Out of sight, not out of mind

27th August 2004 at 01:00
We're all back at school, having left thoughts of it far behind for the summer holidays. Well, not quite, for me anyway.

At Queensferry Primary, we prepare for new classes on our May in-service day and move rooms at the end of June each year. One year it would be good to lock up and leave at the end of session, not to return to our well organised school until August. Instead, there always seems to be some major building project underway - which is excellent for the school as we move through phases of roof repairs, window and heating replacement - and headteachers know that it is essential to keep a close watch on progress so that all is well for everyone to start the new term. As a result, we pop back from time to time.

This improvement to school buildings is a McCrone promise which is being delivered well, in my experience. Staff are delighted to be working in improved surroundings without a bucket in sight (to catch water from the leaking roof). We are happily seeing steady improvements.

While I'm in school over the holidays, I clear a little mail so that the first day back goes more smoothly. Then I can't resist the temptation of having a quick look at my email to see if there is anything really important. (I have a secret thought that staff at headquarters are just finding out whether anyone is in or not over the holidays.) My visits are only occasional because I find it difficult to let go of the reins. When my holiday away comes, that's when I'll make a clean break from thoughts of school, or so I think.

However, I can't stop myself having a quick look at schools wherever I happen to be on holiday. American schools seem to have such huge campuses that I can't even see the buildings off in the distance, far from the very high entrance gates. French and Swiss schools are usually well locked up, with high windows so I can't see in.

This summer I had a wonderful week's holiday in Harris and Lewis. You might think there would not be too many schools in the Hebrides to catch my attention. However, my holiday reading, Crowdie and Cream and Other Stories, took me straight back to the schools of the past as I followed Finlay J. Macdonald's wonderful stories of his early life on Harris at Scarista Beach.

What stories of interest, but also cruelty, they are. Macdonald describes his first day at school as the first time he witnessed the cruelties of the tawse, that renowned strip of leather from Lochgelly which teachers used to use to discipline pupils.

What wonderful places our schools are now as Primary 1 pupils are welcomed into happy classrooms and put beads into jars as they gain points towards certificates for good behaviour. The push for better behaviour and better learning has resulted in many schemes for positive discipline to replace the harsher practices of the past.

Mrs Morrison, our landlady at Seilebost, entertained us with stories of her own schooldays on Harris. She pointed to a tiny shed across the beach and explained that it was her school. It was called a side school.

I was surprised when she told me that, like Macdonald, she arrived in school speaking only Gaelic to be met by a teacher who spoke only English and really did not want her pupils to speak in their native tongue. How things have changed, as children now are being given the opportunity to learn in Gaelic. With 65,000 professed Gaelic speakers in Scotland, that is important.

The tales brought back my memories of being smacked over the fingers for holding a pencil in my left hand. Even as a five-year-old I became adept at making a quick switch whenever the teacher looked my way, but learning to write with my left hand anyway.

I wonder what we are doing today that will seem so strange to the next generations.

Sheilah Jackson is headteacher of Queensferry Primary in Edinburghwww.queensferry-ps.edin.sch.ukIf you have any comments, email scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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