Stop, breathe in and think deeply

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Young people need space for reflection as much as they need good exam passes, says Ewan Aitken

As I prepared this month's column in my mind, I was all set to rage at the idiots who claim that higher pass rates mean exams are getting easier. In particular, I had certain newspapers in my sights for their abuse of young people by claiming their hard work in passing their exams was valueless because so many had been successful.

I had marshalled my arguments in my mind. I had some lovely quotes from the New Statesman ("The rise in pass rates should not surprise us in the least.

Fifty-one years ago, nobody had run a four-minute mile. It is not suggested that the mile has since got shorter or that stopwatches have been rigged") and from the Sunday Herald ("When the British press talk about dumbing down . . . it is time to send out for freshly blacked pots and kettles").

I even had what I thought was a nice little illustration that numbers can show anything we want. (18 would be a fail in an exam but a gold medal in an Olympic final.) I was all set to get stuck into the harbingers of doom and gloom about our education system.

Then, just before I put finger to keyboard I had news, in quick succession, of the death of not one, but two friends from times gone by, one a suicide.

These were folk whose contribution to my life had been huge. They had been there for me when I needed them. They had never let me down. Neither had met the other but both had made a more than substantial difference to who I am as a person by the way they treated me or, to verge on the theological, by the way they showed their love. In all that they did for me, it would be true to say that I never knew what exams they passed or even if they ever sat any.

And so I dumped the polemic and tried to make sense of things of much more significance. In my reflections, I began to wonder how we prepare young people to deal with those moments of crisis or sorrow, how we help them discover in themselves the tools to make what sense they can of the challenges and tragedies of our mortal existence and also how to celebrate that existence.

It struck me that what we needed was not a course in bereavement counselling but simply the time and space to think, the silence to do so and simple guidance on how best to make use of those three gifts.

The curriculum review group is beginning its work. What I will be saying to its members is, "let's stop thinking about timetables and let's start thinking about time". Let us loosen the hold we have taken on how teachers structure the time they have with young people and start saying what we want to see is the end result, not control the journey.

To continue the athletics theme, a good coach will say to a runner: get in touch with your breathing, hear it and know it and pace yourself on it. We (politicians, policy-makers and to some extent the public) have become like a coach who says: whatever you do make sure you've taken a hundred breaths by the first bend.

The analogy is a little laboured but the point is that we need to create more freedom in the school day for teachers (especially, but not exclusively, in primary) to tailor-make the day to what is happening there and then. For example, giving them freedom to not have an hour's maths if something of more significance has just occurred and the class would benefit from following that through. We need to trust teachers to find the balance over the term or the year even, to cover the things we know need to be covered in the best way for each class.

Now, I do not want anyone to suggest that I am arguing that we dump timetables completely in schools, not yet anyway. I am saying that education is fundamentally about finding meaning and sense of the experience of being alive and so we need to give young people the time to do that searching and reflecting. If that means loosening timetables, then that is what we should do.

We never have enough time for that kind of thinking because we never know what each day will bring. But if we allow teachers the flexibility to be truly pupil-centred and not totally timetable-driven, the space for reflection that will create will bring results that exams alone cannot articulate - but they will be much more valuable in life after exams.

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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