No single Europe here

8th November 1996 at 00:00
Well, the exchange is over. Two weeks spent hosting two German teachers while a group of pupils build links between Glasgow and Bavaria have helped to challenge educational laws of nature and reduce some of them at least to the status of tribal customs.

What emerged was a picture of school life completed between 8am and 1pm; of a centralised Bavarian curriculum with less flexibility than ours - but free of responsibility for personal and social education; of teachers having to keep precise records of tests (and their reasoning behind individual grades) in case parents - and lawyers - challenge their decisions; of highly impressive linguists - yet no oral testing in modern languages, apart from borderline examination candidates; of no covering for absent colleagues' classes; of no parent-teacher nights; of private schools being a sign of failure in the system - pupils only attend these schools in Germany if the parents have many marks and their children somewhat fewer; in short, a system built on different expectations and arising from different traditions.

Pupils too can be surprised by school exchanges. On a previous exchange to a school in Midi-Pyrenees in south-west. France, Glasgow pupils were amazed to see how the French smoked openly in the playground between lessons; their French partners in Glasgow couldn't believe the amount of junk food consumed by their Scottish friends, or the ubiquitous soft drink cans. Even the German teacher, after only two days in Scotland, was intrigued enough to ask: "What is this iron brew?" She wasn't impressed.

It does no harm at all to let the sunlight of alternative practice penetrate the shadier corners of our own approach. Some years ago, just after we banned the belt, a Polish friend said, incredulously: "But corporal punishment was forbidden in Polish schools in the mid-19th century."

I thought of my own introduction to Scottish education when Miss McLauchlan, faced with her 1950s primary 1 class for the very first time, took a belt from her desk, laid it prominently for all to see, and told the awed five-year-olds: "This is Black Peter. He's for any boy or girl who behaves badly."

Sometimes adjusting to foreign lands can be difficult. I remember the embarrassment at thinking on my first trip down a German autobahn that there was a large sprawling conurbation called Ausfahrt just out of view; or the realisation that every Italian railway station wasn't named Sottopassagio. So I felt a sense of kinship with the two girl tourists studying a map in a train stopped at Dunkeld when one triumphantly looked out the window and announced: "Here we are, the place is called Lit-ter."

It can be useful to remember that today's visitor can be tomorrow's leader. In the late 1950s, a young French assistant based in Wishaw attended with some friends the Dixon Halls Country Dancing Class, run on a Saturday night by the Govanhill Communist Party Branch. Forty years, and several headships later, the same man is in charge of the most prestigious Lycee in Paris (alma mater of Chirac and Hugo, Fournier and Fabius) and he still remembers his introduction to Scottish culture on those grey distant winter nights.

His memories are so fond that today he proudly boasts of having included Scottish country dancing in the curriculum of all the schools where he has taught during the intervening years.

Comrades in arms, I suppose.

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