It was the “summer” of 2012. Absolutely chucking it down. Yet not only were all the temporary, tiered seats full for the open air concert; nobody left. We sat clad in proffered transparent ponchos underneath leaden skies and Stirling Castle watching a miracle unfold. There on the massive stage was an orchestra of children from the Raploch estate giving it laldy under the baton of Gustav Dudamel, perhaps the most charismatic conductor on the world stage.
And when Dudamel’s own band came on, the then Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, many of the local children remained to sit and play alongside mentors, having been touchingly presented with medals dangling from lanyards in the Venezuelan national colours. Trust me, it wasn’t only the rain which was running down the audience’s cheeks.
These children were the pioneers of the Sistema programme now running with nearly three thousand young people in 4 communities in Stirling, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee. Originally a Venezuelan concept, it was championed in Scotland by Richard Holloway who became the first Scottish director. In essence it gives children from disadvantaged but distinct communities an intensive experience of musical tuition, working with schools, social services and health care professionals.
That bald summary though hides several profound truths, not the least of which is that the ability to learn and play an instrument to a high standard is not confined to children from a particular post code with an exceptional set of genes. Big Noise, is what the orchestras are called, but it starts with Baby Noise; it starts at nursery level and continues through school, school holidays, and after hours coaching by committed professionals including the wondrous Nicola Benedetti. These music lessons result in a personal confidence which spreads through all their learning lives.
That truth applies well beyond music. All children have the capacity to learn provided they are given opportunities which fire their fertile imaginations. Self evidently a background which affords mind expanding experiences like foreign travel and exposure to cultural treats or additional tuition makes a huge difference. Yet crucial too is an education system which recognises and responds to individuals and diversity. A system which simply can’t flourish when it’s overwhelmingly geared to teaching to exams. We are in the midst of a firestorm about grades right now, when the core problem is a pre-occupation with the one size fits all exam culture. And a subsequent emphasis on arranging the pan Scotland results in a manner which, by its very statistical nature, will throw up crude anomalies.
It’s the continuing obsession with this narrow measurement of achievement which brought us the hypocrisy of the school league tables; little more than an incentive to inflate house prices in “better” catchment areas. By what possible logic is a school in a leafy suburb moving socially privileged children modestly upward from an already high bar, more deserving of a top spot than one where the teaching staff have substantially and heroically raised the performance and ambition levels of their less achieving pupils?
I once visited a school in a deprived part of London where typically the leavers would have gravitated to dead end or repetitive work. Yet because of an headie bound and determined to transform this poverty of ambition, it had a thriving six form of young people now determined to study law and medicine. This headie gave her staff a shape up or ship out message from day one. For teachers’ own report cards are not irrelevant here. Ask any of your peers and they will swiftly identify an educator who changed their life and their mentality in a positive way. They will have scant memories of any who slavishly adhered to set texts and curricula.
Young people have a very few years in which to realise their potential; good, committed teachers always recognise and respond to that precious window of opportunity. Others take an invitation to change their methodology as a personal insult. Half a century ago, the radical educationalist RF Mackenzie was coruscating about the malign influence of exams which he thought inspired boredom, impeded experimentation and debate, and too often measured useless information. He wrote: “You cannot put a percentage on human beings, or evaluate how much they get out of a Rachmaninov concerto or building or sailing a boat.”
There have been many attempts to leaven the rigidity of education since Mackenzie’s day, and I remain an unapologetic supporter of the principles which underpinned the original Curriculum for Excellence if not always of the ways in which they became interpreted. Because those first principles recognised that school certificates, however extensively garlanded with A’s and B’s will not necessarily give an employer the insight needed into the character of the applicant. Certainly they tick the “ability to apply themselves to study” box. But do they speak of a personal hinterland? Is the applicant compatible with team working? Have they a generosity of spirit? Are their thought processes ever lateral?
John Swinney is a quintessentially decent man, though arguably not a round peg in a round hole. However the question which ought to pre-occupy Holyrood this coming week is whether or not we are trying vainly to fix something which is terminally broke. Everyone, including the teaching unions, needs to take a long hard look at an education system which is facing a raft of new challenges and which needs to be made fit for tomorrow’s purposes. It’s my belief that tinkering around the edges will no longer cut it. There is huge emotional and, frankly, irrational pressure to maintain the exam system more or less as it stands. Parents say it’s how they know their wean is being properly taught. Teachers say it’s how they can measure progress. Politicians cannot be prised from their bar charts.
Time, ladies and gentlemen, please. Time to take your heads out from under the bonnet, and consider whether we need a whole new vehicle.