University and school alliances worth the risk

12th March 2010 at 00:00

Fife Council and St Andrews University are to be congratulated on their joint initiative to locate the new Madras College on the university campus (TESS, January 15).

The partnership, potentially, has a number of advantages for all concerned: for pupils, access to subject expertise and resources that would not otherwise be available; for staff in schools, the opportunity to update their knowledge in rapidly-changing fields, such as the sciences and information technology; and for university staff and students, easy access to school settings which could provide useful data for research projects.

In some ways, it is ironic that St Andrews should be involved in this venture for, unlike Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Strathclyde, Stirling and West of Scotland, it does not have a school or faculty of education. Universities have tended to be snooty about education as an academic subject, and the merger of the former colleges of education into the university sector in the 1990s often met with opposition from traditionally-minded academics, sceptical about the intellectual value of work associated with schools.

Here a sense of history can provide some insight. The great American educator, John Dewey, saw the value of what he called "laboratory schools" when he worked at Chicago University and Columbia University in New York. His own disciplinary expertise included philosophy and psychology as well as education, and he saw the schools as tremendous assets in conducting experiments into the nature of learning and child development. The insights of Dewey and his team of co-workers were greatly influential in promoting progressive methods in education during the first half of the 20th century.

In Scotland, several of the colleges of education, before they were merged with universities, had "demonstration schools" attached to them, which provided not only placements for students in training but also enabled "expert" teachers to demonstrate the pedagogic skills that the trainees were aiming to acquire. These were gradually phased out, partly for economic reasons, but partly also because, in the simplistic notions of equality that prevailed in the post-war years, their very existence was regarded as elitist.

Wouldn't it be splendid if some city universities followed the example of St Andrews? Glasgow or Strathclyde (or the two in partnership) could team up with the City of Glasgow to establish a secondary school, with mutual benefits and, most importantly, enhanced opportunities for pupils.

Admittedly, there would be substantial difficulties. St Andrews is a small town which only requires one secondary school. In Glasgow, there would be controversy over catchment areas and admissions policies. Care would have to be taken to ensure that the new school was not hijacked by middle-class parents who are often adept at gaining unfair advantage for their offspring.

But there are risks in any worthwhile venture and the sad truth is that, despite the best efforts of dedicated people, we have not been as successful at closing the gap between high achievers and those who underperform as we hoped when comprehensive education was introduced in 1965.

What is the likelihood of such an enterprise getting off the ground? In the short term, slim, because of financial constraints and resistance from the usual suspects (academic backwoodsmen and territorially-minded officials). But let's not rule it out when times get better.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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