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Forget all that self-esteem

Neil Munro reports on the changes needed in schools to help create a more confident Scotland

Schools should drop attempts to develop self-esteem in their pupils, a leading educational psychologist has told a conference on creating a more confident Scotland.

Alan McLean, who is working on a project with Glasgow City Council to help "disengaged learners", said: "Schools have put a lot of effort into self-esteem for the past 20 years, but it is not their job and they are not very good at it in any case."

Mr McLean suggested that teachers should be redirecting their efforts to achieve what he calls "self-efficacy".

Pupils should be given tasks as a learning process, not something to be evaluated, Mr McLean told a seminar at the conference, which was sparked by Carol Craig's recent book The Scots' Crisis of Confidence. Schools should also instil a belief that "ability is changeable and that there are many ways to succeed".

To achieve these results, schools should focus on specific aspects of competency that are important to the pupil. Mistakes should be treated as essential parts of learning "by linking failures to factors that pupils can repair".

Despite his comments on self-esteem, however, Mr McLean said pupils should be praised for their efforts so they feel responsible for their successes.

But success should be seen as personal not as part of an assessment - "how they are smart, not how smart they are".

The conference also heard from an internationally renowned American psychologist that optimism can be taught in schools. Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, said this would help shake off the depressive and negative tendencies among "cannae" Scots, which was the theme of the conference. It would also help to boost achievement in schools.

Professor Seligman said psychology was beginning to appreciate the importance of developing skills to measure the things that are best in people, a process he described as "positive psychology".

He added: "We have spent years training psychologists and psychiatrists to find out what is wrong with people."

Jack McConnell, the First Minister, sent a message to the conference stressing the Scottish Executive's commitment to foster creativity and ambition in schools.

But Mr McLean said that promoting positive traits was a problem in schools "where autonomy, assertiveness and trust are the focus of such tension".

Keir Bloomer, chief executive of Clackmannanshire Council, questioned whether schools had the right ambience or staff the qualities to develop these skills - "or whether they are better acquired outside school".

Scottish education had often been the focus of misplaced confidence in the past, "the best in the world" tag, Mr Bloomer said. "It has now stopped congratulating itself and has started thinking. There is a dynamism and an intellectual activity about it that has not been present for much of the last century."

But Carol Craig, who is a specialist in team and personal development, said teachers still struggle to appear confident. "They often see their job in terms of not getting it wrong and they impart that to their pupils. More than other professions, they are on the worthwhileworthless see-saw."

Hilda de Felice, a former secondary head who is now an educational consultant, called on schools to "wake up" and instill more optimism in pupils before creating another "we can't do that" generation .

"Go with the grain of where people are," Ms Craig said.

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