Glasgow's eternal questions;Comment;Opinion

6th March 1998 at 00:00
For cineastes, Anzio has a certain piquancy in one of its throwaway lines that rises above the general tenor of war and mayhem. The scene is a short one, featuring Robert Mitchum and a jeep in front of the Arch of Trajan during the liberation of Rome. "Nothing changes, except the uniforms and the transportation," he muses thoughtfully. This is undoubtedly true for the Eternal City, but for the more down-to-earth, down-at-heel City of Glasgow?

I have always harboured a notion to be a good-going bibliophile, and have my collection of priceless volumes smelling equally of chemical decay and old leather. The only obstacle is that the itch is too expensive to scratch, so in a fit of absent-mindedness I have become a compulsive collector of booklets and pamphlets but never really made much effort to collate and connect what has grown into a library of ephemera. Recently I came across a booklet that could hardly have been more relevant to our time and circumstances. Serendipity in 36 pages, entitled 100 Years of Education in the City of Glasgow 1872-1972, published in 1973, and looking forward to regional authorities.

100 Years comes from a proud tradition and pride in what education in the city was about. Its frontispiece, an unrefurbished 129 Bath Street, might initiate a wave of nostalgia compared with the Ceausescu-like quality of the Charing Cross Complex's non-architecture, but this is an unpersonly reaction. More in tune with the temper of our days is its reaction to conditions pre-1872. In a sentence, it resonates with much current out-of-office political rhetoric: "The deplorable state of education was not, of course peculiar to Glasgow; the whole country was in similar plight." We are on familiar territory now, and the feeling is secured by the reproving comment that there has always been a small but determined group of children, usually boys, who refuse to attend school and whose parents either condone the truancy, abet it, or are unable to prevent it.

The terrain becomes less certain as 100 Years delves into life only 25 years ago, and we make the necessary comparisons. Do the three Rs really "continue to dominate the school day" (vide The Structure and Balance of the Curriculum)? Do "quite a few people really look back nostalgically to the days of copperplate writing" (vide English Language 5-14)? Are activity methods really replacing rote learning (vide Improving Mathematics Education 5-14)? Is there really "a more gentle transition to a secondary school organisation"?

Are schools "faced with the problem of how to allocate extra teachers"? In the classroom, is "child mobility preferred to child pacivity (sic), flexibility to rigidity, and participation to disengagement" (vide Achievement For All)? Change seems all encompassing, and its spirit hard to capture.

Two sentences did jump out and grip me the way the Alien did John Hurt, and they are sentences that show how the people who produce PR pamphletry like 100 Years are unwavering in their Candide-like adherence to the best of all possible worlds. They don't change, and they restore my faith in Mitchum's "nothing changes" comment in the context of the Dear Green Place. The sentences refer to the growth of the comprehensive school: "The past decade has been a ferment of experiment, of change, and of adaptation to new circumstances. Like all revolutions it has not been painless, but the comprehensive school now seems poised to justify the hopes of the visionaries who inspired it."

Over the city, hopes have been dashed as communities see their local schools closed, feel their expectations dimmed, gloomily look forward to reduced prospects and feel confirmed in their conviction that, somehow, they are victims. Parents have been unconvinced by the visionary arguments (where they have been audible) that you can't make a super-comprehensive omelette without breaking a few comprehensive eggs, or that in fact they are not really victims of historical and financial necessity.

Indeed, nothing really changes. Only the contract buses and the new school uniforms do.

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