The opening line of LP Hartley’s novel The Go-Between has been repeating in my mind recently: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Fifteen years since I finished my own Scottish school experience, and 11 since I left to move to England, I have just completed my first fortnight teaching in Scotland.
The dilution of my Highland accent isn’t the only thing that has changed, with an education system awaiting me that has long since left my Standard Grades lingering behind in the dust.
There was much about my decade in England’s schools that I loved: teaching is something I profoundly value and I am deeply committed to. Like any reflective professional, however, there was much that frustrated me: the relentless pace, ubiquitous burnout and disillusionment with endless data.
One teacher’s view of working either side of the border: ‘I’d rather be a teacher in Scotland than England’
Curriculum for Excellence: ‘Scotland’s mistakes will shape Welsh education reform’
School inspection: ‘More stressful’ in England than in Scotland
So will Scottish education be the utopia that leaves these behind? To cast definitive judgements after only a few weeks would be both ignorant and arrogant. As I now, however, look forward to the next 30 years or more in Scottish classrooms, what resonates from my initial experience?
What has been very clear from the start is the focus on collaboration and support in Scottish education. I published a tweet the week before I started, confessing to feeling overwhelmed about the transition and seeking advice. The response was, in turn, overwhelming, with over 50 replies and dozens of messages with suggestions and support.
The signal was clear: teachers in Scotland look out for each other. This has been powerfully embodied in the school environment, as I have joined a department and school that have gone above and beyond to support and help me to settle in.
This genuine sense of care and inclusion is also reflected in the focus on both staff and student wellbeing. My initial impression is that Scotland is taking this vital aspect of education extremely seriously indeed, going beyond empty platitudes and placing it at the core of curriculum and decision-making.
I have also been reminded over the past fortnight why I wanted to return home and work with Scottish students: with their sharp humour, their inquisitive natures and strong personalities. It is, after all, young people that make teaching – and Scottish students promise much joy and intellectual stimulation.
As anyone who has started a new school will acknowledge, however, some young people like to test boundaries and my own experience has naturally reflected this. There is much about the focus on restorative behaviour practice that I think is positive and important. I fully advocate the stoical philosophy approach to the complex interpersonal demands of the classroom; we are the adults and should absolutely seek to manage our own emotions.
However, while it may be my own poor initial attempts to have "restorative conversations", I wonder if the time required is detracting from vital learning in the room. A question that requires much more reflection than permitted here is: Do young people still need firmer consequences for poor behaviour?
Curriculum for Excellence is something that my tired end-of-term brain has only just started to make sense of. Much of it has been refreshing, a movement away from endless assessments and a focus on breadth and depth is liberating. Classroom teachers having much more autonomy and direction over what they want to do in the classroom is also exciting. As a purist English teacher, however, I do wonder about levels of challenge and rigour – just how well is it equipping young people with the literacy skills that are still vitally important in a world full of written communication?
To an extent, the past is rightly a foreign country, and change at both a personal and systematic level is often what is needed to generate improvements. What fascinates me now, as I tentatively stand on the edges of Scottish education, is where will the next 15 years take it?
Jamie Thom is a teacher of English in Scotland, who until recently worked in schools in England. His book A Quiet Education will be published later this year. He tweets @teachgratitude1