Well, hey, it's not all right Jack, is it?

6th October 2006 at 01:00
What a waste of time that was - pretending for many years that all pupils in Scottish schools could cope with academic tasks such as learning a foreign language or analysing the intricacies of Shakespeare's blank verse.

Finally, after much fermenting and frothing in the educational cauldron, Jack McConnell thinks it would be a good idea to establish skills academies to provide courses for less academic pupils, as reported in last week's TESS.

About 100 of these institutions will apparently be set up in Scotland, with 14 and 15-year-olds in the relevant categories attending them for a proportion of the week to learn trades such as joinery, car mechanics, plumbing and hairdressing.

Already there are predictable howls of protest about returning to selective education and throwing the comprehensive system on the rubbish tip. Who will decide if pupils are academic? What about those who wish to engage in the practical criticism of poetry and who also, breathtakingly, want to learn to plumb a toilet?

I rather think that these critics are being just a little too clever for their own good. After all, the comprehensive system has, in many ways, failed. Yes, everyone goes to the same school but your ability has ceased to matter because, oops, we must all have access to equal opportunities and, as for taking account of stretching the brightest and best academically, that has kind of slid down any list of priorities you care to mention.

Critics of the quality of education received in our schools range from irate employers who take on school leavers straight from their desks, to university lecturers who can't understand why their undergraduates can't structure an essay or find the motivation to cope with a reading list of average length.

So Jack's right to say that the academic path isn't for everyone. But he must also face the fact that the extra ingredient of inclusion, flung into the cooking pot by his government, has added a seasoning too bitter for most of us to swallow.

Behaviour, according to most teachers, is worse, pupils are less motivated and the content of the curriculum has inevitably been watered down to accommodate the lowest common denominator in terms of intellect and social skills. But changes to the status quo must be handled carefully because, for too long, schools have been forced into the Sisyphian approach of managing change. Two steps forward and three back.

Recently, I spoke to a head who has had some experience of the kind of training envisaged by McConnell. Wilder elements of his fourth year disappear to an FE college two days per week for vocational training. Since starting their college course, they've become even more of a nightmare during the days when they're in school.

It is in this arena that discussion must take place about the management of the skills academies. Somehow, we have to unpick our blind obedience to a weakened comprehensive system. By the age of 14, it is evident who is motivated and who could simply leave school because they won't absorb any more formal education. Furthermore, there's a limit to the amount of help you can shove down kids' throats if they don't want to learn.

So if, by their mid-teens, kids haven't responded to the splendid Curriculum for Excellence blah, blah, and their behaviour strangles everyone else's chance of fulfilling their potential, wouldn't it be reasonable to exit them to a skills academy? But, for this scheme to be successful, these young people must leave traditional school behind. This is the only way to give the project a chance of succeeding.

The skills academies must be seen as a fresh start and a real portal to the working world. Otherwise, school will become even more of a drudge than it is already.

So, Jack, if you're doing it, go the whole hog. Otherwise, forget it.

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

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