Schools ain't what they used to be

30th July 2004 at 01:00
A visit to a prize-giving is a timely reminder of how much is right in today's classroom, says Douglas Osler

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at the commemoration evening of Firrhill High in Edinburgh. The event celebrated the end of schooling for the leavers, most of whom were in S6. They were accompanied by parents, friends and a number of teachers. The evening was made to be very personal for each family, with a senior teacher talking about each pupil individually before he or she came to receive the leaving certificates detailing their achievements. The brief biography included where the pupil was off to next and that underlined the breadth of educational opportunities available as well as being an impressive display of the pupils' - and school's - success.

It is a real honour to be invited as a stranger into a community celebration like that and it is important to try to say something worthy of the invitation and the occasion. These are good events. They are not the prize-givings of the past, although achievement is celebrated. They are not parties, although the atmosphere reflects the excitement of young people at moving on, the relief of teachers at seeing another cohort leave their care and the delight of parents at having made it this far.

It is a bridge between the security of the school and the uncertainty of higher education or employment. With the influence of their parents and staff and the breadth of individual achievement on show that evening, they had nothing to fear. They were well prepared.

I decided it was an opportunity to tell them what they would expect of my generation, that schools are not what they used to be. And how glad we should be about that. I urged them to dismiss as nonsense comments about how much better schools used to be. The descriptions of a sunlit past don't match the facts. Of course, school was good for the able children but only one in four went to university and 40 per cent left with no certificate indicating what they had achieved at school.

There were outstanding teachers then as now, but there was also control by fear and that is unhealthy whatever might be the discipline problems of today's schools. The curriculum had barely changed in years and it was not open to all. Decisions about likely long-term achievement were taken on the basis of early performance and there were real obstacles in moving out of the selected stream. The best of Scottish education was not in its past.

No, schools are not what they used to be. The young people I spoke to that night have been taught by teachers who are among the best qualified in the world. They have had subject choices open to everyone and geared to enable individuals to choose what suits their talents and interests. They have been able to keep studying a broader range of subjects to a later stage than anywhere else in the UK, keeping career choices open. They have been able to study minority subjects and new, relevant subjects such as craft and design, computing, technology, psychology.

They have studied courses and taken examinations in a certification system which is modern, sophisticated and challenging. At their particular school, they have been able to see the relevance of school and prepare for work through a business and enterprise partnership. The education they had experienced valued them as individuals and, again uniquely in Scotland, there was a guidance system designed to monitor and support their individual progress through school.

When they needed careers advice, a professional system was available. If they needed extra help at some point, there was support second to none to identify the problem and work on it. As senior pupils too they had a splendid track record of working in the school and wider community, helping in special schools on a weekly basis and assisting younger children in a "paired reading and helping hands" initiative.

They had managed committees and organised events. I wondered how they had time to do anything else but there were also sporting and artistic achievements to their names. Who dares to rubbish 2004's young people?

I told them that I believe they have had better educational opportunities than any preceding generation. They should be proud of that and confident in the part they will have played in developing their personalities and shaping their future contribution.

Whatever the problems of Scottish education, it is strong enough to mend them. There need be no despair about our schools and I offered that as reassurance to parents with younger children still in the system. I added that I spoke on the basis of having seen more evidence about education in Scotland than most people.

In his second inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt said: "For each age is a dream that is dying or one that is coming to birth."

Theirs is coming to birth. What happens to them now will not be laid at their parents' door or blamed on the school. It is up to them and them alone. Our society and our economy needs young people like them to keep it stable and prosperous. They have been well prepared to play their part in that.

As I left, a young man who had dumped his school uniform for a T-shirt, jeans and a cigarette stopped me to say he had enjoyed what I had to say and appreciated the point I was making about schools today. I hope he remembers to be confident about his school education and to talk it up.

And I wish him and his former classmates well.

Douglas Osler is former head of the education inspectorate.

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