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Postcards from Scotland

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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 09/03/2006

I’ve undertaken lots of training with teachers and in the past couple of years I’ve given a large number of talks to education staff. One thing I’ve noticed is how touchy and sensitive they’ve become in the past year or so. Say anything that sounds remotely critical and you can expect someone in the audience to become defensive. In fact I spoke at a Women in Business event recently and I talked about the barriers to confidence in Scotland and this was followed by question and answer session. Not one person mentioned schools or teachers and yet at the end a teacher came up to me to say how much better schools were these days and how unfair much of the criticism levelled at teachers was!

Over the years I have been critical of education in Scotland. Particularly secondary education as I think the ethos in many schools has hardly changed from the 60s or 70s. I have also felt frustrated that if you work with any level in education – pupils, teachers, head teachers, education authority staff – they’ll tell you they can’t change even their communication style unless they get permission from the next level up. But despite these criticisms and frustrations I have come to feel sorry for those working in education as they’ve become Scotland’s fall guys. So many of Scotland’s ills are laid at the doors of our schools and there is a strong tendency to believe that teachers are responsible for curing the myriad of social problems in modern Scotland. Presumably this is why the Scottish Executive is forever cramming more and more into what has to happen in the school day – exercise time to counteract obesity, sex education to stop teenage pregnancies, citizenship to stop social exclusion, foreign languages to counteract Scottish insularity, enterprise education to improve Scotland’s business birth rate and so the list goes on.

Let me give an example from the press of how teachers are unfairly blamed for ills inherent in modern Scotland. A few months ago a Scottish tabloid ran the following headline – ‘The Failed Generation: Billions invested, but Scotland’s schools are getting worse.’ The words ‘scandal’, ‘exposed‘, ‘scrapheap’, ‘blame’, ‘dreadful’ liberally peppered the copy. Any Martian reading this story would clearly get the view that something was far wrong not just with education policy in Scotland but with the staff in the schools where educational attainment was low. But inside the paper there was further analysis including an extended interview with the head teacher of one of the most successful schools in the league table – Alan McGinlay from Mearns Castle High School in East Renfrewshire. The whole thrust of the interview with Mr McGinlay is that the secret of success is the ‘support of parents’. Yet not one iota of that idea permeated the news story. The tone of the whole piece was that the schools who were failing their pupils were solely responsible for that failure – there wasn’t a line about parents.

I’m not bringing this up because I want to start a ‘blame the parent’s campaign’. But we do have to understand that there is a huge challenge for schools and teachers in Scotland because of burgeoning social problems such as family breakdown, drugs, teenage mothers, violence, alcoholism and so on. I recently spoke to one incredibly conscientious P1 teacher working in a poor area in East Kilbride. She was very concerned about the number of children who are now entering school without the basic language or social skills needed. A couple of children in her class, though aged over 4, are still in nappies. If they fall behind with learning now that could affect them for the rest of their lives. Professor Phil Hanlon reported recently in a speech that there is now something called ‘buggy baby syndrome’. These are kids who are spending so much time in a buggy that is distorting the shape of their heads. There’s little doubt that this type of problem is getting worse but it has been around for decades in Scotland and we can see it in some of our poor education statistics.

The Chief Inspector of Education’s report on Scottish schools came out yesterday. It was generally positive about Scottish education but concerned about the 20% of people who leave school with very poor numeracy or literacy skills. OF course, poor schools or inadequate teachers have played a part in this appalling statistic but inadequate parents are also responsible. And if we want to know why we have so many inadequate parents we need to start laying the blame at lots of people’s doors – social work, housing, planners, governments, churches and the media. Yes even the tabloid press has a role to play in all of this. Beginning to turn these problems round is going to require co-operation and understanding and an end to all that unproductive blaming.

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