Linlithgow Primary School Volunteers

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:03 pm on 8th February 2006.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 5:03 pm, 8th February 2006

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-3700, in the name of Mary Mulligan, on Linlithgow primary school.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament congratulates the children of Linlithgow Primary School who were honoured by Historic Scotland this week, on International Volunteer Day, for the tremendous work they do as tour guides around Linlithgow Palace and further commends their volunteering to other young people as a way of developing personal skills, but also of establishing a pride in the history of their own town or community.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour 5:07 pm, 8th February 2006

As members would expect, I begin by congratulating the people who are at the heart of tonight's debate: the boys and girls of Linlithgow primary school who are in the public gallery. My thanks go to David Simpson, their head teacher, who swung into action immediately he heard about tonight's debate to ensure that the boys and girls could be here. As he said, teachers in primary education are used to responding quickly to situations. He has ably demonstrated the care and encouragement that our teachers and head teachers give to children, for which, as a parent, I am grateful. I also thank the members who signed my motion and those who have stayed for the debate.

I want to explain what the boys and girls from Linlithgow do that makes their volunteering groundbreaking. I will also say a little about tourism in Scotland and Linlithgow's part in our heritage. Some years ago, the then head teacher of Linlithgow primary introduced the children to volunteering by offering their services as guides at Linlithgow Palace.

The present head teacher, Mr Simpson, was happy to continue the tradition and the practice is now firmly established as part of the school's programme in personal and social development. When the children are in primary 6, they are given the opportunity to put themselves forward to train as guides. They then go through a training process that involves background reading and learning sets of factual notes. However, the most important skills are learnt by shadowing the previous year's guides. The process enables children to act as guides to other school children from throughout Scotland who visit Linlithgow Palace.

The guides pass on interesting facts—some of them are very interesting—to the boys and girls who visit, but their main purpose is to encourage visiting children to notice features of the palace for themselves. They are encouraged to think about what it would have been like to live or work in the palace at the time of Mary, Queen of Scots.

To help create an atmosphere, the guides dress in 16th century costume. Unfortunately, it was not practical for the children to come dressed in their costumes this evening, so members will have to take my word for it that they look wonderful. Given the serenity of the palace courtyard, seeing the children in costume there is quite an eerie experience and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Producing the costumes is another example of volunteering. Local people, some of whom are related to the children, donate pieces of material—any offers of old curtains would be gratefully accepted—and help to make the costumes and keep them in good repair. They too should be thanked and congratulated.

Do the guides make a difference? I believe that they do. Many visiting schools report that their children are more enthusiastic about their visit and remember more about the palace because they can relate easily to the guides, who are their peers. In 2005, 1,650 children from 44 schools went on escorted tours around the palace. That is an impressive number, and I am sure that those children benefited.

The boys and girls of Linlithgow primary also benefit. Their parents are very supportive of the scheme. They recognise that the children may miss some school time, but they commit themselves to making up that time, showing increased individual responsibility. Parents and teachers report that the guides gain confidence and develop skills in public speaking.

The children also take on the responsibility of being ambassadors for their school and local community. Developing pride in their home town is also important. It is well proven that people who have a pride in their surroundings are less likely to be involved in anti-social behaviour.

In the summer holidays, the primary school guides can graduate to become volunteer guides, who are senior pupils at Linlithgow academy and are former primary school guides. They organise a rota to make the service available for general visitors to the town. As I have said, the children develop a pride in their town.

What is it about Linlithgow that inspires them? Linlithgow is an historic town and was first mentioned in a charter of 1138. It was created a royal borough in 1389. Its royal palace ensured a prominence for the town in the 15th and 16th centuries. That was its period of greatest influence, prosperity and architectural achievement.

For members who travel regularly by train between Edinburgh and Glasgow, Linlithgow Palace and St Michael's church on the banks of Linlithgow loch will be familiar landmarks. I encourage people to get off the train and out of their cars to experience Linlithgow and find out why it was Scottish tourism town of the year in 1994. The Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport, Patricia Ferguson, did just that when she came to Linlithgow at the end of last summer to unveil the newly refurbished fountain in the palace courtyard.

Undoubtedly, the royal person who is most associated with the palace is Mary, Queen of Scots, who was born there on 8 December 1542. The last monarch to stay in the palace was Charles I in July 1633. Interestingly, around that taxing time, the Scottish Parliament met several times at the palace. I would like to continue with this little history lesson, but the busy children from Linlithgow have other engagements this evening, so I will stop.

There are many reasons why people visit Scotland. Sport, particularly golf, has been highlighted as one, but our scenery and heritage are equally important. I hope that Linlithgow, with its beautiful and historic palace, will figure highly in any tourism plan.

The children of Linlithgow primary school are just the type of young people the First Minister was speaking of when, in his 2006 new year message, he said:

"As First Minister I am privileged to meet hundreds of young Scots each year, and I am continually struck by their enthusiasm, commitment and ambition. Most are ambitious not just for themselves, but for their communities and their country too."

I visited Linlithgow Palace with Historic Scotland on international volunteer day last year and met most of the young children for the first time. I spoke to the curators, who were full of praise for them. They were clear that the boys and girls added to the enjoyment of visiting the palace.

I hope that I have encouraged people to visit Linlithgow, and especially its palace. Perhaps they will see the boys and girls in action. I am sure that the children's volunteering will make people's next visit to Linlithgow one that they will never forget.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 5:15 pm, 8th February 2006

I congratulate Mary Mulligan on securing the debate. I live in Linlithgow and am very proud of it. I am also extremely proud of the young people of Linlithgow. I congratulate Linlithgow primary school on its achievement. I recognise a few faces behind me in the public gallery. The school's work sends a signal about the importance in our country of volunteering and pride in our communities.

There are a couple of themes that I wish to pick up on. The role of young people in the understanding of their towns and communities is vital. In an increasingly globalised world, with McDonald's and Starbucks at every corner, a sense of identity and understanding of one's community is extremely important. We have such a valuable wealth of talent among individual children, and we also have a pride in our communities.

A sense of history and of the importance of the palace is imbued in everyone who stays in Linlithgow. I will tell members a story from one of the other primary schools in Linlithgow—not Linlithgow primary. The youngsters started playing Mary, Queen of Scots. One young girl told me that she wanted to be the axeman—quite the blood-and-guts role. She said that she would also like to be James VI. I asked her why that was. She said that she would not have let him grow up, so that the union of the crowns would not have happened and Scotland would not have been ruled by England. It was an interesting interpretation of history and it shows that, in the playgrounds of Linlithgow, there is a sense of the drama and history that is part and parcel of the town.

I extend to the pupils of Linlithgow primary school the congratulations of my colleague, Kenny MacAskill, who is another MSP who represents the Lothians. He was a pupil at Linlithgow primary many years ago, when there were only two primaries in the whole of Linlithgow.

I stress the importance of people's sense of history and of their understanding of their place in society, in their community and in their country from an historical perspective. One of the interesting political issues that is raising its head now is how we teach history in our schools. Only today, the Scottish Association of Teachers of History visited the Parliament. I point out to the Deputy Minister for Education and Young People that the meeting was attended by 20 MSPs. It is not often that such a large number of members attend such meetings.

It is important that we consider how history is taught in our schools. The project work in the primary schools and the work and understanding of the guides in Linlithgow Palace show the communication and enthusiasm that, as Mary Mulligan said, can spread to those who come and visit. When we consider the teaching of history in primary and secondary schools—as was discussed in the Parliament earlier today—it is important not to lose what we have, which is very precious. A country must have a sense of self; a community must have a sense of self; an individual must know their place in that community and in that country.

The work of the youngsters will stay with them. I have spoken to many young people who have gone through the process and who are now at Linlithgow academy. Their experience is very special and remains with them throughout their lives. Councillor Tam Smith, one of the councillors who represents Linlithgow, went along to a visit with Historic Scotland when the town was nominated. I asked him what he thought about that, and he replied that it was brilliant. "Brilliant" is perhaps the best word to describe it. I hope that the experience indeed stays with the young people from Linlithgow primary school as they progress, and I hope that we can celebrate it.

At a time when we often hear about adverse things to do with young people in our society, I think it is great, right and proper that we can celebrate something very successful, which can serve as a beacon for the rest of Scotland. The Linlithgow primary guides could perhaps give lessons to people from elsewhere in Scotland on how to do the job well.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative 5:19 pm, 8th February 2006

I warmly congratulate Mary Mulligan on bringing the contribution of youth volunteers to the attention of the Parliament this evening. I also express my warm congratulations to the pupils of Linlithgow primary school. Not only are they extremely welcome tonight, they have taken part in a successful initiative. I also welcome Fiona Hyslop's wise counsel.

The teaching of history plays a significant role in creating an awareness of our heritage as well as developing important analytical and critical thinking skills. The opportunity for young people to lead guided tours of Linlithgow Palace must bring Scotland's heritage to life and inspire learning for pupils and visitors to the palace.

Projects such as the one in Linlithgow will ensure that our young people continue to be inspired by their history. We hope that the enthusiasm of the children will secure the retention of curricular choice and breadth of provision. After all, the story goes that after Scotland's great success at the battle of Bannockburn, one William Bunnock smuggled eight men into Linlithgow Palace hidden in a cartload of hay. To the great surprise of the English garrison occupying the palace, the men leapt out of the cart from under the hay and proceeded to recapture the castle. I am sure that colleagues will agree that invaluable lessons can be learned from our own history, just as William Bunnock might have learned the lesson of history from the Greeks and their Trojan horse.

The partnership between Linlithgow primary school and Historic Scotland has also provided young people with the opportunity to volunteer and support their community. Such co-operation has generated a project that gives young people in Linlithgow the chance to share an experience that will help prepare them for their responsibilities as adult citizens, and it is to be highly commended.

Some of my colleagues at Westminster have held talks with leading voluntary organisations to help to promote a plan for a new youth community action programme. It is a scheme under which teenagers could serve their communities after school and before going on to university and into work. The more power and responsibility people have over their own lives, the stronger they and the community become. Contributing one's time to support the community is one way of achieving that.

The best voluntary bodies offer opportunities for people of all ages in all walks of life to make a contribution to society. At a time when instances of antisocial behaviour are on the increase it is even more important to encourage a revival of responsibility: the responsibility of parents for their children and of people for their neighbours and communities. In my view, encouraging more people, whether old, middle-aged or young, to volunteer is good for Scotland and we should all support it strongly.

I believe that there is great merit in extending projects and partnerships such as the one in Linlithgow to other schools throughout Scotland. I urge the Executive to work alongside voluntary organisations to facilitate their efforts wherever possible.

When I was a minister and consulted with Historic Scotland, I was at pains to urge it to apply sufficient resources to Linlithgow Palace. Perhaps the minister could pass that message on, because it is a centre of great historical interest not only to the Lothians but to Scotland as a whole and not only to Scots but to those of Scots descent—it is arguable that there are more people of Scots descent living outside Scotland than in it—and those who are not Scottish at all.

Mary Mulligan has done us a great service in bringing forward the debate. The young guides have made a considerable difference to their community in the historical town of Linlithgow and it is right that we pay tribute to them.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent 5:24 pm, 8th February 2006

My remarks will be brief. I echo what James Douglas-Hamilton said and I thank Mary Mulligan for, and congratulate her on, securing the debate, which I have enjoyed listening to. I hope that the teachers who are with the Linlithgow primary pupils will not be annoyed, but I must admit that I have other ideas about what they could do and how they could add value to the project. I was really taken by the idea of mothers, aunties and grannies making the costumes. I see it as a fruitful seam—forgive the awful pun—for volunteering. It would be a most natural way of getting people involved in community activities, which is what we want. I hope that the teachers will not damn me for suggesting that.

Mary Mulligan said that parents do not object to children losing school time, but the children do not lose school time. Instead, they win educational time, which is the whole point. The children learn how to meet people from outside their own tight community. Linlithgow is a fairly small community; as Fiona Hyslop said, when she looks at the gallery, she is looking at people she knows. It can only be a good and educational experience to meet people from outwith one's own community and to find ways to communicate with them. That is another way in which the project is excellent.

I got an A in higher history. That does not make me biased, but it does make me concerned about history as a school subject. Peter Peacock has assured me here in the chamber that history will continue to be taught as a school subject, but he said that different delivery mechanisms might be used. I do not think that the pupils in the gallery this evening could have delivered their service with such imagination and depth of knowledge had they not had good teachers. We have all congratulated the pupils, but we should not forget that they could not do what they do without teachers who are willing to go above and beyond the curriculum. Especially in primary schools, the curriculum contains so much that the staff deserve our congratulations on having developed and guided such a project. Every time the teaching of history is discussed in Parliament, we should hold up to Peter Peacock the example of Linlithgow primary school, which shows what we should do with history. History is not a dead subject and it is not just about the past; it allows pupils from Linlithgow to reach out to the future and to reach outside their community.

That is all I have to say. I thank Mary Mulligan and the pupils of Linlithgow.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 5:27 pm, 8th February 2006

I echo everybody else's thanks to Mary Mulligan for giving us this opportunity to congratulate Linlithgow primary school. It is important that we in Parliament acknowledge excellence in schools whenever we can. We should pass on our congratulations to the young people on what they have done.

The project is a model that many other schools could follow. When I was a teacher at a secondary school in Edinburgh—Boroughmuir high school—we had an activities week for pupils in first, second and third year, while the other pupils were sitting their O grades and highers. Of the 600 pupils, 200—one in three—would sign up for the volunteering projects that I was running. Scotland has a huge untapped resource of young people who want to volunteer. All we have to do is ask them and they will do it.

Another thing about the Linlithgow project is that it develops something that cannot be developed in any other way. Some things can be developed in various ways, as every teacher knows, but this project develops an ability to communicate and it develops self-assurance, confidence, a sense of responsibility and an ability to get on with others, as Mary Mulligan said.

The project—this whole rolling, school project—is a great example for other schools to follow. Obviously, not every school is next door to a wonderful resource such as Linlithgow Palace, but other schools can get involved in all sorts of things and create rolling volunteering projects. The Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme, the John Muir Trust, the Woodcraft Folk and the Fairbridge Trust all involve young people in activities outside school, allowing them to gain all the benefits that I just mentioned.

What Linlithgow primary school is doing provides a model. It is wonderful and it should inspire other schools to think about how best to achieve the educational aims of increasing pupils' self-assurance, confidence, responsibility and ability to get on with others. Well done to everyone at the school.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 5:30 pm, 8th February 2006

Like others, I welcome the children from Linlithgow primary school to our Scottish Parliament here in Holyrood. I thank the school and Mary Mulligan for giving me the chance to meet and talk to some of the children before the debate. It was interesting to hear a little of their experience.

Mary Mulligan has lodged a motion that presses all the right buttons. It raises the importance of volunteering and of school leadership in offering and supporting the volunteering initiative; the value of community pride and community links; the individual confidence-building, which members have discussed, that comes from being trusted to do an important task well; and the relevance of the history of our towns and our country to our individual and collective place in the world. Above all, the motion offers us the opportunity to recognise another example of this great generation of young people, who are doing and will do great things in the world. The debate has been super, despite the relatively sparse attendance. I cannot think where everybody is—I say that against the background of a by-election in another historic part of Scotland.

As we have heard, the project has run for 20 years. It was started by the school's previous head teacher, in collaboration with Historic Scotland, and has been enthusiastically backed by David Simpson, the current head—who is here today—and by his team. As others have said, it is a prototype of what we should be doing in every school.

One privilege of being a minister is that I can ask for items such as photographs and obtain them. I was privileged to receive several photographs, which caused a bit of embarrassment in the assembled multitudes when I brought them out earlier. The photographs are beautiful. They show the quality of the dresses and the material that is used. They also show happy children; people are not hiding to one side, but smiling and clearly enjoying themselves. That is an essential part of such activity.

The children are also entrepreneurial. They handed me four or five postcards to circulate in my local area back in Glasgow. The postcards have a photograph on the front and tell people all about the project. The children of Linlithgow primary school do not miss many tricks.

We place much importance on attracting foreign visitors to our shores. What better advert could there be for Scotland and for Britain than showcasing our young people? It is heartwarming to see young children making a difference by their voluntary effort, enthusiasm and practical application of their learning. If my maths is right, the 1,650 children who visited Linlithgow Palace last year approximate to 33,000 children over the project's 20 years or so, which is an enormous contribution by anybody's standards.

Such volunteering brings enormous benefits not only to the community, but to the young people. Volunteering has many positives. As members have said, it gives the volunteer increased confidence, aids personal development, teaches useful skills and creates memories to treasure. As the children from Linlithgow primary dress up in period costume and show other young people around Linlithgow Palace, they gain an insight into the history of their famous town that will be with them for ever, as Fiona Hyslop and others said. It will give them a lifelong passion for Scotland's historical environment, which is an irreplaceable resource that must be sustained and conserved.

Architects, designers and sociologists increasingly recognise the centrality of a sense of place to well-being in the modern world. Scotland has a rich and diverse historical environment that has been shaped by the lives of our forebears, but the historical environment is more than the sum of its material remains—Historic Scotland was at pains to point out to me that it largely looks after ruins, rather than buildings that are in active use, although that is not entirely the case.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

When I was elected to the Parliament, one of the first things that I did was to write to Historic Scotland about the possibility of roofing Linlithgow Palace. Perhaps the minister could raise that in his discussions with Historic Scotland. Roofing would allow an all-year service. At present, some activities are confined to the summer months and other months with dry weather.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

I think that I am right in saying that Linlithgow Palace is one of the finest examples of its style. It is a light and airy building—although it was not intended to be quite as airy as it is now—that was famous throughout Europe when it was built for being an advance in its style. The matter is not part of my departmental responsibility, but it could be considered.

The historical environment influences how we see ourselves as individuals, as communities and as a country. It gives us a sense of place and of pride in that place, which is important.

Mary Mulligan mentioned international volunteers day. On that day, Historic Scotland, with children from Linlithgow primary school, launched a consultation on its draft operational policy for promoting volunteering—the principles by which it will promote, manage and recognise the involvement of volunteers in and their contribution to its work. The consultation will run until 3 March, and I hope that people will respond to it and involve themselves as far as possible.

Historic Scotland wants to build on the volunteering opportunities that it already offers. A number of examples of how it engages with volunteers can be given. It has funded a community development project in Lincluden in Dumfries and Galloway, which has led to an active volunteers group being set up. Last year, that group hosted the abbey antics event, which attracted a huge crowd and has led towards more community development.

The Historic Scotland ranger services at Holyrood park and Linlithgow peel use volunteer rangers to help to deliver ranger services and to increase public understanding and enjoyment of the parks' historical and natural environments. The volunteer rangers are recruited from the local community. I am talking about relationships of mutual benefit through which the conservation and presentation of the historical environment is enhanced, the agency's relationships with communities are built and strengthened and the wider work of the Scottish Executive and the Parliament is supported.

I want to say something about history, which is a topic that has featured in the papers recently—and once or twice today. There has been much wild and untrue speculation that the teaching of history is being abolished in our schools. I will not pursue that matter today, but I will say that the history of our country and our communities and of our contribution to the world is one of the most inspiring topics that there is—I say to Margo MacDonald that I, too, got an A for higher history. How could that topic not be one of the most inspiring? Scotland developed the ideas and intellectual framework that make up the modern world and devised half of the key technical inventions on which that world is run. Britain developed the principles and practice of citizenship and parliamentary liberal democracy, which are key to the life of modern societies throughout the world and played a central role in saving the world from tyranny in the last war. Inspiring and motivating are exactly what our schools and educators should do. The challenge for history teachers—and for teachers in other disciplines—is to bring their subject alive, make it real and relevant to our young people and use it to help to build life skills and a framework of reference for our place in the world. That is what we, the curriculum review and our schools are about. Margo MacDonald was right to talk about the distinction between children being present in schools and educational experiences beyond that.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

The minister is nice, but will he confirm that what was said was that specialist history teachers will continue to be trained, not that teachers will have to choose history as a specialism within their wider training? Will history teachers continue to be trained?

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat

There has been no suggestion to the contrary, to be honest, apart from by sections of the popular media.

I make it clear that what we are concerned to do comes within the context of the curriculum review, which is being built from the bottom upwards, with teachers and others being involved in the process. We want to consider ways in which we can maximise the development of young people's life skills, which is an important matter that Margo MacDonald has touched on. I do not want such consideration to be seen as a threat to history, for example, but that is a debate for another day.

Linlithgow and Linlithgow primary school are unique, but they are not alone in the context that we are discussing. In many schools, older children commit themselves to mentoring and buddy schemes with younger children. Such schemes prevent the isolation and exclusion of those younger children, help literacy, avoid bullying and support personal development. Such involvement is extremely good and we want there to be much more of it. I have no doubt that Scotland will be a better place and will have a more caring and active community when children with the kind of experiences that the children whom we are discussing have grow up to play their part in the world.

Again, I congratulate Mary Mulligan on securing the debate and on bringing us news of such an inspiring project. I wish Linlithgow primary school and its teaching staff every success in their future endeavours.

Meeting closed at 17:39.