Dr Mary Brown: Educational golden age never existed

Scottish Violinist Nicola Benedetti helps young players develop but she has voiced concern that they respond badly to criticism. Picture: Jane Barlow
Scottish Violinist Nicola Benedetti helps young players develop but she has voiced concern that they respond badly to criticism. Picture: Jane Barlow
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It’s not unexpected that the recent revelations of Scottish students’ declining ability in the PISA rankings have produced a rash of comments by self-professed experts, variously claiming that Scottish education has gone to the dogs, we should bring back corporal punishment, and that it’s all the fault of whatever political party the writer doesn’t support.

At least our First Minister accepted responsibility, although what she will decide to do about it remains unclear.

But with all the blaming and shaming, we must be wary both of knee-jerk reactions and indulging in nostalgia for a supposed educational “golden age” 50 years ago – which in fact never existed. I know, because I was a product of this supposed period.

In the 1960s, education experts tried to improve social mobility by giving bright working-class children financial support to go to high-performing schools so that they could gain the qualifications to go to university.

The strategy worked – in a few cases, for higher education then was only open to the top percentage of bright students. Unless they were naturally brilliant, such “lucky” children had to work extremely hard – I remember two to three hours’ homework most evenings, so learning was a penance rather than a pleasure.

In Scotland, supposedly at the acme of educational standards, physical punishment in schools was not abolished until the 1980s, and despite subsequent increases in reported violence from students, apart from the usual nutters few would argue for its return. Schooldays in the “golden age” of educational achievement were never happy for most of us, and it’s likely that my generation wanted to reverse the situation for the next one, so that learning would be “fun”. But that’s the trouble with pendulum swings – it’s impossible to deny that despite relatively widespread literacy, meaning more people can read and write at a basic level, even supposed educated people can’t write properly.

But there’s a wider issue here. My generation was afraid of teachers and those in authority – discipline was externally imposed. Now, often with good reason, we mistrust authority figures representing the establishment, but we haven’t really succeeded yet in educating young people to discipline themselves.

Suggesting that learning is fun, and consequently doesn’t involve hard graft, is misleading, as is the claim that young people can be “anything they want to be” – such statements are untrue and patronising.

The violinist Nicola Benedetti, who is not only a brilliant musician but is tireless in helping young players develop, has recently expressed surprise at how badly her students react to any criticism when she herself put in hours of practice to improve her technique.

Not everyone can be a Benedetti, but it should not be beyond the wit of those involved in education to find ways of inspiring young people to develop their own professional standards and be their own best critics.

Dr Mary Brown, Freelance Educational Consultant, Banchory, Deeside