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Entrepreneurs can spot the potential

The Smith Group will bring far more than a cheque-book to the fight against inequality, says Ewan Aitken

ften my job means finding myself in unlikely situations with people I otherwise would never have had the chance to meet. The time I have spent with some of Scotland's richest entrepreneurs as a member of the Smith Group (page one, last week) is one such.

This is the advisory board set up by Sir Tom Hunter to oversee how his money is used to improve education in Scotland. Jack McConnell announced that it will oversee the NEET strategy for those young people not in education, employment or training. It will also look after the Determined to Succeed enterprise education strategy and have an input to Schools for Ambition.

The board is a mix of highly successful entrepreneurs, educationists from both schools and directorates and, well, me! What has struck me about these entrepreneurs is that, despite their great wealth which could shield them from the real world, theirs is an absolute passion against the injustice of lack of opportunity. Yet these selfsame highly successful individuals, when looking at a particular issue, will readily say to those headteachers or directors present: "You understand this better than me; explain it to me from your perspective."

Their wisdom is as much in asking for advice as it is in giving it. They get very frustrated when the Scottish Executive advisers point out, as is their job, some of the interdepartmental challenges that might slow down achieving things like a careers adviser in every high school, which is one of their objectives. They want things to happen quickly because they are passionate about the task. Yet they seem to know when to listen and to learn so they make the right decisions to achieve that task.

It is that kind of combination of vision, passion and discernment which has helped them achieve what they have achieved. They don't want to own education or buy the curriculum or make a profit from it.

This isn't the thin edge of the city academy wedge. The partnership between the Smith Group, the local authorities and the Scottish Executive announced by the First Minister is revolutionary because it brings from business something more significant than mere cheque-books. It brings a "can do", have done attitude that will shift mountains or, at the very least, help break down barriers that mean we don't yet serve the most needy as well as we could.

For the NEET group, the statistics are still about real people who need to be nurtured and cared for. They understand that one size does not fit all.

We need to create a path that will suit each pupil, choices that will enhance their talents and make the best of their potential. A huge task, yet one that this group does not fear.

So I was saddened to hear yet again some members of the teaching unions complaining about a strategy that will achieve that individual journey for each pupil: personal learning planning (PLP).

Complaints about lack of time or too much form-filling miss the point.

Personal learning planning is not an add-on to what already happens, it is instead of it. It will, with some early effort, make life in the long-term much more educationally fulfilling. Pupils will be on a journey of their own making. Parents will know much more about what their child is doing.

Teachers will be engaging with pupils in a new way, guiding young people to understand the world and how to live in it. I say this because those teachers I have talked to who have implemented PLP say it changes not just the child's experience but their own.

Sir Tom Hunter, in his speech at the launch of the NEET initiative, used a retail analogy. "If 20 per cent of my customers were not even coming to the shop, far less buying anything (20 per cent being the number of NEETS), then I would have to radically rethink how I do what I do."

For those who feel they do not fit, we need to do what we do with them, our customers, radically differently. We need not to make them fit the system but the system to fit them. That is what personal learning planning is all about and that is why I think it is the most significant development in education today.

It's a huge task. It will need more resources at the beginning. It will mean doing things very differently. It will take more time at the start.

But the prize is too precious to ignore.

The issue is not how big the task is, but how much we want to achieve it.

When it comes to reducing the number of NEETS, we have no option. We have a moral obligation to achieve it. So we need to do whatever it takes, even if it means more work to begin with.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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