Casting the net wider

James McCormick

James McCormick continues our series on ways forward for Scottish education and calls for a new approach based on active learning

YEAR ago, the Scottish Council Foundation published the initial findings of its Changing Schools programme. It argued that the purpose of secondary schooling has hardly changed since the system was designed. Experience of the "exams factory" leaves a sizeable proportion of young people demotivated. The modern school curriculum has struggled to apply the knowledge we have gained in recent years about how the brain learns, individual learning styles and multiple intelligences. For all the commitment to developing every young person's potential, including skills in sport and art, exam passes in the academic subjects remain the dominant form of measuring success. None of this is unique to the Scottish system. But the need for change is greater than ever.

The roots of that change may already be evident in the principles of lifelong learning: more flexible and personalised services tailored to the needs of people with diverse circumstances at different stages of their lives. Gone is the assumption that education is a standardised event, where the curtain falls on leaving school, college or university. It therefore poses a challenge to the old assumptions about people's lives in ways that could be very radical if applied in full. While lifelong learning has opened up the debate about affordable access to lower-skilled employees, people stuck in poorly paid jobs and the "third age" learners, there has been a spiral of silence about how flexible learning can be extended in the other direction.

School age, it appears, should be left undisturbed by the new promise of lifelong learning. The 100,000 individual learning accounts (ILAs) for Scotland are for adults; lifelong learning is for post-compulsory learning. What does it have to do with school education? Apparently nothing, judging by the gulf between the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Department and the Education Department in the Scottish Executive. Unless this is challenged, lifelong learning will in reality be based on compensation as it seeks to make up for earlier failures in the system and provide second chances for learning.

The foundations of a more flexible and personalised school curriculum are slowly being laid. One of the priority recommendations in the Excluded Young People Action Team report to the Scottish Social Inclusion Network in 1999 was to equip young people with the personal resources or life skills to manage the transition to adulthood. The report recommended that schools employ a tailored curriculum, better matched to the individual needs of those identified as "vulnerable to exclusion". If we are to do an effective job of preventing young people turning off and dropping out of education, we must cast the net much wider than those who are currently vulnerable to exclusion.

The piloting of educational maintenance allowances (EMAs) for 16 and 17-year-olds in lower-income families and the opportunity to combine part-time work experience and schooling before age 16 and for more than one week suggest that the boundaries between school age and working age are being blurred. Can we be more ambitious?

The foundation is now exploring how secondary school experience can be enhanced not just through information and communications technology along with a modern infrastructure but through a new sense of purpose. We have identified the need for a curriculum that is more active, engaged with the world beyond the school and based on learning by doing - an "authentic curriculum", as one teacher described it. Every young person entering secondary school should be given an active learning account, with a balance of time credits for the equivalent of three months, to be spent in some form of active learning during school time but usually outside the school walls. This could involve community volunteering as part of a team, individual work placements and study exchanges.

Active learning accounts would be both an entitlement and responsibility for all to use, the purpose being to complement school-based learning with life skills and thereby enhance commitment to learning and working. Limited to young people at risk of exclusion, or those on a non-academic track, the idea would quickly be seen as compensation for those who have failed. Accounts for every young person would signal that straight A straight to university students would also benefit from active learning experiences. This would mark a critical shift, recognising that young people learn through hands-on experience, that much learning takes place outside the usual environment and in groups that are wider than their usual peer groups.

ctive learning accounts should be open for use in the first two years of secondary and continue thereafter. There is a strong consensus among policy-makers that these are years of low challenge and underachievement. Before subject choices must be made, up to three months of that time could be devoted to widening horizons. How time credits are used would be for negotiation between young people and their personal learning advisers (drawing on the best of the school guidance network and the new Careers Scotland service).

This process of reflection and action planning would be valuable in itself. By starting at school age and demonstrating the importance of many forms of learning, we are more likely to raise enthusiasm for using EMAs, credit-based training programmes and ILAs at working age. We should also seek to change the value of the learning currency that people are used to working with. A substantial commitment of time and effort to active learning outside the classroom should be given value by employers and higher education, by signalling that those who participate stand a better chance of succeeding. In turn, the expectations of young people, their families and their teachers may be changed.

James McCormick is research director with the Scottish Council Foundation (

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