Brian Boyd remembers what he learnt from his son's teachers
It's the end of an era. Our son Chris is leaving Mossneuk Primary School. My earliest memory is of the day he came home with a sticker on his sweatshirt: "I am a Mossneuk Marvel". He had just received his 50 metres swim badge, and his teacher responded in the way I would hope every teacher would. She put a certificate on the wall, gave him his sticker and his name duly appeared in the termly parental newsletter.
Two years later Chris came home with another sticker: "I am a Junior Gem". This sticker was for doing extra topic work. And at parents evening we noticed his certificate on the wall. It read "Chris Boyd, for doing extra Topic work". There was a tear in the eye and a lump in the throat as we, the proud parents, read the words. But, significantly, beside his was a certificate for Lisa, the girl who sat beside him: "Lisa, for bringing a ray of sunshine into the classroom".
And there's the rub. Is the celebration of a wide range of achievements the best way of creating a climate of success?
When I tell the story of the certificates to teachers up and down the country, I get two reactions. One is the empathetic exhalation of breath from those who intuitively feel that a ray of sunshine is worth celebrating. The other is more cynical: "Who is this guy? When did he last teach a class?" The challenge is clear. Are we prepared to celebrate a wide range of achievements, personal and social as well as academic?
The prevailing climate is not propitious. HMI are currently taking their "Setting Targets: Raising Standards in School" roadshow to senior management teams. Their message is conveyed in high-tech PowerPoint presentations, but what do they mean by quality? How would they measure a ray of sunshine? Instead they concentrate on the measurable - the Standard grades and Highers, and soon the 5-14 levels.
The aim is to convince schools that they only need to find another school serving a similar catchment area which is "doing better", and aspire to be like it, and everyone will be all right. But just as schools in England use quotations from Ofsted reports to "sell" their school, so Scottish schools buying into the targets will undermine the efforts of their colleagues.
Thankfully, Chris is oblivious to the machinations of the Scottish Office and the academics who are happy to give legitimacy to their targets initiative. He was more concerned with gaining a gold certificate before he left P7. He had earlier gained a silver, made up of 35 individual certificates. He has done his topic work, undertaken book reviews, taken part in school performances and much more.
These are the kinds of targets the more enlightened educationists value. Two directors, Tim Brighouse in Birmingham and Michael O'Neill in North Lanarkshire, have set out performance targets as well as input targets.
They have sought to enhance the personal and social aims of education in direct counterbalance to the narrow cognitive targets of HMI. They have set authority targets for enhanced staffing and better resourcing. They have set out to ensure, for example, that by a given stage all pupils will have had the opportunity of a residential experience, or to take part in a public performance or to produce something using IT.
We have had, I have to admit, the odd glitch with Chris over the years. There was the homework incident. It was around P4 when he first got his four words home. He had to write them out twice and then make an "interesting sentence" using each word. As an English teacher I have difficulty with the concept of an interesting sentence, especially when its not joined to any others. Nevertheless, we went along with it. As the only child of two English teachers, you would think that Chris could handle the sentences. Not so.
It became a focus for tension and anxiety in the Boyd household every evening, until we discovered Brainstorming - a fun way to generate ideas for interesting sentences. Then one evening after a brainstorming session, Chris let out an anguished cry: "Dad, we forgot to miss a line!" So we had to write in the little half jotter every Mossneuk pupil carried home, "Dear Mrs Phillips, I'm sorry but we forgot to miss a line."
Later that day Chris came home with the jotter and we read the reply, "Dear Dr. Boyd, please don't worry about not having missed a line. Be happy!" And so the communication with parents has been a key feature of the school's success. The head, Mrs Bruce, and the staff have always listened, and acted when necessary. When football in the playground threatened to undermine the school's positive ethos, they acted quickly to change the way teams were picked. When relationships broke down they acted sensitively to repair the damage. And throughout the seven years they strove to create an ethos of achievement for all the pupils.
Of course no school is perfect. One day Chris came home and announced that he would like to wear his school shirt and tie rather than the usual sweatshirt. We laid it out over the radiator (as one does in East Kilbride). Next morning I helped him with his tie. I could see he was upset and asked why. "Well Dad, it's Tuesday. We get mental on Tuesday, and we have to hide our jotter. "
The subliminal signals given out by mental are that these pupils you have known for four years, whom you trust, collaborate with and like - when it comes to mental, they're out to do you down and steal your answers. (In my more cynical moments I think this lesson will stand him in good stead when he does secondary maths.) But all in all Mossneuk has been great. The reply to our "How was school today?" is still likely to be "Brilliant".
Brian Boyd is associate director of the Quality in Education Centre, Strathclyde University.