in 1991 that a large proportion of UK pupils over the age of 14 were being let down by the comprehensive system. We recognise these problems in Scotland today. Here is the opportunity for Holyrood to make a difference.

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