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LESSONS LEARNED BUT SOME CHALLENGES REMAIN Alex Wood calls for a rethink on parental choice and school catchment areas

By 29 January 2012No Comments

This summer I retire as a head teacher.  Over these 39 years schools have changed, hugely, and mostly for the better.  In 1972, after graduation, I returned to Scotland and teacher training.  I did a teaching practice in a Leith Junior Secondary.  Comprehensive education was not uniform.  Two thirds of Scotland’s youngsters had been doomed, after failing the ‘quali’, to an inferior education.
Corporal punishment was the norm.  During that placement, I witnessed one teacher belt a couple of boys for some minor misdemeanour at the start of every period.  In the selective senior secondary in which I had been taught, the belt was present but seldom used.  It remains a huge source of pride that my generation of teachers both made comprehensive education work and eradicated that routine, systematic brutality.
We now have comprehensive schools delivering a national system of certification which acknowledges the successes and achievements of all school students.  We have a curriculum, far from perfect but increasingly relevant and engaging and better taught than ever.
I have also seen the development of community schools.  Teaching in Craigroyston under the charismatic Hugh MacKenzie, convinced me that schools must deliver educational, recreational and social opportunities for all ages, welding school and community together.
In Wester Hailes Education Centre, Scotland’s first purpose built community school, integrated management of school, adult education and recreation facilities provides better services in each than could ever be achieved by separate institutions.  In both cases community school status implied schools as agents of equality and opportunity in economically deprived communities.
schools are better, more humane places today than when I started teaching but other changes, profound and facile, have also occurred.
Perhaps the most visually obvious change in schools is the number of obese children. As families retreat fearfully into the home, as children revel in solitary evenings on the play-station and as junk food, providing instant gratification and countless calories, is substituted for family meals the super-fat are as obvious as the smaller cohort of the anorexic.
Administratively, schools, like most of society, have become dominated by risk-avoidance, form-filling prior to the most routine of activities and constant number-crunching.  What cannot be measured is not valued and the machine threatens to drown schools in reiterated evaluation at the expense of learning.
Several profound social changes also mark my years in teaching.
Firstly, family bonds are much less powerful today than in the early 1970s.  With over 60% of children are born out of wedlock in several parts of Scotland, there is a significant rise in one-parent families and, in over 90% of cases, that sole parent is the mother.  Traditional child-rearing norms have changed dramatically.  An increasing number of parents is unable to maintain authority over their teenage children, especially mothers who are the sole parents for teenage boys.  A hard-core of parents also supports children in challenging school authority, either because they are so alienated from the authority system themselves or because, lacking the capacity to impose authority on their children, the easy option is to support their children’s refusal to accept adult authority in school.
Discipline has not broken down in schools but the challenges facing teachers are enormous.
Secondly, hard drugs were in the early 70s, if anything, the preserve of the rich.  By the mid-80s a drugs epidemic, bringing AIDS, crime, further family break-up and a reinforcement of the gulf between the respectable and the rest, had swept through many working class communities.  The destruction of traditional employment patterns has also hammered such areas.
Our poorest communities are today even more marginalised and less cohesive than in the 70s.  In such areas, a parental-choice exodus of the children of some of the most educationally motivated parents, means that local schools’ rolls and their academic cohort have significantly declined.
The demographic dip has also undermined schools in the poorest areas of Scotland.  The tragedy facing schools today is that the combination of parental choice and social, economic and demographic forces, is threatening comprehensive education and recreating the very Junior Secondaries which appalled me as a student teacher in 1972.
In my days at Craigroyston and in Wester Hailes Education Centre’s first decades, the days before parental choice, such schools, serving areas of considerable poverty, had a genuine, significant academic cohort.  That is decreasingly so.
A major rethink of catchment areas and, even more fundamentally, of policy on parental choice, is essential if comprehensive education is to remain in our cities.
The alternative is that many of the best improvements which have marked my four decades in teaching will disappear.
This article first appeared in The Herald on 29 April 2011

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