The door to success is open but the route is challenging

20th July 2012 at 01:00
And our journey is not helped by the fact that we are discouraged from taking our most imaginative exams

In preparing a speech for a recent SELMAS conference in Edinburgh, I did something rather peculiar. I sat down with my parents, and I had a conversation with them. I can assure you I had pursued all other forms of entertainment, but actually, they turned out to be more interesting than you might imagine.

I asked them what they thought "the purpose of education" was and whether it had changed since they were at school and university. My mum thought for a minute and then told me this story: at the age of eight, she was visiting a new school with her mother and found herself sitting opposite two elderly ladies, the headteachers. Her mother introduced her: "This is Claudia, she's a sweet girl, but she's not particularly bright." Hardly a glowing recommendation, but one of the ladies leaned forward and simply replied: "Well, I'm sure we'll find something she's good at."

This, for me, is the essence of education. It exists to instil confidence and competence, driven forward by the belief that every single person is talented in some way or another. It must open doors for young people and it can do this in a number of ways, but in the current economic climate there is none more important than providing them with the qualifications to pursue the career that they would like to.

Across education, standards are changing dramatically. Only five years ago, a school-leaver could expect to receive an unconditional offer to study law at the University of Aberdeen with an A, a B and two Cs at Higher level. This year, two As and two Bs would have been necessary for the same course. Even in the further education sector, Telford College in Edinburgh this year demanded an A and a B in two Highers, showing the emphasis that is being placed on academic achievement.

Noam Chomsky asked whether education "trained for passing tests" or "promoted creative enquiry". Frankly, the right type of course should do both. In Scotland, Highers are the benchmark for university entry, and all who have taken or taught them would struggle to find the creativity within them. Nicknamed the "two-term dash", they require students to memorise as much information as possible in order to get through the exams that loom in May. However, there are courses within the Scottish system which have imagination and debate at their heart.

The Advanced Highers allow for a great deal of discussion between pupils and their teachers, with an emphasis placed on presentation skills and independent work which set students up perfectly for university education. Unfortunately, students are actually discouraged from taking these courses. We are left with a situation in which a pupil with an A at Higher history, going on to study history at university, would elect not to take an Advanced Higher in it in order to have an easier time in sixth year. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why dropout rates for students at Scottish universities are 2 per cent higher than for those at English universities, as Scottish students struggle to meet the pace of higher education.

The true crime in all this is the role of the system in removing the incentives of attainment. For all the things an education system could ever do, this must be the worst. It is something which the Westminster government must also admit responsibility for. Policies in England such as the abandonment of the EMA (education maintenance allowance) and particularly the increase in tuition fees have left Scottish students choosing to ignore English universities altogether. In a school year of approximately 160, I am one of only three people set to head south of the border.

Limiting young people in this way is a tragedy for those who could push themselves beyond their comfort zones. Scottish universities have an incredible reputation, but for academically able youngsters they should not be limited to such a small portion of the country's institutions. I was lucky enough to be able to go for an interview at the University of Oxford and whether I had received an offer or not, it was an experience I would encourage anyone to put themselves through. Academically and socially it was extremely rewarding and it is experiences such as these which we should be pushing our pupils towards, not pulling them away from.

Every year, people ask whether exams are getting easier, and I say categorically no: pupils are getting better. From my own time at school and the people I've been surrounded by, I know that there's a generation of Scottish students who can do incredible things if the system stretches them and pushes them in the right direction. We must not create a situation in which our young people have their potential attainment stunted by a local and national education system which should look to do the exact opposite.

One thing I can say for sure is this: if the purpose of education was to ensure that speaking to a room of 100 educationalists wasn't a terrifying experience, then I'm afraid Boroughmuir may have failed me.

Joshua Platt left Boroughmuir High, Edinburgh, last month and has a conditional place at the University of Oxford. This speech was given at a SELMAS dinner in Edinburgh at the end of last term; only the first sentence has been edited.

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