Took the opportunity on Thursday to visit the new Prestwick Academy. Having worked in the old school for over ten years it was always going to be an interesting experience, but I could not have envisaged just what a difference the change of environment would make. Built on the same site with funding from the sometimes controversial Public-Private-Partnership scheme (PPP), the contrast is like night and day, as what strikes you immediately about
the new building is how light and spacious it is, especially in the public areas such as the corridors. As I toured the school the difference in the body language of many of my ex-colleagues was also striking, with broad smiles and a beaming sense of pride replacing some of the grim sense of purpose which the old buildings often encouraged.
On reflection however, I couldn’t help wondering whether the new Prestwick, just like all the other new school buildings appearing across the country are simply brighter, cleaner, more humane exam factories, in which some of our young people will continue to achieve marginally better Higher results than the previous generation while an increasing number are left behind in the race because they are wearing lead boots. Or is there enough space in there, literally and metaphorically, to transform these new schools into places where all young people have a chance to excel, can expect to participate actively, to practise the life skills they will need long after school, and most importantly have the opportunities to perform on a daily basis.
As Pat Kane reminds us in The Play Ethic, Reggio Emilio’s main theorist Loris Malaguzzi used to describe the space of a school as “the third teacher”. One aspect of each school is the careful construction of “piazza” spaces, both for the whole school and within each classroom. In these, children and adults can find the opportunity to display their projects, mount dramas, performances and concerts, and otherwise express and affirm the collective identity of the school through creative identity.
Fortunately at Prestwick, whether by accident or design, there are enough communal spaces to allow for this kind of active collaborative learning to take place, and I look forward to seeing how that happens in the months and years to come. The plan to “collapse” the traditional first year timetable fo a week or more in May/June for a Health in the Environment event or project, with a member of staff from each curricular area involved in the planning group is a good place to start. Planning is key to the success of such a venture, with clearly defined learning outcomes an absolute pre-requisite.
Two articles in the Times Educational Supplement this week effectively crystallise the choice we are facing in education in this country at the moment. In one, the head of history at Dundee High School explains why they are so successful (ie they have very good pass rates at Higher and Advanced Higher), one of the reasons being that the school believes “first year should be a preparation for Higher”. A few pages further on, Paul Thomson, the rector of Jordanhill School, having been part of a Scottish delegation to Ontario, Canada, describes some of the features of the increasingly successful education system there, which include no external examinations, well-developed vocational pathways and no school inspectorate. Sounds to me like we should be having a closer look there, and asking ourselves how serious we are about the values, purposes and principles of Curriculum for Excellence, before we continue hurtling along the path to even more external exams and greater accountability. Let us not be ambiguous about this – a young person’s first year at secondary school should be about opportunities for learning in a creative and stimulating environment, and a further preparation for life in a rapidly changing world. Highers may or may not be a short episode along the way. Long may they flourish at Prestwick and elsewhere!