It might be possible to put a symbolic date to the moment when the
teaching profession in Scotland changed forever. Many would choose the
occasion of the last tawse strapping the last outstretched hand – in which case we are talking about the late 1980s. But there is a case for an earlier date, sometime as early as 1968.
It was in 1968 that disturbing new trends in the classroom were formally identified at a weekend conference of the EIS (Educational Institute of Scotland), where the question posed for the main debate was one that had never before exercised an EIS weekend conference. Not in the long history of Scottish education had it been deemed necessary to ask such a question – until 1968.
The question: 'Should young women teachers be allowed to wear mini-skirts to school?'
Donald Maclean, assistant director of education for Ayrshire, began the weighty discussion by declaring that he was repelled – his word – by the idea of teachers as 'swinging chicks.' For younger readers unfamiliar with the term, I should explain that swinging chicks were the newly liberated style icons of the 1960s, among whom I remember, for various reasons, Sandie Shaw, Julie Christie, Jean Shrimpton and Marianne Faithfull, as well as – at a pinch – our very own Lulu. Only an especially stuffy assistant director of education could have objected to any of these swinging chicks in charge of a class.
A second contributor to the debate, the formidable Ethel Rennie, principal of Craigie College of Education, said that if women flaunted their personality by wearing mini-skirts, it suggested a lack of inner resources. But Miss Rennie's stern demeanour could occasionally be leavened by a sardonic wit: she added that a great deal depended on the shape of the girl inside the skirt. (They didn't do political correctness in 1968. Well, not at weekend conferences of the EIS. And there is worse to come.)
The conference then heard from Robert McClement, general secretary of the Scottish Schoolmasters' Association, a body which, even in 1968, had still to recognise the existence of half the world's population. Big Boab titillated the delegates with the story of his 10-year-old daughter who came home from school one day and said: 'Mummy, we have a new teacher. She is young and nice and she wears a mini-skirt. Every time she stretches to the top of the blackboard, the boys whistle.'
If the boys in primary 6 were starting to whistle appreciatively at their teacher, clearly something epoch-making was going on. Another of the union leaders, Jimmy Docherty, pointed out that the young women going into the profession bore little resemblance to the disciplinarians of the immediate post-war era – 'the dragons' as he stereotyped them. By 1968 the dragons were dying out, though it was only with the abolition of corporal punishment two decades later that the breed was finally pronounced extinct.
Whether there is some connection between the eclipse of the dragons and the decline in the status of the teacher in Scottish society, I must leave to the judgement of such experts as Professor Walter Humes. But since that long-ago weekend conference, regard for the authority of the teacher, once unquestioned, has steadily diminished.
Margo MacDonald, before politics diverted her from the true path, had been a young PE teacher in Lanarkshire (it had been her ambition to be the world's best netball player) and something of a swinging chick herself. Over dinner once, we got around to discussing which was the ultimate profession. Quickly though regretfully, we dismissed journalism. Even medicine we eliminated, after Margo had argued that natural selection being what it was, some people would inevitably survive. In the end we got it down to teaching. Yes, we agreed, we couldn't do without teachers.
Even then (the early 1990s), Margo was lamenting the downgrading of her initial calling. But she could not have foreseen that, three years after her death, the ultimate profession would be in such dire trouble. Who'd be a teacher now? According to a recent study conducted by researchers from Bath Spa University, four out of 10 teachers in Scotland plan to leave the profession within the next 18 months. An alarming state of affairs, if even approximately true. But it might be worth pausing to consider why. What are the roots of such terminal disillusionment?
The most obvious explanation does not appear to be the most credible. In the OECD league table of teachers' salaries in 33 advanced countries, Scotland lies a mediocre 17th. It pays its secondary teachers a starting salary which is lower than the OECD average, a salary after 15 years' experience which is higher than the average, and a top of the scale salary which is lower than the average. Nothing in those figures to be especially proud of; but nothing to be ashamed of either.
Indeed we can pretty well discount relatively poor monetary reward as a major contributor to staffroom disenchantment. Finland, often cited as the best-educated country in the world, is 11th from the bottom of the OECD salaries table, paying experienced teachers much less than their Scottish counterparts, while in Scotland itself the recent study found no evidence that money is the main reason for near-despair in the profession. The appalling conduct of pupils and abuse from interfering parents are much more significant factors.
There is no suggestion that we should bring back the belt-wielding dragons from that reformatory in the sky, always assuming they would have the least desire to return, so we may have to swallow Scottish hubris and humbly learn from other societies. In Lebanon, teachers are revered with a status close to that of a prophet. Do we know why? In China, it is assumed that all students will behave well. 'Respect the teacher and love the pupil,' as they say in the People's Republic. In Norway, the close bond between teachers and pupils is attributed to the policy in primary school of teachers staying with the same class for several years. Have we considered that as a possibility? We could also profit from a study of Asian countries, where looking a teacher in the eye would be considered the height of disrespect. Here in Scotland, where 74 assaults a day are inflicted on teachers by their
pupils, the height of disrespect is a can of Irn Bru thrown in the face.
Perhaps there is scope for a follow-up weekend conference of the EIS, a successor to the 1968 gathering half a century on, to examine what has gone so badly wrong. Those whistling boys in primary 6 – they're pushing 60 now, and no longer whistling much – begin to feel like a presentiment.