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Change and challenge

Debating the purpose of education must involve all sections of society in drawing up the agenda on which tomorrow's policies will be based, says Debbie Wilkie.

HE past 20 years have seen rapid change in the Scottish education system, but a shared understanding of the purpose of education remains a live issue for debate. Concern about standards in the 1970s led during the 1980s to a drive for setting achievement standards and competencies and saw the establishment of school league tables.

More recently concerns have been expressed that the necessary focus on achievement to enable people to enter university or employment has been too much at the expense of other important values and skills that are needed for people to play a full role in society.

The Scottish Civic Forum has acted as a neutral convener for a number of dialogues on education involving a wide range of representatives from civic society from both within and outside the education system. These include comment on the Scottish Executive's Improving our Schools consultation and on Learning and Teaching Scotland's Education for Citizenship consultation document.

The forum also hosted a public dialogue involving more than 80 representatives who considered whether or not there was a need for a National Education Convention in Scotland.

A common theme emerged, namely that there needs to be wider discussion of and input into education policy in Scotland. This led last autumn to the forum's call for a discussion of the values and purpose of education. The forum welcomes the Executive's efforts to initiate a national debate on education, even if it may have concerns about conducting a national debate on such a fundamental issue as education, over such a short period.

Learners in the 21st century, whether in the classroom, in colleges, universities or in the wider community, are faced with more choices and more challenges than ever before. The learning environment has changed radically and changes have brought new pressures - teachers appear to be juggling an ever increasing range of activities to meet the range of roles that they have to fulfil. Parents, too, find themselves faced with new challenges as they support their children through the difficult choices that they have to make as they progress through the system.

Meetings held by the forum have identified a number of issues that are likely to come up over the course of the debate. An important theme has been managing the balance between learning to achieve results and economic success and learning to be an active, informed and successful member of society.

Education can too often be seen as being solely concerned with producing "whatever it takes to get to university" or to "get through exams". This has led to questions about what kind of society we want and whether the existing balance between individual achievement and the broader issues of belonging to a community, sometimes put within the framework of citizenship education, is right.

The balance between formal teaching and experiential learning is another issue. This was particularly evident in the discussions on Education for Citizenship, where there was considerable debate on the degree to which the ethos of citizenship should be experienced as part of a school or organisation's whole environment, carefully relating elements of political literacy, service learning and participatory understanding.

The question of the ownership of the educational vision is also a likely candidate for discussion over coming months. In Denmark, for example, the detail of the curriculum is negotiated between parents, teachers and students and seeks to achieve identified outcomes in terms of a range of skills that are expected to have been achieved at the end of the formal education process. There is a shared vision that generates high commitment and this appears to reap positive results.

What are the benefits of such a system? What are the disadvantages? How would such an approach fit with securing the competencies that are needed in modern Scotland? A vision of education connected to lifelong learning which helps to consolidate or reinvigorate learning that has taken place through the school system, is also seen by many as an essential part of the equation.

It offers fresh opportunities for learning where people have missed out at an earlier age. What is the relationship between lifelong learning and education? How can one benefit the other?

nother matter is educational research in Scotland. There are a number of institutions that have substantial expertise, but is educational research being appropriately funded or has it become the victim of short-termism and the competitive bidding system that is now commonplace in many aspects of modern working life?

Education requires a complex range of outcomes: we need to ask what culture of education we aspire to and therefore what outcomes we need - not only from the point of view of employers but also, crucially, from the point of view of all those committed to thinking about the kind of society we want in Scotland. The national debate offers a real opportunity for everyone concerned about all aspects of education and lifelong learning to express their views.

* The forum is planning a series of dialogues in different parts of Scotland to find out what people think.

Details 0131 225 6789 or at

Debbie Wilkie is deputy director of the Scottish Civic Forum.

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