May v Sturgeon: Scottish Education Swept up in Political War of Words

By Jackie Kemp, Published in the Guardian, March 21, 2017.

From James Watt’s steam engine to Dolly the sheep, Scotland is proud of its strong science tradition, so a recent fall in the international rankings of Scottish pupils in science is causing a degree of national soul-searching.

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Children tell the Scottish Cabinet what they want.

Children’s Parliament Imagineers show off their mural.

On a recent afternoon, as a weak Spring sun shone over Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square picking out crocuses in the square’s central garden, the door of  Bute House  - official residence of Scotland’s First Minister - opened and a group emerged from a lengthy consultation with the Scottish Cabinet. They huddled together on the steps, reporting to an accompanying cameraman about the event. But as they did so they began to hop around and skip up and down the steps in a manner most unusual for the dignitaries who generally emerge from discussing affairs of state there.

These delegates were all primary school children -  a small group from the Children’s Parliament (CP) which had come to talk to Nicola Sturgeon and Education Minister John Swinney, as well as other members of the Cabinet and Scottish Government officials about what is important to children in Scotland today.

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A Children's Food Fight and the Edinburgh Fringe

Children and food. What a lot is in those three little words. A recent argument on Mumsnet and Women's Hour ( Tuesday August 11) reminded me of the anxiety I used to sometimes feel as a parent about what, how, when and why my children were eating.

The row was about an assertion that mums today are 'addicted" to feeding their children constant snacks,  On the show food writers Annabel Karmel and Joanna Blythman slugged it out, with Blythman arguing for three square meals eaten round a table and water in between; while Karmel voiced sympathy for struggling parents trying to get their children nutritiously fed and watered each day without too much stress. 

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Is the Curriculum for Excellence Dumbing Down Scottish Education?

What do we mean by a good education? It’s not the same as being intelligent of course. Many people have potential which has not been realised, and that is, in a nutshell “the attainment gap.”

An educated young person has skills they can take with them into the world. But should these include reasonable fluency in a modern language, an understanding of the sciences, maths, some knowledge of literature and history? Or, in this age of easy fact-finding on the internet does an educated person mean: a successful learner, a confident individual, a responsible citizen and an effective contributor, as Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence has it?

The Scottish government is wrestling with the implementation of this curriculum, which was intended to build on the concept of the “democratic intellect”, a generalist approach favouring interdisciplinary study. But how is it working in practice?

There was an interesting article in online magazine Sceptical Scot last week by the principal of George Heriot’s in Edinburgh Cameron Wyllie in which he reported a doubling of of the number of parents trying to get their children into the school at Senior 3. There were 45 applicants to S3 at GH this year after a record high of 25 in 2015. He said that this picture was being replicated at other independent schools in the city. Not big numbers perhaps, but Senior Three is not a traditional entry point for Edinburgh’s independent schools. Places are as rare as hens’ diamante scarf pins. Adam Smith himself might have trouble getting into a Merchant Company school age 14.

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Eclipse: A Magical Moment Obscured by Bureaucracy

Eclipse A10313.jpg

Photo by Rob Bruce


The view of the eclipse from Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat was magical. Many observers were ill-prepared without anything much to view it with but in the event, a partial veil of scudding clouds made it possible to see the crescent sun at its moment of occlusion. The sunshine dimmed to a twilight, the land was shadowed and chilly. The birds fell silent but watchers on the hillside let out a few ragged whoops.

As I watched, I felt so sorry for the children at my son’s High School that I could have wept. The school had ordered some eclipse glasses; there was a waiting list and those who did not have them were to be refused permission to go into the playground due to fears they would stare too long at the sun and damage their eyes.

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