The cyber-age school

Keir Bloomer

Keir Bloomer continues our series on ways forward for Scottish education by looking at the needs of the knowledge economy

HE era of the knowledge economy, concerned as it is with high added value activities, obviously implies that an increasing proportion of the workforce requires to be educated to a high level. But are high standards, based on achieving better qualifications of the traditional type, an adequate proxy for the kinds of skills and aptitudes that successful competition in the knowledge economy requires?

Recent thinking on the new skills required shows a degree of consensus. The Confederation of British Industry in its paper on the school curriculum, Greater Expectations, published in 1998, and the 1999 publication from the Royal Society of Arts, Opening Minds: Education for the 21st Century, both pointed to a curriculum based on skills and competencies, both cognitive and personal.

A similar trend can be seen across the Atlantic. The Alameda school district in California - notable for having the world's first genuine cyber-school - has drawn up a list of what it calls new basics. The educated young person, it says, is "fit and healthy, communicates, reads, writes, listens, speaks, knows and uses systems thinking to approach problems". All of these objectives have a number of clear common themes. They include the acquisition of fundamental transferable skills, personal and social development and the promotion of positive values.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the contemporary scene is the coming together of the qualities employers want and those that teachers have always seen as the desired outcomes of a broad, liberal education. So how should schools respond?

Raising standards of educational attainment has become firmly established as a political priority. Unfortunately, governments have tended not to ask themselves what kind of standards they wish to see improved. Furthermore, there has been a tendency to believe that standards are raised most effectively by a return to traditional methods.

In Scotland, a somewhat diluted version of this approach can be seen in the target-setting initiative which, for all its virtues of giving responsibility and ownership back to schools, makes a cosy, unproven and probably false assumption that generating more examination passes will serve as an adequate proxy for pursuing the kind of educational objectives now widely perceived as appropriate.

It is essential that the debate now taking place focuses on outcomes that are clearly linked to underlying purposes. More effective implementation of a sadly outdated curriculum is no substitute. Two sets of changes will be required. The first involves the combined possibilities of information and communications technology and of emerging knowledge of how the brain works and people learn. These innovations are likely to display the following characteristics:

* A shift away from a content-based view of the curriculum towards one focused on the development of skills and capabilities.

* A curriculum which emphasises depth of study as much as breadth of coverage and is, therefore, less concerned about balance.

* The use of multimedia and multisensory approaches to stimulate the brain and utilise its capacity for creating sense and order.

* The conscious development of learning skills and, in particular, the use of reflection and metacognition to achieve authentic, in-depth learning.

* A sequencing of the curriculum so as to accord with what is known of human development and, in particular, to take advantage of the energy of adolescence rather than perceiving it as a threat.

* The development of a more individualised service, breaking free from the constraints of organisation by age cohorts and allowing for learning which is increasingly self-paced and meets the changing needs of young people.

Second, there needs to be greater emphasis placed on evidence as a basis for change. There are signs that matters are improving. The early intervention programme, for example, has been based on clear objectives coupled to a desire to promote diversity. In the same way, although perhaps with less precision in relation to aims, the development of new community schools is being evaluated with a view to establishing what works.

There are now encouraging signs that things are changing. The renewed interest in focusing on outcomes represents a significant step forward. It is not, however, in itself sufficient. Individual schools need to be given the opportunity to pursue the agreed outcomes in their own ways. However, they also need to be given incentives to change.

There is, at present, no very strong compulsion to react to the needs and wishes of genuine customers. An underperforming department in a secondary school, for example, is unlikely to see its subject removed from the curriculum. The school itself will not experience any direct disadvantage as a result of poor performance or even loss of pupils.

The statutory requirement on education authorities is to secure the provision of, rather than to provide, adequate and efficient education. Should authorities be encouraged to buy in an increased range of services or to finance alternative provision (such as support for home-based learning) where this is what learners and their families desire? Where genuine alternatives to local authority school provision are widely available, as for the post-16 group, should authorities consider funding users through learning accounts rather than continuing to fund the providers?

While the provider role of the school will not entirely disappear, a major part of its function will be to arrange, organise and support activities provided elsewhere, such as extended work experience, residential placements and sporting and artistic activities. In other words, the school will be a brokerage of opportunities, allowing for the development of a service that is genuinely individualised.

Keir Bloomer, former director of education in Clackmannanshire, is now the authority's chief executive. This is an abridged version of a paper, "Learning to Change: Scottish Education in the 21st Century", written for the Scottish Council Foundation.

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Keir Bloomer

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