Tuesday was my last working day at Fife Council. I am moving into semi-retirement – not retirement, mind: if you need to engage my skills, go here – but, already, I’m worried about turning into one of those people.
You know the ones I mean. Retirees who, after years of holding down some sort of job or other, spend their golden years unleashing ranty emails/letters/tweets/blog posts concerning things that they’ve been seething about for decades. These things could be vital, like the environment, but are more likely to be the way the youth of today wear hoodies, or the noise the bin lorries make in the morning, or how the coronavirus has been caused/transmitted by the new 5G masts.
That’s right. One of those people. Well, I never thought I was in danger of becoming one of them until last week, when I found myself composing an email to the Times at half an hour to midnight about the relative merits of teaching Spanish or French in schools.
Yeah, I know. I’d like to think it was witty, but still. Dangerous path. Thankfully they haven’t printed it. It did, however, give me an idea for a blog post, which will I hope fall on the right side of amusing, and not just convince you that I have, in fact, started to metamorphose into Outraged of Tunbridge Wells.
Thing is, you see, I’m keen to keep this blog (and, indeed this blogger) as virus-free as possible. You can read about COVID-19 (or Covid-19 if you prefer) anywhere else at the moment, so my aim is, to keep it light over here. Give a bit of variety.
And, although our Scottish Government are rightly spending all their time on virus-related measures at the minute, John Swinney, the Education Minister, had announced he intends to review the Scottish education system, given that it is going the same way in the global league tables as our national football team. That being the case, I thought perhaps my input would be helpful when John eventually gets around to it.
What I thought I’d do was review, at a distance of 40 years (scary, huh? I know!) the subjects I took at school, and what earthly use they’ve been to me in the intervening period. A sort of longitudinal study, if you will, although I probably should have been doing it at 5 yearly intervals to make it truly of use to John. Also, statistically, as it’s just me, it’s probably not that significant a sample – although if you all respond, dear readers, it might be.
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of a Scottish education, some introductory comments. In 4th year of secondary school, you sit a bunch of exams in a wide range of subjects: these used to be called O Grades way back when, then Standard Grades. Now they’re called National 5s. Whatever they call them, you sit a bunch of them when you’re 15 or 16.
Then, in your 5th year, you sit a slightly smaller bunch of exams called Highers. These are the big ones in terms of getting entrance to University or College. You’re 16 or 17, being poisoned by your own hormones, and you suddenly have to cram in a whole load of stuff in a single year that, like, determines your whole future life. No pressure then – the pressure is worse now for kids than it was back then of course, but it was still, in my experience, the hardest single academic year I ever did, equalled only perhaps by the second year of my law degree.
If you survive all that, there’s 6th year. 6th year was, for me, a good chance to improve my cricket skills. Nobody quite knows what 6th year is for, particularly if you’ve already got your grades for Uni. Whilst the English are, that one year older, sitting their Very Important Exams, A-Levels, we’re playing cricket. Or leaving half way through, as my bessy mate did. As did Daughter and Heiress, come to think of it.
For now, we’ll concentrate on O Grades and Highers, since you heard about my cricketing abilities relatively recently. So, with marks out of ten for usefulness since, here goes:
Even back in the early Mesozoic Period when I was at school, calculators were invented – although only just, and they were the size of small fridges. I still think though arithmetic was enormously useful. We’d been playing about with numeracy since Primary 1, but this kind of brought it all together and gave you the ability to do mental arithmetic. This is handy in shops for us baby boomers, as it’s quicker to work out the price of things in your head than bring out our phones and locate the calculator function as the Gen Z retail assistant looks on, patiently.
Yes. Well, we’ll come back to Maths in Highers.
Ditto. Same with French, Latin, and Biology. You haven’t got all day. Nor has John Swinney, I expect.
Ah, Chemistry in the Seventies! Our teacher was called Mr Dunn, but as he had a moustache and slightly mad hair he was nicknamed Ali Bongo. It was, of all our pet names for teachers, one of the more appropriate, given that Mr Dunn and his colleagues could do experiments that actually did cool stuff, like putting lumps of sodium or potassium in water and watching them go off like a firework. The Periodic Table was a useful overview, even if they’ve probably added another 20 or so ‘iums’ since then; a surprising amount of it has stuck. I can even remember simple compunds like Na+Cl-; H2O, and, my personal favourite, C2H5OH.
That whole concept of atoms, particles, the basic building blocks of the world around us, has lasted. I still love the idea that science can come up with simple, immutable answers as to how things are the way they are. I bet it’s not nearly as much fun now, though were the fire-proof blocks they put bunsen burners on really asbestos? Or did I dream that?
Main takeaway: the Elements. And, not all metals behave like you’d think. Some of them you can throw into a jar of water and watch them go mental.
Being less capable of doing cool ‘experiments’ in class, in the absence of the school funds stretching to building a Large Hadron Collider, hampered physics a bit. It was all a bit more theoretical, and therefore hard to teach to restless teenagers without a natural leaning that way. I do remember one experiment involving ticker tape that was something to do with mass and accelaration. It was quite interesting, but I was told the Higher would involve a lot more Maths, so I baled after O grade.
My choice of Highers clearly show my bias towards languages, and generally artsy-fartsy type subjects. Nature or nurture? I suspect a bit of both: who knows, maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that creative types can’t do science. And yet…
There are any number of examples of people who can do both. My mate Hannu, who is currently solving some of the world’s biggest problems using hard sums, is also an award-winning sf novelist. His Phd in string theory doesn’t stop him writing a cracking good story. My nephew Jonny, who did aeronautics at Uni (which I think actually is, like, rocket science) and played in various bands, has prodigious musical talent. Ditto the lead guitarist in Isaac Brutal, Graham, who’s a physics teacher.
Anyhoo. Let’s start with the problematic one, the one that you’re still forced to endure if you want to get into most Uni courses. It is, of course:
Now then. I have friends who are Maths teachers, and I don’t want to upset them. It’s not you, dear friends, it’s me. Honestly. But Maths has never, ever, in all the decades since school, been of the least utility to me. Venn diagrams, maybe, as a useful conversational gambit about interlocking interests. Basic geometry for the few bits of DIY that involve more than a right angle. But I’d got that by O Grade.
Nor am I unaware that there are people out there fulminating about having to do English, back in the day, when they were sciencey types. I get that. All I can say is that Mathematics left me colder than a penguin’s bollocks on a particularly brisk day at the North Pole: I couldn’t understand why, for example, we were solving quadratic equations. What was the point? I mean other people had solved them before, right, so why did I have to solve them? If I was the type who liked to do puzzles, I could have just sat around and waited for Sudoku to be invented. Honestly.
I think part of it was there was only ever one right answer. No room for any individuality there, or a chance for bluffers and surface skaters like me to bumble through the exam. You were right, or you were wrong. Well I could forgive all of that, and all the work I put into only getting a B in my Higher, if Maths had been useful to me since. But the truth is, it’s been bugger all use to me. Square root of bugger all, indeed.
Score: -10/10. Just to show I’ve remembered about pluses and minuses.
Little need be said about the use of English to me since school, given that my whole life as both a writer and a lawyer has involved using the English language meaningfully. I’m glad though I didn’t do it at Uni: all that analysis of novels and their themes. Still, though.
Score: 11/10. Just to show I know the meaning and effect of well-placed hyperbole.
I’ll spare you my rant about why we should be teaching Spanish and Mandarin now instead of French and German. It’s not that original, frankly. The Head of Department for French was a Mr Blow. I’ve no idea what his actual first name was: as you can imagine, we somewhat unimaginatively called him Joe. I remember me and said bessie mate getting into trouble in his class pissing ourselves laughing when we misheard the word to be sick (dégueuler) as ‘dedejeuner,’ or to ‘de-dinner.’ You probably had to be there.
But then, Joe Blow was a man who seemed to inspire unintentional humour. My future brother-in-law, who was the year ahead of me, told his Dad in advance of a parents’ night that his French teacher was called Mr Blockhead. My future father-in-law, serious-minded doctor that he was, assumed his son was telling the truth and proceeded to call Mr Blow ‘Mr Blockhead’ throughout the ensuing interview. Poor Joe.
I enjoyed French. It gave me confidence that I could speak another language: one that live people actually spoke, in a country you might want to go to. We even had an exchange visit, involving the worst Channel crossing ever, and an exchange family with a Pyrenean mountain dog and tiled surfaces throughout their house. I soon found out these these last two things were related.
Main takeaways: I have better sea legs than most land lubbers. And when a Pyrenean mountain dog gives its head a good old shake, its doggy slobber can fly clear across the room.
Although mostly only spoken by dead people, I have found Latin incredibly useful. It came in handy knowing the roots of French, and, when I learnt it later in life, even more so for Spanish. Scots law still clings to a belief that it’s partly founded in Roman law, even down to using little Latin tags as a short cut for concepts. Although I made up anus ex fenestra. That’s not actually a Scots legal term, former trainees of mine, in case you hadn’t worked that out.
The really surprising thing to me was how much use it was in terms of understanding the English language. Also, being a keen gardener, it’s useful for knowing what the names of plants mean. A basic knowledge of the Classical world came with it, which is handy in a country still dominated by posh Oxbridge types.
The Latin teacher was a Mr Wilson, or JJ. Let’s just say the boys felt a bit more comfortable around him than the girls and leave it there. My Higher class consisted of me and a girl, Ann McMonagle. Said bessie mate, who wasn’t even in the class, nicknamed her Ann McHorrible. Teenage boys really are horrible, aren’t they? Even the ones that are meant to be nice.
Main takeaways: The Romans gave us a lot more than the acqueduct. Even if they only made modest incursions north of Hadrian’s Wall. Too bloody cold probably. And the bits of English that aren’t mangled Dutch are mostly Latin. The big words, mostly.
Ah, the artsy-fartsy student’s science du choix! Our main teacher, Doctor Morton (nickname: Doc Moron) was a lovely bloke, and learning about photosynthesis was intrinsically interesting when, unusually for a teenager, I had my own greenhouse by then. Lots and lots of tv programmes and newspaper articles make a hell of a lot more sense if you have some basic biology, I reckon.
I managed to fit this in between net sessions in Sixth Year and, despite not having done the O Grade, it was a breeze. Can’t say I remember a whole lot about German or Italian reunification, but it sparked a lifelong interest in history generally. Plus all that about those not knowing history being condemned to repeat it. Although even after the worst of weeks at the Council I wasn’t ever tempted to form an alliance with France and march on the English border. Not on my own, anyway.
Our teacher, Mr Paton, was an inspiring sort of fellow. He didn’t even seem to have a nickname, which is some sort of compliment, possibly. I remember when he taught us about Bismarck he used to pace up and down a lot, and become more animated. I think he had a bit of a man-crush on Bismarck, to be honest. Well, old Otto did get through a hell of a lot of reunifying of Germany back in the day.
Main takeaways: Henry Ford was wrong. And Garibaldi got a lot more done than just having a biscuit named after him.
So, there we have it. Looking back, leaving Maths aside, a whole lot of it has been useful to me in my life. To be serious for just a moment, the idea of a much more broad-based set of subjects up to a certain age is, I think, one of our education system’s strengths. I do think, though, that a two year Higher course would be better.
I hope this of some use to you, John. I am available for further consultancy work, if Victoria Quay’s getting stuck on anything: my rates are very reasonable.
Incidentally, I’m not sure you’re aware, but there’s a disco beat remix of Isaac Brutal’s song, ‘John Swinney we salute you,’ now available. And that’s not something your UK equivalent can claim.