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Give young minds time for reflection

Creating space to search for life's meaning will help the nation rediscover its potential, says Ewan Aitken

My PA has a wee "book" going about how long it takes after I enter a room or a conference or go on a visit before I receive the funding bid. My all-time record is two minutes. I arrived to take part in an improvised drama exercise about classroom discipline and the teachers involved managed to weave it into their script almost as soon as we began.

No matter how they are dressed up, most invitations politicians receive are, at their core, about encouraging us to spend the taxpayers' money in new ways. I actually find it a helpful way of people lobbying me as it does mean I can see first hand the benefits of the activities being promoted for support.

I faced a slightly different kind of "ambush" at a conference I attended last month. I went expecting to observe but the organiser, on seeing me, immediately turned to the participants and said: "Now that Councillor Aitken has arrived, I'd like to change the programme and offer you the chance to question him about the subjects you have been working on."

It was an offer I could not refuse. It was, however, a conference with a difference that may well never happen again. The participants were around 70 secondary pupils who were gathered to decide what questions they would ask the Dalai Lama on behalf of young people in Scotland.

The questions they had begun to formulate were real challenges. They covered a wide range of topics - environment, health, respect for others, poverty, opportunity and many more. At their core was a common theme. Do things, does life, need to be as it is? And if not, what can we do to make a difference?

In many ways, the answers lay not with me but with themselves. They heard my views on particular subjects but the challenge to make change real lies with them and with their peers. They had made that connection. Faced with the opportunity to quiz a man whose spiritual way of being many would see as not of this world, they had begun by looking at the world as it is and then searching for ways to tease out how his spiritual journey could effect change in the journey of this world. Political questions with a spiritual face.

I was struck by their passion, by their determination to grapple with the concerns of the world and their desire to get to the heart of the issues so that the questions they formulated would elicit responses of real depth and meaning.

They belied the destructive media-fed myth that today's young people are apolitical and apathetic or self-absorbed. It was not only the content of the discussions and questions that mattered. The experience of collectively searching the issues, concerns, aspirations and possible solutions was just as significant.

Around the same time, the very belated Scottish Executive review of religious observance was published. This excellent document has, at its core, proposals that will allow similar collective searching and reflection to be embedded into the rhythm of the school year. These communal gathering times, separate from any celebration of one or other particular faith community's festivals, will be real opportunities for young people to have the experience of reflecting and searching for what they believe to be meaningful and valuable and, more importantly, why they believe that to be so.

These times will draw on the wisdom and insight of all faith communities and those who hold no religious faith. They will create regular opportunities for school communities to reflect on their common values, to celebrate success and to face up to the life challenges both in the school community and beyond. They will embed thinking time into the life of the school, space to step back and step forward.

This will need to be supported by training for the teachers and by a willingness of schools to experiment while they evolve the best format for their community. This model echoes the Scottish Parliament's "time for reflection" which begins each parliamentary day and which many politicians tell me has made a significant impact by reminding MSPs that, in their daily decision-making, there is always a greater significance to their actions than the immediate effect.

We may never see a Scottish pupil identified at the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. But, if we create space for young people to begin the search for life's meaning we may finally rediscover the soul of our nation and once again release our potential as a people.

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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