There’s a different set of priorities when preparing for a day at school aged 46, compared to 16.
I wasn’t making myself a latte in a flask 30 years ago. In fact, I didn’t take a drink to school. I didn’t prepare a fresh fruit snack – I’d usually buy a Kit-Kat at break – and I didn’t have to feed two kids and put the laundry on before I left.
Yet walking up the front steps of the Royal High in the Edinburgh suburb of Barnton, where I was to join a group of parents who had volunteered to go back to school for a day, I felt the old emotions stirring. There was more than a little trepidation about what the day might bring.
The eight new “students” were welcomed by head teacher Pauline Walker who told us why an invitation had been sent out to parents to experience a school day for themselves.
“We wanted you to experience what your child does, so we invited you in for the day,” she said.
“Anything can happen. We can’t set up how the kids are so you’ll see exactly what it’s like to be a pupil.”
Among the parents in my class was Maggie Smith, 49, who attended the school from 1981-86, and was wearing the uniform to prove it.
She said: “Visually it’s changed quite a lot since I was here, and in my day the girls did home economics and the boys did woodwork.
“There was no computing and I did secretarial classes, learning to type on an old-fashioned typewriter.
“When I got the email inviting parents to come, I just couldn’t resist. It felt nice to put the blazer back on.”
Everyone groaned when we were told maths was to be our first lesson. It was a subject I loathed, my memories being of sitting in the far corner of the classroom staring down at my jotter while a teacher talked at us for an hour and 20 minutes. Ms Harpur took a different approach, one that is used throughout the school.
Each class starts with a “learning intention” listed on the electronic white board (blackboards are a thing of the past), along with “success criteria” which, in our case, was a better understanding of how maths was taught.
She told us: “Maths is the Marmite of subjects and it’s my job to be enthusiastic and share my love of the subject. I try to demonstrate there’s maths in everything. Recently we examined how healthy a McDonald’s meal is by working out percentages of fat and salt, so they’re learning about real-world things.”
The lesson kicked off with a quickfire round of 10 multiplication sums.
My brain froze, just as it did 30 years ago, but I stumbled through and, to my surprise, got them right.
Ms Harpur explained she was constantly looking at research and for new ideas to help bring the subject to life.
“Teachers steal and share ideas,” she said. “Not much gets written in jotters because we’re doing exercises in class.”
It felt a million miles from the bare classrooms of my day where we chewed pencils and poked holes in erasers for entertainment.
Soon we were on the move again, this time to modern studies with Mr Forbes where the subject was human rights. But rather than working through a textbook, he shared the stories of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the young mother imprisoned in Iran on charges of spying, and of Noura Hussein who was sentenced to death in Sudan after killing her husband who allegedly raped her.
His ambition is to engage pupils by bringing the stories of those facing struggles around the world to life, and to help them understand they are the key to change. And he is passionate about his work.
“We teach about homelessness and show them that the world around us is not equal,” said Mr Forbes. “If them taking 50 minutes to think about the plight of others makes them a better person and we have kids going out into the communities trying to make a positive difference… well, if we had politicians like that, the world wouldn’t be in the state it is now.”
Our lesson was rounded off with a debate on whether politicians should wear fancy dress and then we were moving again, this time to science class.
Here we were told we would be experimenting with catalase enzymes and, while I can’t pretend I grasped the whole concept, I enjoyed the lab experiment that went with it.
Again, we were being engaged by a teacher, Ms Coleman, who clearly loved the subject.
Then it was on to health & food technology. In my day it was home economics, where the focus was on cooking skills taught by a particularly severe teacher who sucked all the joy out of what should have been a fun lesson.
But today’s course takes in skills and nutrition and, once again, the magic ingredient in the classroom was an enthusiastic teacher.
We made Viennese Whirls while Ms Kelly talked about her work.
“We face some challenging situations,” she admitted.
“But if a child misbehaves, there’s a reason and we embrace that and look at the whole child. If they’re acting out we try to sidestep the behaviour and ask, ‘What’s going wrong?’ ‘How do we make this better?’.”
It was a comment that moved most of us as parents to say that wasn’t our own experience at school where few teachers looked as though they were enjoying working with us.
Ms Kelly agreed: “I was at school when we got the belt and that was more about the teacher’s anger than it was the pupil’s behaviour. Now we always ask, ‘Why?’, because we don’t just teach, we have to manage children. And I love them, they’re great. They’re enthusiastic, and impassioned. My job is an absolute gift.”
The final lesson was history. We were taught about the Holocaust by Ms Hughes, who leads an annual sixth-year trip to Auschwitz.
She passed around photographs of Jews in different situations and countries, going about their daily lives before the horrors began. She asked us to share what we saw in the pictures. We wrote it on the desks – another way of mixing up activities and interactions.
And there was a clear purpose for getting us to engage with the individuals in the pictures.
“How do we get kids to connect with the idea that every one of the victims was a person with a life?” she asked. “We humanise victims and re-humanise perpetrators so children can understand why.”
Each child at Royal High is issued with an iPad on which they can make notes, take pictures of the whiteboard, submit homework and find learning materials.
It was yet another example of how learning has moved on in the past few decades. And at the heart of it are people who care deeply about the children they are teaching and achieving the best outcomes for them.
The feeling among the parent-pupil class of 2019 was mutual. We wished it could have been like that for us – and now we finally get why exams results are constantly improving.
And no, it’s not because the papers are getting easier.