Get a life, get a living

New thinking is needed to help schools meet the challenges of education for work and lifelong learning, says Ian Nicol

THE American writer Neil Postman, in his book The End of Education?, argues that schooling must rediscover a more relevant narrative or end-purpose, or be ended itself in its present form. Postman argues for a new language in education to organise and direct fresh thinking. He envisages a narrative for education that is powerfully values based and supports the development of an active and ethical citizenship.

"Public education does not serve a public," he writes, "it creates a public. The question is what kind of public should it help to create?" The numbers of Scottish young people described as "disappointed, disaffected and disappeared" along with the growth of an inadequately educated urban underclass suggest that Postman's concerns should be generally shared.

There is concern not only for the happiness and quality of lives available to young people but for the economic viability of Scotland itself, facing the challenges of rival knowledge-skills economies in the global market. Everybody appears to recognise the challenge. Unfortunately, there is as yet no clear agreement about a meaningful narrative for teachers, young people, and communities to share.

Our education system has in the past been slow to exercise opportunities for creativity and diversity. By the end of the 20th century, most Scottish secondary schools were operating on the Fordist production line model - teacher as operative, pupil as widget. They had a standardised, age-related curriculum, organised within boxes and thinking in silos, one size fitting all. Motivation was provided by choice from a small number of subject-related options. Across a range of modes, balance, calculated by time inputs, offered possibly an experience of stimulating variety or perhaps disorientating fragmentation, according to circumstances.

For the majority of young people and schools this system has worked well most of the time. It supplies a firm and universally accepted base for future development. Unfortunately, it presents some structural inhibitions to the development of an education system appropriate to the knowledge-skills economy. Near the end of the 20th century, the education for work agenda was developed. Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector, succinctly defined the narrative or purpose of education for work as being "to get a life as well as a living".

A critical skills programme devised by Antioch University in the United States to bridge the gap between schools and the world of work asks some key questions: what do people need to know, to be able to do and to be like so they can be successful in school and life after school? The programme responds in terms of essential knowledge - skills such as decision-making, creative thinking and communication; and dispositions such as self-direction, ethical character and curiosity.

Inevitably, the commitment by teachers and young people, their believing in the value and relevance of their narrative for education is what will determine quality. It will make or break Scotland's success or failure in the global market-place. David Hargreaves in Towards Education for Innovation identifies three practical requirements for success:

* Teachers themselves must be encouraged to be innovators.

* Their innovation must be systematic and strongly disciplined.

* The outcomes of demonstrably successful innovation must be widely shared among the profession.

Various schools across Scotland, given flexibility by the new secondary guidelines and encouragement from the Scottish Executive, have been moving ahead in these directions. Glasgow, in partnership with Learning and Teaching Scotland, has taken up the challenge to meet Hargreaves's three conditions.

Video and CD-Rom materials showing successful practice in Queen Mary Street nursery, Carmunnock primary, Abercorn School, Lochend Community High, Cleveden Secondary and Notre Dame High are under development for staff training applications. Practising teachers speak about aspects of leadership, flexibility, creativity, and living and working with paradoxical demands. They take up Postman's challenge to identify a successful and motivating end purpose in education.

ignificantly, they appear to be happy and successful in addressing the problems and opportunities of this new age and the challenges it presents for teaching and learning. But, as Jim Dunbar, education development officer with Angus, noted recently: "The problem is that many of us are hesitant. If we adopt a different pedagogy which emphasises skills, we fear that the transmission of knowledge will suffer, and that, after all, is the means by which our performance is measured. A balance must be found. Much of the staff development available to the teaching profession in recent years is linked to instrumental tasks; how to be a better time manager, organiser etc. Teachers must get more opportunity to obtain a fix on the larger picture."

Principal teachers, Dunbar points out, have the key role to play in this. They must be convinced that their two main concerns of uptake and attainment in their departments will not suffer by time being spent on education for work. The aim is to change the way we deliver courses so that pupils are allowed to practise the skills which will give them self-confidence.

School-based initiatives across Scotland seem to be moving forward to identify a more meaningful narrative, or set of narratives, for lifelong education. The question now is whether the Scottish Executive will have the commitment to catch up.

Ian Nicol is consultant to the Glasgow project and former head of Balerno High in Edinburgh.

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