A strange truth about education is that the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches and policies are discussed ad nauseam, but with little input from the people doing most of the learning.
The hundreds of thousands of students and pupils who populate our schools and colleges are, as a result, in danger of being reduced to stereotypes in the public eye.
Yes, there is more emphasis on “pupil voice” these days, but in practice these attempts to give a say to students often feel tokenistic (“Pupil voice isn’t blether, but old habits die hard”, Tes Scotland, 21 April 2017).
A new publication, however, gives a singular and nuanced view of the hopes, passions and troubles of students in Scotland – a far more useful insight for teachers than any amount of media-driven moral panics about the alleged shortcomings of young people.
Write Times 2 collects outstanding writing that has been submitted for Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) English courses and a few other related subjects, shining a spotlight on students who are more thoughtful – and less predictable in their view of the world – than they are often given credit for.
Millennials are frequently portrayed as narcissistic, with crazes for pouting selfies and Snapchat streaks presented as damning evidence of a heightened, technology-obsessed world, where status in the present overrides any moral or historical perspective.
Write Times 2 shows the reality beyond the smartphone-shaped looking glass.
It features the work of students who are searching for meaning by delving into history: through epochal events such as Hiroshima, Pompeii, 9/11 and the Spanish Civil War – or though preservations of the past, such as traditional Chinese painting or Scotland’s oldest lending library, at Innerpeffray in Perth and Kinross.
Some writers explicitly reject what N5 student Orla Davey, of St Margaret’s Academy in Livingston, West Lothian, describes as “a soul-destroying life of hollow hashtags” on social networks. She fears that they sideline the “magical escapes from reality” provided by traditional books and give free rein to “bullies [who] bulldoze your self-esteem”.
Michelle Musyoka, an N5 student at Glasgow’s Eastwood High, writes about milking a cow while visiting her relatives in Kenya, and yearns for an education rooted in real-world, physical experiences. She wants to “strip back from the technology-centred, narcissistic, fame-hungry world” and instead “focus on the real raw meaning of life: love, companionship, generosity and humility”.
This is a recurring theme of the SQA collection – and is an interesting contrast to calls for increased use of tablet computers as a catalyst for learning and efforts to encourage pupils to “bring your own device” into class.
Write Times 2 is published 10 years after a similar volume and covers fiction, non-fiction, prose, poetry and drama. In its pages, several students suggest ways in which school might be improved.
Chiara van den Hoven, an Advanced Higher student from Jordanhill School in Glasgow, wants schools to emulate the world of design by creating more space for creativity and curiosity, so that pupils are “cultivating a pattern of understanding and rationalisation that can be applied to any situation”.
Higher student Chloe Farquhar, of the High School of Glasgow, celebrates introverts and the power of being quiet. She criticises the “ill-judged obsession for large group activity” in schools and calls for more nooks and crannies that provide space to “stop and think”.
At the moment, she fears, open-plan schools and approaches such as brainstorming lead to classes dominated by “the forthright and the forceful”.
Some writers, such as Anna Guariento of Glasgow’s Shawlands Academy, struggle with feeling “powerless” in the era of Donald Trump and Brexit.
Teachers have previously told Tes Scotland that Trump’s presidency should stimulate learning and inspire young people to raise their voices (“‘Trump’s triumph is a great lesson for our students’”, 18 November 2016).
The seething prose of some Write Times 2 pieces certainly kicks back against some political trends.
In a withering attack on the US decision to block funds to organisations involved in abortion advice and care overseas, Edinburgh College HNC student Julie Baum writes sarcastically that, on the first Monday of his presidency, “Donald Trump proved that not only does he know how to use a pen, but he can even write his name with it.”
Some big-hitters have written introductions to the book and its various sections. Education secretary John Swinney reveals that a tear was brought to his eye by Eight-Forty-Five, a piece of fiction by Juliet Downs, which the Higher student at Bell Baxter High in Cupar, Fife, builds around the September 11 attacks.
Andy Arnold, artistic director of the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, writes of the “diverse range of young writers emerging in Scotland”, adding that “So much of this now starts in the classroom”.
SQA chief executive Janet Brown calls on Scotland’s educators to “savour the confident, accomplished work” on show in Write Times 2 – and to give these young writers and others like them “support and encouragement to help them realise their ambitions.”
Write Times 2, published by SQA, has been sent to every school and college in Scotland. A free e-book version can be downloaded at bit.ly/WriteTimes2