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Two Steps Back…

January 1, 2009

In a paradox worthy of Dr Who, I received tomorrow’s Times Ed Scotland yesterday. What worries me even more, is the apparent attempt to move society and schools back to another time as highlighted in the front page story: “Time to let pupils go“.†

furman.jpgThe report is concerned with the call from Directors of Education and Secondary School Heads to scrap the “outdated” Christmas Leavers system. As the report says:

They want pupils to be able to leave school after four years of secondary education, regardless of whether they have turned 16.

It also goes on to report how:

…the practice is “outdated”, and forcing pupils to return benefits neither them nor the schools they attend… “If they’ve done four years, that’s plenty,” said Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland. “Forcing them to be in school is a frustration; they are disenfranchised, disenchanted and biding their time.”

Am I alone in thinking Ken Cunningham’s words speak volumes? “If they’ve done four years…” sounds like something straight out of the criminal system, and I’m going to come back to his words on disenfranchisement and disenchantment later…

I have to be honest. I fear this is a morally reprehensible step, and undermines everything that I thought Education (with a capital ‘e’) stood for. I wonder who will benefit from such a change. And I think we need to consider what such a change is saying about the state of Scottish Education.

downtown.pngIf, as appears to be being suggested, we were to ‘let pupils go’ (a spurious euphemism for ‘kick out the troublemakers’) then what are we kicking them out into? For starters, if they have yet to reach the age of 16 then they are yet to receive their National Insurance card, and more importantly, they are yet to have any real protection from employment laws. What the Directors of Education and Secondary School Heads are proposing would require some heavy duty legislative change affecting everyone in Scotland, not just those they want to help out of the door.

Do we really want to be responsible for turning the clock back to the days of ‘child labour’ that we thought we’d moved on from?

I am shocked by the belief of “three of the most senior directors of education in Scotland” that the Christmas leavers’ system was ‘introduced as “a sop” to those with late birthdays when the school leaving age was raised to 16’ (Tess article, paragraph 2). I am fairly certain that when the leaving age was raised to 16 in 1970 it was done so because of a belief and an understanding that more education was better than less education, not as ‘a sop’.

What I think this whole debate illustrates is that, despite our best intentions, we are failing too many of our pupils and so some would rather get rid of them early rather than fix what’s wrong. I return to Ken Cunningham’s words: “Forcing them to be in school is a frustration; they are disenfranchised, disenchanted and biding their time.”

A ‘frustration’ for who? The pupils, or the school? And if it is the pupils who are frustrated — and let’s be honest, they are —why are we not trying to address the root cause of their frustrations? What makes a pupil (as Cunnigham describes them) “disenfranchised, disenchanted”? Surely it is the quality of their school experience that leads pupils to move away from what schools should be offering them.

It is all too easy to look to other reasons for pupils’ lack of engagement in their education: home life, societal pressures, peer pressure, demographics, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera… These are all understandable, if not valid, reasons for seeing pupils turn their backs on formal education. But I am still idealistic enough to think that part of education’s role is to encourage and develop the child from their first day at school until their last breath. This means engaging and relevant learning and teaching.

smoking.jpgEncouraging and harnessing the pupil’s natural curiousity, giving him or her the opportunity to find out more about their world and their place in it and the importance of reading, writing, counting, working together, and all the other high level skills that I am fortunate enough to take for granted.

If a child is “disenfranchised” and “disenchanted” then I believe that it is the schools who have failed the child rather than the child that has failed at school. Kicking them out, or ‘letting them go’, is not a solution, it is an admission of defeat.

Our pupils deserve better.

† At the time of writing, the article has not yet appeared on the online version of TESS. I will add a link as soon as it does [UPDATE: Link added — The article is also alluded to in the editorial commentary, but without any note of caution or approbation].
The photographs are a gentle reminder of a time where the school leaving age was younger or non-existant. They are by Lewis W. Hine and would make a great lesson topic for History, or English.
4 Comments leave one →
  1. Literacyadviser permalink
    January 1, 2009 5:27 pm

    Quite agree Neil. It reminded me of a line by Jonathan Bridgeman in “The Impressionist” by Hari Kunzru: “When British people talk about school they use words that other people use about prisons.”

  2. January 1, 2009 5:34 pm

    Great quote, and also a reminder of Stephen Fry talking about how he found prison a doddle after his years at public school!

  3. January 2, 2009 12:42 pm

    We expend much energy on P7/S1 transition but we should be making an even greater effort to provide for the transition out of school. We should be looking at a period for every school leaver to be able to be both at school and sampling the next stage, be it work, a training, further or higher education. It should be accepted that the overwhelming majority will be given every opportunity to make a positive transition, not the end of your 11 year sentence (longer than some life sentences) and the start of your life on the dole.
    It is odd that we as a society pay so little attention to this when we all bemoan the problem demographics of an aging population and the expense of the prison and criminal justice system. A relatively modest expenditure and a change of mindset at the end of compulsory schooling would solve many of these problems.

  4. January 2, 2009 1:31 pm

    Hi Bob,
    I quite agree. I think the real problem is that much of what we teach (or rather, how we teach it) means it is irrelevant to the pupils at almost every stage of their education. Again, I think we have no-one to blame but ourselves for this.

    Pupils have access to ‘real world’ tools at every stage from P1 – S6, though rarely in the schools. Instead, we spend our time blocking them from working the way we try to work.

    There is much more to this, of course. For starters, it is tempting to throw the baby out with the bath water, but the ‘traditional’ skills are of even greater importance than ever, but they need to be translated and used in innovative and imaginative ways.

    I’ve been using wikis as a frontline tool to bridge the gap. Their heavy emphasis on reading and writing appeals to my English Teacher nature, yet they are also fantastic for collaborative and reflective learning.

    I’ll be posting some more thoughts on this later… stay tuned!

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