The truth shouldn't be so hard to take

16th July 2004 at 01:00
What with one thing and another - well, one thing really: discipline - I had forgotten just how sanitised education authorities can be with their versions of the truth. What prompted this train of thought was the recent case of David Wallace, of Burrelton primary in Perthshire, whose end of primary 7 speech was apparently censored by his school.

He was asked not to refer to the alleged bullying which he said had blighted his early years. While I am not going to get involved with the vagaries of that particular case, I do acknowledge that it raises a very important issue. There is a moment when openness from our pupils ceases to be in the best interests of the school's public persona, when their musings might turn the stuff of our dreams into a bleak nightmare for us, the teachers. Schools are not good at handling this, especially when they are criticised in the press.

Also, regrettably and all too often, local authorities come flying out of the stalls with all guns blazing, to the extent that I wonder who is doing their public relations for them. On bullying matters, education bosses, quite glibly in my view, regularly claim that they are satisfied with the anti-bullying measures in their schools. How do they know? Where is the evidence?

There is something inherently poignant about pupils being gagged in a society that embraces freedom of speech. Actually, laying aside concerns about badly behaved children for once and concentrating on the kids who are well-adjusted human beings, I must contend that these pupils should be given more of a voice. I still hear tales about pupils who are yelled at for constructively expressing their opinions, for criticising, in a courteous way, a feature of the life of their school.

In fact, someone I know very well was once carpeted for articulating perfectly reasonable criticism of a school policy. She, a well motivated and polite pupil, was hauled before the deputy head and treated like a thug. Afterwards, she said that the lesson she had learnt was to keep her opinions to herself. Is this what we want our young people to learn?

The moral to the tale is clear - we must not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that something is right just because an adult with a teacher training qualification deems it so.

While there may be good reasons for deferring to experts on a range of matters, any philosophy student will tell you that accepting statements as true simply because an authority figure has said so is to engage in faulty reasoning. Balanced teachers recognise the dangers in this and will aim to discourage the practice of kowtowing. If our pupils are overly deferential, we should worry: it probably means that they are in a state of terror.

What is so dreadful about all of this is that it is not just the pupils who are prevented from speaking their minds. Teachers too may not openly express their views on the education services in their authorities. If they do so, they might well be disciplined by their employers. The result of this is that parents simply do not hear about the negative things which will be rumbling on in their areas.

There is a lack of accurate information. Just one example - thousands of Scottish children, nationwide, are not receiving the support for learning to which they are entitled. This is because most of the financial resources are targeted at children with a legally drawn up record of needs. Parents are simply not aware of how dire this situation is. Yet every teaching colleague known to me is in complete agreement that, due to lack of funding, support for learning provision is in disarray.

I just wish that we could all be brave enough and resilient enough to allow pupils and teachers to speak the truth.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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