Our pupils need new champions

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Putting your head above the parapet can be mighty dangerous. For those who do so, the perils come not only from odd snipers but often from well-organised regiments of critics only too prepared to fire off scathing salvoes.

It takes a special person, then, to have the inner strength to take such a chance. In recent weeks I have been intrigued by three such people, by their particular stances and by the reactions they have received.

Kathleen Marshall, Scotland's commissioner for children, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, one of the country's most senior churchmen, and Tom Hunter, entrepreneur extraordinaire, have all created a stir across the nation.

All are interesting people, each different in style and background, and often in the public eye. What caused the recent fuss is that each, independently, presented a view of the needs of children in the 21st century and that view contradicted popular perceptions sufficiently to ensure media interest.

I suspect that much of the controversy actually lies in sections of the press, which are strategically using some of these people's statements out of context to make good copy. This has always happened and, doubtless, will continue to do so.

You will know the stories well. Ms Marshall does not want teachers to shout at pupils. How easy to turn that idea into a national outrage. How easy to present it as a minority view that instantly puts her beyond the pale in the eyes of all of us in teaching.

The cardinal defended the rights of children to be allowed to be just that, but he did so in the area of sex education and so opened the way for his critics to challenge not only his viewpoint but also his ability and competence to state it. After all, how can a celibate cleric be responsible for directing or influencing policy on sexual morality?

As an aside on that issue, is that argument not played out yet?

The impact of Mr Hunter's proposal to boost enterprise education initially appeared less controversial. Being prepared to invest pound;100 million of his own wealth for the benefit of children is surely a safe bet. Not so. It offends political ideologies.

The public and the private purses combining to improve standards? Sorry, Mr Hunter, you are also fair game for the host of well-armed critics only too ready and willing to gun down fresh initiatives under the guise of political correctness.

The ability of Ms Marshall, Cardinal O'Brien and Mr Hunter to defend themselves is not in doubt and doing so is not my aim.

I recently met with other senior staff, depute heads and principal teachers. One of the issues on the table was, yet again, the McCrone report. The objective was to begin questioning ourselves, asking how far we had moved in line with McCrone's invitation for us to become a profession for the 21st century. I think it is a fair question and if we fail to provide an answer that identifies progress being made at a significant pace, then we have, collectively, falsified the post-report agreement.

My own feeling is that changes are taking place. As with every important initiative, individual responses vary. I know some secondary schools where many staff would clearly be rated as excellent in terms of how they have reacted to their new roles and responsibilities and others where staff are taking that bit longer to adapt. I include my own performance as needing scrutiny but here the arbiter cannot be me.

The idea of a profession for the 21st century is one we can all understand but the changing global picture demands also that we have duties to better identify the needs of our 21st century pupils, to become better at understanding modern young minds and attitudes, to appreciate the issues that influence them hugely -the pressures of peers, finance, careers, self-belief and self-worth.

No generation has ever lived in a world where so little remains constant.

Yet schools expect our young people to conform to standards of a past age and to appreciate a curriculum that reflects much from times gone by.

How our pupils deserve real champions to represent them, champions to move with the times but be resolute in holding on to strong values that will last through this century and beyond. Well done, then, to Ms Marshall, Cardinal O'Brien and Mr Hunter. The hope is that there are other champions coming up behind.

Rod O'Donnell is headteacher of St Paul's High, GlasgowIf you have any comments, email scotlandplus@tes.co.uk


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