Echoes down the centuries

4th May 2001 at 01:00
A glance back through the old school prospectuses shows that today's hot issues would not come as a surprise to an Edwardian head, says John Aitken.

The past is a different country: they do things differently there." Or do they? Had I not read recently the Keith Grammar School prospectuses for 1908 to 1912 and the former pupil association magazine for 1921 to 1925 I might well have believed that. Instead I discovered several almost uncanny parallels with the present.

In the 1908- 1909 prospectus the rector, Alexander Emslie, noted a "remarkable improvement in attendance" which meant that "the school can rightly be regarded in this particular as one of the very best in Scotland". This year Scottish Executive statistics revealed Keith Grammar School as having the most improved attendance rates in Scotland and in the top six overall.

Today we are concerned about boys' underachievement, as indeed was Mr Emslie, 95 years ago: "It is much to be regretted that the proportion of boys to girls in the senior classes of the school should be so small . . . the reason for boys leaving school earlier than girls, and, when they remain, showing less promise, in many cases does not appear to be so much the lack of ability as the absence of earnest endeavour . . .

"Still, inferior or incomplete education of boys must end in this, that women to an increasing degree will oust men from these positions of responsibility and trust that must always be reserved for the best educated and most highly trained."

In focusing on overall attainment he again highlights an issue which has been a priority for all Scottish schools. Keith Grammar's significantly improved statistics in the past two years strangely evoke the school's position in Edwardian times.

In 1908-1909, we are told: "The results of this year's leaving certificate examinations are a matter for congratulation, and, if things progress as I expect, further expansion in this direction may confidently be predicted."

Similarly, in 1909-1910 the report states: "The number of leaving certificates gained was greatly in excess of the number gained in any previous year . . . a recod number of pupils has passed the qualifying examination this year."

As an almost necessary corollary to today's concentration on attainment we are concerned not to place too much stress on pupils. Once again Mr Emslie has beaten us to it. The 1909-1910 prospectus states: "New regulations are also being drawn up for the intermediate and leaving certificate examinations, and it is expected that the effect of the changes will be to diminish to some extent the strain, which is everywhere complained of, upon the pupils of secondary schools."

As also today, schools 90 years ago were dealing with more mundane issues of behaviour, attendance, homework and uniform."The attention of parents is specially requested to the rules regarding the admission of new pupils (often from other areas), attendance, discipline and home lessons . . . the tone of the school has, on the whole, been very good and the behaviour of the pupils out of school bounds has also noticeably improved. It is hoped that next session the school caps and badges will be largely worn."

Reminiscences in the former pupil magazines of 1921 and 1922 of school in the 1870s and 1880s also throw up some interesting parallels. These include senior pupils skipping unpopular classes, collusion over homework and throwing snowballs at members of the public. More bizarrely pupils put cinders in the rector's new boots and cut the buttons off his morning coat. Last September I returned from the sponsored walk to find the bottoms of my trousers sewn up as a practical joke by one of the clerical assistants.

Happily, however, I am unaware of any present day similarities with 17th-century teachers in Rothiemay and Botriphnie such as James Richardson, who was dismissed for assaulting the minister's wife and her maids, and Robert Mitchell who was accused of being "ane habitual drunkard" and of "baptising a child of his own, begotten in fornication".

Yet on the whole despite what we often perceive as uniquely pressured existence, our predecessors had to deal with similar situations. We have inherited their legacy.

John Aitken is headteacher of Keith Grammar School.

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