I was at a seminar on school self-evaluation in Cardiff. Inevitably, school evaluation is overwhelmingly based on statistics: test scores, examination attainment, numbers entering higher education - all valid measures of school success. It was useful and stimulating. It even occasionally looked beyond these quantitative success measures.
I booked a taxi to the university. After 30 seconds, the cabbie and I had recognised each other as Scottish. "Twenty-nine years down here," he told me. I asked him why he had moved.
"It's a complicated story." I can't tell how truthful he was, but there was an authentic ring to most of it. He was from Lanarkshire. He'd been 16, about to sit O-grades and in town on a Saturday with his pal. They were approached by three aggressive youths, known drug users, demanding money. They were forced up a lane and told to hand over whatever cash they had. "My pal was quiet but he was fit and hefty. He landed one on them, did him a fair bit of damage and, just as he collapsed, the cops arrived. We were the ones who were arrested."
At a formal level, justice prevailed. The charges were dropped but a vendetta developed. My cabbie was threatened, his parents' windows smashed, his dad's car damaged, his pal attacked. It was time to leave Lanarkshire and spend time with a cousin in Wales. While there, he was offered a job and he never returned to school or Lanarkshire. He did hear that two of their attackers had fallen out. In the ensuing fight, one cracked the other's skull. The perpetrator ended in Peterhead, the victim in a wheelchair.
A few years later, he met a Glasgow girl on holiday in Spain and married her. They settled in Cardiff. "I wish I'd finished school with a few qualifications, but I'm a happy man. I work hard, earn an honest living. I love my missus. I've three great kids. One girl's at college studying social work. One's training to be a dental nurse. My son's a star at school and wants to study law. It's worked out fine." I left his cab pleased to have met him.
Leaving a taxi in Edinburgh, I'd likely be depressed by the driver's pessimistic litany of complaints: too many cabbies licensed by the council, road works delaying traffic, lack of road works creating potholes and delaying the traffic, taxes supporting the feckless.
My Lanarkshire cabbie in Cardiff was an optimist. He rejected a culture where violence and relentless revenge were what teenagers did. He was big enough and emotionally open enough to tell a stranger that he loved his missus. Perhaps it was pessimistic, macho, up-tight Scotland he left.
I wish he had not felt the need to leave. Scotland could do with more like him but if he and his ilk are to feel at home in Scotland, we have a culture to change. We need to make optimism, respect and openness the norm. As an educationist, that's part of my job. I've always engaged with these tasks. My question to those with whom I shared the seminar is: how would they gauge the achievement of such qualities, impervious as they are to arithmetical measures? Indeed, would the tick-box school evaluators even recognise optimism, respect and openness if they confronted them?
[BX] Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.