Please celebrate good degrees properly

8th August 2003 at 01:00
I was shocked and amazed last month, when attending my niece's graduation, to discover that Aberdeen University does not publish the degree classifications of new graduates. We became aware of this while reading the graduate lists in a national newspaper as we waited to go into the ceremony. Nevertheless, I reassured the proud father, my brother, that in the absence of classification in the newspaper, the graduate ceremony programme would be bound to acknowledge my niece's first-class honours degree. I was mistaken.

The written introduction to the programme, penned by the principal, states:

"The university is proud of you and you should be proud of yourself." But, actually, not proud enough to do anything other than to list the graduates in alphabetical order and thus to dispatch them for their micro-second of public glory on the stage. I think it's scandalous, but sinking to treating everyone the same is rapidly becoming the educational world's national sport. If an old and prestigious university such as Aberdeen subscribes to sacrificing the recognition of achievement to defer to some diluted notion of equality, then what incentive is there for students to aim for the highest possible attainment?

If a student reaches the pinnacle of academic excellence then, call me old-fashioned, but I think that one vehicle for publicly celebrating that has to be the graduation day. When I contacted Ewan Mathieson, of Aberdeen University's public relations department, to find out what was the rationale behind not doing this, he spoke of "a number of unique aspects to our graduation ceremonies which add to the general feeling of celebration".

These include the conferring of the degrees in Latin, musical interludes and the attendance of representatives of the City Council of Aberdeen. But as we weren't told exactly what each graduate had achieved, it was hardly the most empathetic celebration.

Tellingly he added: "The university has chosen not to highlight degree classifications during individual ceremonies; it is the degree that is being conferred, not the classification."

There are relevant messages here for schools because we, too, are not blameless in this feeble culture of anything-will-do. Prize-giving ceremonies continue to be attacked as elitist relics of times best forgotten. Admitting that you are in favour of prize-givings is rather like owning up to being expelled from school. Pretending that all pupils are the same is the anthem of the age, a conniving in a stitch-up of the high achievers. This starts from day one in primary school with the abysmal 5-14 system.This structure is flawed in every way so it is hardly surprising that it does the high flyers no favours. The pattern continues right through S1 and S2 with classroom teachers expected to magically offer differentiation on an all-singing and dancing scale. Nearly all the bright and high achievers are bored rigid by the time they reach S3 and Level F is viewed by most teachers with contempt.

The farce continues. Too many hopelessly unmotivated and academically limited individuals stay in school beyond the legal leaving age. Most schools have little in terms of relevant courses to offer these pupils who will be lucky to have gained a clutch of Standard Grades at Foundation levels 5 and 6. But because we have to pretend that we are all equal - just like all the Aberdeen graduates on graduation day - we continue to accept a failing system.

I am glad, though, that almost all the other Scottish higher education institutions take a different approach from Aberdeen. In black and white, they clearly emblazon who has achieved what in the lists of graduates released to the national newspapers. This is crucial, because Scotland is not good at celebrating talent. It is vital that we do so and the universities should take a lead on this.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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