The smell of success on every doorstep

7th March 2003 at 00:00
School should be a life changing experience for young people and the communities they come from

LAST year I had the honour of presenting the end of year awards at my old high school. I was given a tour of the classrooms and began to walk down those corridors with some trepidation. I had expected to experience flashbacks, internal reunions with my well-hidden past. But somehow it all felt detached. I remembered events but I wasn't engaging emotionally with those memories.

Then we hit the stairs and it all changed. I suddenly relived the turbulent emotions of teenage school experience. My picture memory was like a film running too fast but yet still taking in the events. But more hard-hitting was the knot I felt in my guts transporting me back to all the impossible predicaments of fear and ego which are the permanent tensions of teenage life experience.

But it was not some momentous event in the stairwell I had suddenly remembered. It was the smell - a piquant aroma of floor, a mixture of rubber and the residue from the soles of a thousand daily footsteps, combined with wood from handrails polished by many hands of varying degrees of cleanliness. The smell wasn't unpleasant but it took me to places in my mind I had long thought wiped clean.

I have visited many schools. None have had that smell. They will have had their own smell but none that meant anything to me. Only the smell in that stairwell could re-engage me with the emotions that gave meaning to events that filled the six years, five days a week, six hours a day, that was my education experience in that place.

I tell that story not to suggest that the 1970s were less hygienic than the first years of the new millennium but to emphasis the experiential nature of education. Smell is a sense rarely seen as connected to intellectual prowess but it alone took me back to what being at school felt like.

The power of education lies in the experiences we have while we perform the task and the processes of the curriculum.

We jump academic hoops, but the life-changing experiences, which truly create who we are, happen in moments of self-discovery and emotions experienced outside the receiving of the content of the curriculum and the regurgitation of the exam hall. They still happen within school but not usually in the classroom.

The classroom is a necessary part of the process. But nurturing the potential of life in all its uniqueness, expressed by the world of every individual pupil, is a much more complex process.

I also tell the story of the smells to argue that the nurture of potential which education is needs a comprehensive system available on every individual child's doorstep, playing a role in the nurture not simply of children but of the community of which they are part.

By comprehensive I do not mean "one size fits all" but comprehensive in that "all needs are met". Schools with the resources to provide a flexible curriculum and personal learning paths based on young people's aspirations and strengths. A rethinking of what is understood as productive use of the school day so that schools can provide a multitude of opportunities, challenging purely academic targets and helping young people set personal goals, using teachers' professionalism to help young people set those targets.

By comprehensive I also mean in each community, helping communities be confident that they can provide for their young people. I see almost daily calls for young people who are struggling at school to be bussed to so-called "city-wide magnet schools", "city academies" or "specialist schools", so that they can pass exams, and for "failing schools" to be shut down.

The devastation those communities would experience is incalculable.

Individuals do not exist without communities. If we build into our education experience rejection of the community in which an individual and their family lives, we will never release the potential of those communities.

Creating truly comprehensive schools in each community, which value the whole education experience, will take a quantum shift in expectation by politicians and electorate alike, along with some schools. But it will let our young people and their communities smell real success on their doorstep.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council.

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