Some Thoughts on Scotland’s Children and How We Listen to Each Other
December 10th 2009
Last week I went to Bathgate Academy at the invitation of the Deputy Head Teacher Robbie McFedries to speak to their Sixth Year. Impressively each year they run what they call an Ethics Conference bringing together all their Sixth Year for a whole day of talks, discussions and activities.
This year they had decided to address Scottish identity and asked me to look at the relationship between our past, present and future. It was an impressive day and the school hall was filled with the sound of animated, engaged kids doing exercises, talking, arguing, listening and negotiating. This was school but not as I knew it.
In between the talks the young people created an archetypical Scot of the future out of cut and pasted images: a ‘Ginger Minger’ said one creation; ‘Glasgow: Jaws of Scotland’ said another referring to the violence. Given ten famous Scots you had to decide the six you would choose to save in a boat and the four you would let drown.
What was revealing was the Scottish heroes they knew and identified with. These came down to a gang of four: John Smeaton, of Glasgow Airport fame last year, Susan Boyle or ‘Subo’ as she is known, Chris Hoy and Andy Murray. As one teacher commented these are the Scots they know from the newspapers and media. Another commented that they had mentioned John Smith to a group of kids and they had not known who he was. Probably a fair reflection of kids across Scotland and the UK for whom living politicians let alone dead ones draw a blank.
Two thoughts here. First, on education and young people. Such exercises would have been unheard of when I was at school, a good comprehensive in Dundee until 1982. Our teachers would not have been up to it or prepared, and nor would we I think. I tried to imagine how an eighteen-year-old Hassan would have coped with this call to be interactive and creative, and if I am being honest, I would have been terrified. If given the chance I might have slowly taken to it, but at first I would have frozen and been way out my comfort zone.
So for all the problems of Scots education and our relative standards, there must be elements of hope in seeing kids taking to such activities and being nourished and nurtured by caring, stimulating teachers who seem a world removed from my school days and the stereotypes which pass for bashing the EIS these days.
Second thought. There were interesting discussions going on between young people sitting at the tables. I mentioned the reaction Rangers fans had about the racist behaviour they showed towards other Rangers fans which I had written about in a ‘Scotsman’ piece, and their mindset and culture of denial. One young lad at the school who was a Rangers season ticket holder said that ‘there wasn’t a problem at Ibrox’, while another lad, also a season ticket holder replied, ‘that there was a problem and we have to confront it’.
That seems like an honest debate and exchange of towering maturity to me. Difference acknowledged. Out in the open. And the possibility of movement and doing something. This seems to get to one of the central issues of what Scotland needs to do as a society to mature and grow: to develop ways of respecting and understanding differences of opinion, listening, learning and evolving a set of skills which aid this.
There is a striking difference between the behaviour of the young people here and the bunkered mindset of the Rangers fans, who are only the most obvious target in a culture marred by an inability to develop thoughtful dialogue. Labour hatred of the SNP; SNP dislike of unionism. The gripe culture which infests so much of what passes for public conversation. The low level anti-Englishness which inhabits so much of our society and is excused as humour and banter, rather than prejudice.
The example of the young people of Bathgate Academy shows a glimpse of a different bit of Scotland and maybe has something which can teach the rest of us how to change how we engage with each other. Such an approach would require a cultural revolution, but it is part of what Scotland needs.