Hugh Reilly: Twins aren’t a magic fix for failing schools

Michael Russell. Picture: Neil Hanna
Michael Russell. Picture: Neil Hanna
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I’VE never liked twins. Nature’s clones prance around as if they are somehow special creatures when in fact they are nothing more than either a human double-yolk egg (identical) or a promotional offer from the womb, conceive one, get one free (fraternal).

Peacocking peculiarities of their mother’s reproductive system love to say the horoscope sign Gemini is a celebration of twins. Of course, they ignore the overwhelming evidence that twins are inherently evil: Romulus and Remus, Reggie and Ronnie Kray, Jedward. I could say more, but the Proclaimers have a good legal team.

However, twins are a strangely alluring concept. This can be the only explanation why towns twin with other urbanisations elsewhere on the globe. For example, Airdrie is twinned with Port Stanley. Keen geographers will know that one settlement is a barren, inhospitable, remote outpost of the British Empire and the other is the capital of the Falkland Islands. My own city, Glasgow, is twinned with Bethlehem, the link being perhaps that both are famous for their single mums.

Education secretary Mike Russell, a doppelganger for 1970s folk singer Mike Harding, believes failing schools in deprived areas should be twinned with successful schools serving similarly disadvantaged catchment areas. The Improvement Partnership Programme hopes to break the relationship between poverty and underachievement. This model of increasing attainment – working well in Ontario, Canada – also targets schools that are allegedly “coasting” (not pushing pupils in affluent suburbs hard enough).

Mr Russell is not coercing schools to participate. Instead, he foresees establishments will enthusiastically collaborate with each other, sharing information and best practice to improve exam performance, teaching methodologies and pupil tracking systems. In my opinion, the civil partnership he envisages will end in a bitter divorce. In my experience, education establishments are very insular in outlook. For example, the default position for school management teams running a sink school is to deny there is a problem. Wretched national exam results are dismissed as being less important than the many “wonderful” things the school is doing for its fine young people. For the management team of a failing school, traipsing down to its more successful rival to discover better teaching and learning methods would be a walk of shame.

Under the scheme, teachers will shadow the work of colleagues, the expectation being that some of the magic teaching dust will be sprinkled upon their tweed jackets. When I was a chalkie, I once stalked, sorry, shadowed a coquettish female teacher from whom this old dog was supposed to learn new teaching tricks. It would be curmudgeonly of me not to admit that she put on quite a show; indeed, it crossed my mind that education’s gain had been Butlin’s loss. With the noise levels in the classroom resembling that of Babel High Street on a particularly good day for gossiping, and kids receiving raucous praise for completing the most mundane of tasks, the experience was a Stargate peep into the future of teaching. I felt the likelihood of me embracing this Brave New World to be on a par with Eric Joyce announcing that his application to join the Quakers had been accepted.

The EIS gave a guarded welcome to the proposed policy but, predictably, called for additional resources. A relatively cost-free alternative would be for the Scottish government to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Committee in order that schools could come forward and confess the ruses used to inflate exam results. For example, a school not unknown to me identified students on track for a General Standard Grade award and promptly put on after-school revision for only these pupils. Unsurprisingly, the school upped its Credit awards. The fact that other learners were denied the opportunity to maximise their attainment was of no consequence. Another strategy is to only present those candidates who are certain to pass. This means that youngsters who might be successful don’t get anywhere near the exam paper, unfortunate collateral damage in the war to drive up attainment figures.

Mr Russell also announced that parents would receive information on the benefits of the Curriculum for Excellence. Let’s hope the twin policies of school partnerships and CfE awareness-raising lead to educational progress.