Down the decades

18th February 2000 at 00:00
Sad but true - Pat Sweeney has been at school for over 40 years. Here he tries to make some sense out of it all

As the third millennium dawns on Scottish education, I reflect that I have been at school since the age of five, and am still there. Primary, secondary, university, teacher training, a year as a language assistant in Paris were followed by 27 years as a teacher and adviser. How did that happen, and me still just a boy?

I remember Miss Bowie, a kindly but feisty teacher in St Francis' Primary School in Glasgow, pointing out to our class that the date was 5555, and that this palindromic occurrence would not be repeated until 6666. This was a far-off future that could only be dreamed of beneath the mantle of smog covering Glasgow's south side.

The post-war baby boom filled two schools to capacity, one for boys and one for girls, on either side of Mathieson Street. They boasted different headteachers, two school offices, separate dining facilities.

It preceded the trend for "co-education", which predated the more recent experimentation with single-sex classes. The fashion of today is often the discarded practice of the past.

Perhaps my father-in-law, Pat Grant, was right to hang on to his wedding suit for the last 50 years after all.

When I come across this well-thumbed photograph of Miss Bowie's class, I wonder what became of all those bright-eyed sons of the Fifties.

One was found dead in a public toilet a few years ago after a drug-fuelled battle. Tony Conroy, who was in the class above mine, is now headteacher of St Ninian's High School in Kirkintilloch. Seven or eight would progress each year to senior secondary, the only discernible route to success and social advancement. Many were blighted by the iniquitous 11-plus, which barred their progress to higher education and the professions. This included my brother, John, who beat the system, and founded his own design and construction company in Germany, working comfortably in two languages.

The comprehensive explosion of the Sixties and early Seventies opened up educational opportunity to the majority of pupils. Grants enabled poor families to benefit from higher education for the first time.

Many young people still endured the stigma of being non-certificate, until the advent of Standard grade,the gestation of which took more than a decade. Rigorous enforcement of geographical catchment areas, especially in Glasgow, heralded a new form of demarcation, as estate agents trumpeted properties as being in the zones of particular schools. This served to reinforce the ghetto, and the effects prevail to this day. A glance at national exam results demonstrates the consequences.

The Eighties brought falling rolls and shrinkage to education. Recruitment of teachers fell sharply, as the number of pupils also plummeted. Minority subjects, including classics and modern languages other than French, came under pressure to be cut because of reduced resources.

The physical condition of schools deteriorated, while the Thatcherite agenda drained resources from the public sector, favouring opting-out and the assisted places scheme. The press and media were unscrupulously enlisted to undermine comprehensive schools, and the carrot of self-government was vainly dangled.

The Tories had no real interest in state education, as they did not use it, but the parents' charter and school boards, which they initiated, can provide valuable safeguards against municipal megalomania.

Labour inherited decaying schools and a demoralised teaching force when it assumed the reins of government in 1997. There are encouraging signs of improvement, with New Deal and Excellence Funding relieving some pressure points, including alternatives to exclusion and supported study. Information technology has been visibly enhanced, with an influx of computers and associated wizardry. Teachers' pay remains a contentious issue, and the esteem of the profession in the eyes of government and society is still uncertain. Unless these improve, recruitment will become the crisis of the new century.

St Francis' was long ago demolished, and its families scattered to the urban utopia of peripheral housing schemes. Governments of varying complexion have come and gone, and Scotland has asserted its autonomy in a new parliament. With such political muscle supporting our endeavours, we can surely pledge to the children of tomorrow at least the quality of education that was once offered to my classmates and me by Miss Bowie in the St Francis' of the Fifties.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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