Sing loud and long for more inclusion

7th January 2005 at 00:00
A concert at his local school leads Ewan Aitken to reflect on the good news that so rarely makes the papers.

Just before Christmas, I was invited to a concert at the local high school which serves the community I represent and where I was privileged to serve as chaplain at one time.

It is a school I hold in high regard. The concert increased that regard tenfold. It lifted my spirits and gave me great hope. After the concert, one of the school board members said to me: "That was wonderful, but the trouble is we don't blow our own trumpet." Well, for a moment and without apology, I am going to do it for them.

The talent on display, well supported by an enthusiastic and talented staff, would win Pop Idol or its equivalents any day. More than 100 young people took part. There were stunning classical solos on the clarinet, hornpipe and trumpet, a brilliant drum display in Sikh Dohl style, a superb ceilidh band, excellent guitar solos, a wonderful brass ensemble and singing that was out of this world.

How I wish the Sisters of Soul group had been in my church. Sister Act wouldn't have had a look in. It was one of those nights where I was so proud to be associated with the school and its community.

Yet this is not a community in some leafy suburb. It is a community of severe poverty as well as riches. My ward, which is the third poorest in Edinburgh, is entirely within its catchment. Two other wards that are also in its catchment are among the 10 poorest in the city. Many of its pupils face huge challenges outside the school that they cannot leave at the school gate.

Yet the school not only manages to cope with these challenges, it has a speciality in autism and support for pupils with behaviour problems, acting as a host school for children removed from other schools. It has taken on the inclusion agenda and is succeeding with it.

I am not saying everything is rosy in this particular garden. There are difficulties and sometimes things do not go well. I know of situations where pupils have slipped through its net and times when it has had to send children away.

But it is a school, like so many others across the country, that looks for solutions, not excuses, for the challenges it faces. Despite sometimes very difficult circumstances, it provides a wide range of opportunities and choices for its pupils. Academically, the school's pupils do well.

It also regularly has pupils succeeding in sport, music, the arts and community action. The school rock band is set to represent Scotland at the European youth awards. Its Christmas musical was written and directed by a fifth-year pupil. It allows its pupils to blossom and to follow their strengths.

The concert participants reflected that breadth of activity and the variety of backgrounds the school draws from. The school's inclusive ethos was lived by the pupils, who were all rooting for each other. No matter what style of music or who was performing, all the others were willing them on to do well and applauding loudly at the end of each piece.

Everyone was made to feel they mattered. It was an entirely inclusive experience for all. As another mother said to me: "She's done fine in her exams, but that's her real education."

Yet according to some commentators, the Scottish education system is failing because of the inclusion agenda.

Recent reports on discipline seem to imply that every secondary school classroom is like downtown Baghdad. There is talk of CCTV in classrooms, police in corridors and calls for "boot camp"-style special schools for every child who steps out of line.

But so rarely do we celebrate the good things that go on in an inclusive school, such as the concert I attended. This school, brilliant as it is, is by no means unique. There are hundreds like it, all across Scotland, providing many similar experiences for thousands of young people. But we never hear of their success.

Why is this so? I am told it is because it doesn't sell newspapers, though I am not convinced by that argument. It is, I believe, because there is a small, vociferous and vocal group of people who do not want the inclusion agenda to succeed.

They don't want schools to deliver these kinds of opportunities for all.

They want, instead, to maintain a selective system that separates rich from poor, the academic from those with other skills, and the challenged from the not-so-challenged.

It is what I call institutionalised rejection and it is not a system to which I will sign up. The concert I attended spoke volumes about why that is so, and I intend to keep singing loudly from the inclusive songsheet.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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