Jamieson starts to sift the evidence

THE next phase of the national debate on education will be "further focused discussions" on specific issues that have arisen, Cathy Jamieson, Education Minister, said last week.

During the last public event of the debate, a Glasgow breakfast organised by CBI Scotland, Ms Jamieson said her aim was to have a strategy in place by early next year to cover the coming decade. But she stressed that this would not require "a new initiative for every new idea".

Ministers acknowledge they are entering a tricky phase as they send out potentially contradictory messages to schools of "stability and change", as the contributions to the debate appear to call for both at once. Ms Jamieson says, however, that it is the pace of any change that matters.

Ministers are also conscious of the danger that new policies could become a political football in the run-up to the Holyrood elections next May. They hope they can liaise with the parliamentary education committee's separate inquiry into "the purposes of education" to reach a cross-party consensus.

The Scottish Executive is now preparing to analyse the comments following which Ms Jamieson will be sharing her "emerging ideas".

There will be an attempt to strike agreement on what everyone has conceded is operating well, followed by the "focused" period which will look at other issues either in the form of working with specific groups, piloting particular projects or commissioning research.

Ms Jamieson reiterated to the Glasgow audience of business people and educators her reaction to the "striking" views of young people. "They are not saying they want less education: they want more, more opportunities to try out different things and more links with the world of work," she said.

She had listened throughout the morning to some eclectic lines of thought ranging from the views of Keir Bloomer, Clackmannanshire's chief executive and former director of education, to Chris Woodhead, former head of the Office for Standards in Education south of the border.

Mr Bloomer put his emphasis on the way people learn, while Mr Woodhead continued to stick firmly to his conviction that the main business of schools should be the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next.

The Clackmannanshire boss argued that education works best in the early years because the purposes are clear and widely agreed, while the structure of the pre-school and primary stages is flexible enough to cope with individual teaching styles.

The problem in the "less intimate" atmosphere of secondary schools was the absence of that clarity and flexibility, Mr Bloomer said. "The key to good teaching is to excite and motivate pupils and create a passion for learning, then move on to the content which is about knowledge, followed by the third stage which is about understanding and which allows pupils to generalise from what they have learnt.

"Our problem is that we have often forgotten about the first stage and never get to the third, and to be constantly stuck in the second is not something which adolescents are any more prepared to tolerate."

Mr Woodhead contributed his expected and unrelenting criticisms of the excessive ideology and "fashionable twaddle" which he claimed passed for educational thought. He also criticised blanket political interference in education as one of the root causes of the problem, as well as the assumption that "all must have prizes" and the lack of clarity which he suggested many teachers had about pupils' mastery of concepts.

Mr Woodhead held up the example of an international school in Dubai, where youngsters are tested on a weekly basis, as the way forward in British schools.

But Mr Bloomer insisted that there must be a shift away from "what you know to what you do". He cited the skills required by the CBI, ranging from the basics to personal qualities, as evidence that the business and liberal education agendas were coming together.

This was confirmed by Bob Downes, director of BT Scotland, which sponsored the breakfast. Mr Downes said an ability to appreciate good poetry and prose is as important for young people leaving school as the ability to handle ICT, communicate and demonstrate workplace skills.

"The sons of Glasgow merchants who attended Glasgow University in the 18th century excelled as much at Latin and Greek as they did in reading a balance sheet," Mr Downes said.

But he criticised the equation of excellence with having a first class degree. "There must be diversity," he said.

The education and business communities seemed agreed at the end of the event that creating a thirst for learning is what will make a difference in this century.

As Mr Bloomer put it: "It is the learners who will inherit the earth, while the merely learned will find themselves perfectly equipped for a world that no longer exists."

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