Why is it wrong to specialise?

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Scotland's political leaders are stuck in a bog standard time warp when it comes to revitalising secondary schooling

WHEN I was a student at Glasgow University 35 years ago studying for a postgraduate diploma in education, I believed the move to comprehensive education was the result of a failing state system in England which had very little to do with Scotland or its needs.

Scotland was a different animal. Indeed for many years comprehensive schools had already existed in rural areas in Scotland. I myself am a product of such an arrangement. Only in major towns or cities did one find senior and junior secondary schools . Even there, well over 40 per cent of pupils went to the senior secondary.

Selection was by academic ability. Ambitious parents often decided to stay within town and city boundaries to give their children the best opportunity to attend such schools and often it was the private school which was then academically inferior.

I was not naive enough to think everything was perfect in the Scottish system. If failings did exist and the numbers of able youngsters outstripped the supply of senior secondaries, authorities could, I suggested, establish more of them. In addition, a fairer distribution of resources and quality staff to the junior secondary would have allowed them to develop their own style of education.

Regrettably, the then political climate drove council leaders and politicians to abolish any form of selection in cities and major towns and impose uniformity and neighbourhood comprehensives. Our renowned senior secondary schools were no more. More than 30 years later a new Labour Prime Minister realises the errors of the past and calls for the abolition of the "bog standard" comprehensive. He chooses to send his own children to a selective school rather than the local comprehensive.

However, no one is apologising for the mistakes which have seen many children from less affluent communities and with less influential parents deprived of the opportunities they might have had. No one is stating that they got it wrong trying to force an academic education on all students when a skills-based one could have been so much better for some.

The Scottish Executive has decided that there is to be no deviation from the all-through comprehensive principle. But why can Glasgow promote specialist schools for music, dance and physical education, and not offer the same opportunities to those gifted in other areas? Is that not political correctness in its extreme? Are those who are capable linguists, mathematicians, historians, scientists or have practical skills not due the same rights as the talented musician, sportsperson or dancer?

As a product of the comprehensive system, I can understand its value in many circumstances but I can also understand how differing situations might require different arrangements of schooling. Maybe it is now time to consider looking at different forms of education for the post-14 age group as is being advocated in England. It would certainly allow students to be taught according to their interests and abilities and might also help with the shortage of staff in key subjects.

Selection applies in the fields of sport and music and people work harder to achieve their desired objectives there. Why can we not apply it to some aspects of education? If equal resources are given to each type of school, then surely there can be no argument. We might even produce more of the craftsmen so desperately required by society.

I wonder, however, if Scotland's political leaders are still caught in a time warp, stuck in the culture and arguments of the last century.

Andrew Livingstone was rector of St Columba's, Kilmacolm.

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