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It was 9.15 on the Thursday morning before the last Edinburgh derby. My business manager, leaving school for a meeting, passed the Tynecastle ticket office. He spotted three of our students in the queue. “Back to school, lads,” he called. No response. He phoned me. I walked to the ticket office. The lads had fled.
I was immediately recognised by a couple of the queuing adults, though. One voluble, middle-aged Jambo decided to represent my vanished students’ feelings. “You’re not chasing the lads back to school, are you, Headmaster?”
“Of course. They should have been there three-quarters of an hour ago.”
“That’s terrible. Imagine stopping the boys getting to the game.”
I told him that the last thing teenagers needed was adult encouragement to truant.
It transpired that one of the boys wasn’t even looking for a ticket. He’d met his mates and decided he preferred a chinwag to school. Another skived the first day of the next week. The parents were not particularly concerned. One parent was well aware that the cost was not only Pounds 16 for the ticket, but also missing at least an hour of school.
At first I was indignant. How can parents be so unconcerned about their youngsters’ schooling? How can a group of adults see football as more important than education and encourage 15-year-olds to emulate their own carelessness? When they returned to school, I chased the lads and gave them laldie.
I also reconsidered these questions.
Perhaps it’s not just respect for education which has waned. Perhaps we have a cohort of youngsters for whom the education we deliver is fairly meaningless. Forced through an exam-driven curriculum, in which they may gain qualifications but at the poorer end, they know who are the perceived successes of the system: not them. Plugging away at eight subjects, too many of them still based on book learning of limited value and minimal interest, what adolescent wouldn’t rather spend a sunny hour in the queue with adults, discussing what really grabs them? One of the lads has, in fact, signed S-forms for a Division 1 club. Perhaps he does have his priorities right.
In the great Curriculum for Excellence debate, we need to ask what would make school so attractive that these three lads would rather be in it than in the ticket queue. Instead of harking back to Scottish education’s strong tradition of breadth, we need to prioritise choice and relevance. Instead of the compulsory core subjects or the insistence on teaching all eight subject areas until the end of S3, we need to ask what our youngsters want and with what they would become enthusiastically involved.
We need to give the same status and rewards to success in motor vehicle maintenance, childcare or construction skills as for history, biology or English, and perhaps we have to deliver the academic diet we do offer in a more practical fashion. We need adolescent-friendly learning for the real world, a Curriculum for Re-engagement. (And Hearts didn’t even win.)
The above article was first published in the Times Educational Supplement on 3 April 2009:

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