New life for decade-old report on school day

3rd September 2010 at 01:00
Education Secretary proposes fresh look at rejected paper he says was ahead of its time

A decade-old report that was vilified for proposing four-week school summer holidays and evening classes for senior pupils has been dusted off the shelf by the Education Secretary.

Michael Russell professed his admiration for the paper, by former Argyll and Bute education director Archie Morton, during the first of a series of roadshows designed to help the public get up to speed with the latest developments in education.

Addressing the recent Engage for Education event at Aberdeenshire's Inverurie Academy, he lamented: "We educate our children in the exact same way we did 100 years ago." He immediately referenced Mr Morton's "visionary" report as a source of radical alternatives to long-established practices.

Mr Russell questioned whether large school buildings such as Inverurie Academy - with their huge running costs - were necessarily the best places for learning, and whether they could be used more efficiently.

Speaking to The TESS this week, he admitted that he was one of the many people critical of the report when it was published in November 1999 and rejected decisively. But he now considered it "in advance of its time".

He has commended the report to his officials as an example of the type of radical thinking he believes will be necessary in Scottish education in the coming years, but stressed he did not envisage its every detail being enacted.

Mr Morton, who has retired since the report was published, upset many with his radical vision for education in the area.

He mooted the creation of lower and upper schools within a secondary (P7- S3 and S4-S6), citing evidence that the "earlier maturation of children" demanded that education authorities reconsider the length of time a pupil spends in primary school.

Lower-school pupils would go to classes in the morning and afternoon. Upper-school classes would take place in the afternoon and early evening.

Mr Morton envisaged that stretching the school day would "considerably strengthen links", opening up a range of new courses, whether vocational or university-level, for both pupils and adult learners. It was likely to be "far more effective in terms of accommodation and staffing".

He also recommended a four-term year with a maximum summer holiday of four weeks, and an Easter holiday on the same dates each year. He described current arrangements as an "historic accident" and argued that a long summer holiday "does not assist continuity and learning".

Mr Morton's report was largely a response to two issues that continue to dog education authorities today: boys performing worse than girls, and under-achievement in the early stages of secondary school.

The response at the time was often hostile. Dougie Mackie, secretary of the local branch of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), condemned the proposals as "anti-child, anti-parent, anti-family and anti- business".

The EIS claimed not a single teacher or parents group in Argyll and Bute was in favour of the plans. Implementation would lead to "the most drastic change to family life in Argyll and Bute for decades", while under- achievement among boys would become "10 times worse".

Mr Mackie, who remains EIS secretary for Argyll and Bute, said this week that his stance had not changed. The main focus of attention during the controversy had been the staggered school day, and he believes that, given local authorities' financial difficulties, now might be an even worse time for such an upheaval.

He added that the Scottish Government should be proposing any such ideas through the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers - but that it had not done so.

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