School's great, but it can be much better

8th October 2004 at 01:00
When your wee boy grows up, it's time to reflect on what needs to change, says Brian Boyd

Well, it had to happen. After seven years in Mossneuk primary and six in Duncanrig Secondary, Chris has now officially left school. We thought it was all over after S5, but it is now.

TES Scotland readers who have followed Chris's progress over the past 13 years will be happy to know that he survived his NABs in S5, did well in his five Highers and in S6 added Advanced Higher music and English as well as "crash" Highers in Latin and modern studies. He began a law degree at Glasgow University last month. Our wee boy has grown up.

So what can we say about Chris's schooling? Well, in many respects, his is a success story for the state comprehensive system. Chris went to Duncanrig Secondary with the rest of his friends. He settled in well, encountered some outstanding teachers and began to develop his talents in music, public speaking and writing.

Although quiet by nature, he had his own individual approach, in hair style, in clothes and in music. He made a significant contribution to school life, taking part in school shows, taking the junior wind band and becoming vice-captain. S5 was the best of years and the worst of years. He put in the effort and achieved success, but no one can really say it was a positive learning experience. The downward pressure of the exams was restrictive for teachers and pupils alike and the pressure was unrelenting.

S6, on the other hand, was liberating. Creative writing in Advanced Higher English and inventing in Advanced Higher music once again put creativity and initiative at the heart of the matter. This wasn't work; it was pleasure - and it was a challenge.

Higher modern studies was stimulating and opened up new perspectives on world events. Higher Latin was the real jewel in the crown: not having done Standard grade made the venture a little risky but it was worth it. (As an aside, why shouldn't every state school pupil have the opportunity to do Latin? Why should they have to be fortunate enough to attend one of the few schools which still offer it or have a tutor or attend an independent school?) But what memories will survive from Chris's time at Duncanrig? Well, there was Rig Rock, Duncanrig's very own Battle of the Bands, and the year he was invited to play a sax solo for the staff rock band. In fact, music played a huge part in his time at secondary school; there were the inevitable sax or clarinet solos at award ceremonies and Christmas concerts, appearances in school shows and participation in school bands.

In terms of extra-curricular activities, there was also the gold medal won with the Lanarkshire Orchestral Society Wind Band in Manchester, participation in the South Lanarkshire Artsnet Jazz Band and an appearance in Salzburg playing sax and clarinet in a new, experimental piece written by a young composer and sponsored by Young Scot.

All in all, Duncanrig, soon to merge with another school in a brand new public private partnership (PPP) building, will always have a place in the collective Boyd memory, and so it seems churlish to criticise the system which has served Chris so well.

However, it must be said that while Duncanrig is great, there are some serious issues to be addressed in the school system if its main aim is to prepare young people for the 21st century. The one thing which is predictable about the 21st century is that the pace of change will be faster. Thus, as David Perkins at Harvard has recently argued, schools must prepare pupils for the unknown. This calls into question a curriculum structure which has its roots in the 19th century and which might have been sufficient in a more stable world. We are going to need to equip our young people to be creative problem-solvers, team players and independent learners. The present curriculum does none of these very well. The examination system, with its emphasis on recall and pencil and paper tests, may well be the biggest single barrier to change.

However, when I broached the issue of schools having outlived their usefulness with Chris, I did not receive unqualified agreement. He liked school, he liked the social aspect and he had some great teachers whose influence will extend well into his adult life. So if schools are to remain the main vehicle for equipping young people for life in an increasingly uncertain world, what has to change?

First, pupils' voices need to be listened to on issues of importance. The best preparation for citizenship must surely be to engage in real democratic decision-making while in school. From the installation of lockers or the upgrading of toilets to real choice of subjects and even of teaching and learning styles, pupils' voices should be listened to.

Second, instead of introducing exams earlier and earlier, why not postpone them until they are really needed? Preparation for exams takes so much time away from real learning and it often kills pupils' enjoyment of the subject. (Just how many past papers does a class have to do before rigor mortis sets in?) Alternatively, as the Scottish Qualifications Authority appears to be doing now, find new and creative, but maybe more expensive, ways of examining pupils' ability to apply their knowledge, skills and understanding.

Finally, young people's achievements in all walks of life should be celebrated. Duncanrig is working hard at this, but too often in the secondary school the maxim is that all subjects are equal, but some are more equal than others. Achievement in music, for example, is thus valued less than achievement in physics, or skills in caring in the community celebrated less than success on the football field.

For many people, school still represents the best days of their lives and Chris is no exception. But the system needs to evolve as society changes.

Not all kids find school such a positive experience. Even those who do, find the examination years stressful and arid.

Will Chris enjoy university and will his school experience have been a good preparation for the next four or five years? Duncanrig Secondary did well by him, but only time will tell if the Scottish secondary curriculum remains a good preparation for life. Watch this space.

Brian Boyd is professor of education at Strathclyde University.

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