Hugh Reilly: Taking a back seat on education

Learning to drive is all about confidence, something I lacked due to the unwelcome input from my dad. It was difficult to pinpoint when exactly doubts about my ability to propel a motor vehicle in a competent manner arose in his mind. It could have been when I took one hand off the steering wheel to wave joyfully at Jimmy the Ice Cream man as his van careered down the street, his Pied Piper chimes creating a running queue of one-scoop-cone-hungry children. Perhaps, evidenced by my crimson-faced pater repeatedly slamming his bunnet against the Ford Anglia’s dashboard, it was my clumsiness in somehow transforming a three-point turn into a double-digit manoeuvre.
Picture: PAPicture: PA
Picture: PA

Most likely, however, his disdain for my driving skills occurred at Anniesland Cross, Glasgow’s version of spaghetti junction. After waiting seven minutes for the green light, I stalled. Thankfully, my brazen L-plate assuaged the anger of the motorists behind me. During the seven-minute driving intermission, Hugh Reilly Senior sternly impressed upon Junior the need to give the car a tad acceleration before lifting a quivering foot off the clutch.

As I burned rubber while steadfastly maintaining a stationary position, the traffic lights suddenly changed and I stalled again. Behind me, an exasperated fellow road user tooted his horn to signal his displeasure. Ever the diplomat, my ex-army father leapt out the car and sprinted to the other vehicle. “You sit with that idiot son of mine and I’ll beep your f*****g horn,” he shouted into the face of the aghast motorist. I can’t put into words how it felt to receive such unconditional support from the man who gave life to me. The reader can only imagine Big Daddy’s surprise when, less than a week after incurring his wrath, an independent driving examiner declared me to be a licensed drive.

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Last week, the Scottish Government announced an independent evaluation of the much criticised Curriculum for Excellence, to allay fears that the initiative’s impact will not be properly assessed, given the somewhat incestuous nature of the connections linking the country’s education experts. For example, relationships within the nation’s foremost schools advisory group, Education Scotland, make a hillbilly family wedding seem a rather cosmopolitan affair. Walter Humes, emeritus professor of education at Stirling University, goes as far as beseeching the Salmond administration to seek the help of specialists outwith Scotland, something of a damning indictment on those who pull the levers of education power. Anything less would be “the usual inside job”, he states.

Taking precious time off from concocting press releases declaring CfE to be a resounding success, Bill Maxwell, Education Scotland’s chief executive, incongruously admitted that CfE could “seem amorphous and difficult to communicate”. Frazzled parents, teachers and pupils – the innocent victims of the Great Dumbing Down Disaster that has befallen Scotland’s education system –nodded in agreement.

“Not all the elements of CfE will be working as we would want them to be,” he warned. In terms of managing expectations, his statement is up there with William Tell letting slip to his son that a marginally downward trajectory of the crossbow bolt could lead to the apple remaining intact. “We need a feed of evidence to target effort,” Mr Maxwell said. Believe me, there will be no shortage of obsequious wannabes rushing off to give him titillating morsels of good news.

I recall being shot down at an in-service meeting when I questioned an expensive education consultant about the unfeasibility of having 11 internally assessed National Assessment Bank items (NABs) for Higher Modern Studies. Toadies tut-tutted but, God, I was vindicated when, on leaving the profession, there were only three NAB items.

In the mid-Eighties, when Standard Grade reared its head, we were told it was the end of the pass/fail mentality. In 2000, Intermediate exams were introduced based on – yes, you’ve guessed it – a pass/fail mentality. Both exams have been binned and, ostensibly, sent to the education landfill site. Experienced educators know the ugly truth: that they have merely been despatched to a recycling plant where they will lie dormant for a decade or two before being rehashed and presented as the greatest education innovation since, well, since CfE.

On education’s road to oblivion, I’m learning the joys of being a backseat driver.