On the journey to contentment

To stay employable means knowing how to learn and learning new skills, which is why personal learning planning is crucial, says Ewan Aitken

received a letter recently from someone who's blood I had made boil with comments about personal learning plans (or planning, if the Scottish Executive lexicon is to be followed).

The writer's main thrust was that I was not a teacher, so I clearly could know nothing about matters educational. My opinion was, therefore, of little value and I should just be quiet.

Of course, the major premise was seriously flawed: on the same basis, the writer is not a politician and therefore can know little about politics, an assumption I am sure he or she would refute. Far from being offended, however, I found the letter refreshing. Underneath its criticism of my comments, I found the writer expressing a passion for education beating in the heart of a teacher of many years' service that was quite inspirational in its own way.

The mistake the writer made, however, was in suggesting that the only way a politician can comment on the subject of their brief is by being a professional from that area. By its very nature, politics cannot be in such a straitjacket, nor should it aspire to.

That's not to say that practitioners do not have a role. They very much do in advice and guidance on policy development and implementation. Policy in education or any other area of public services is meaningless if practitioners' wisdom has not helped shape it.

But it is politicians who must be the decision makers. That is what their job is and it is they who are accountable to the public through the democratic process. I was given an indication of just how much politicians can't simply be practitioners when I went on a couple of local radio station phone-ins a week or so after my election as council leader in Edinburgh. The first three questions were about ship-to-ship oil transfers, followed by discussions on swans, school closures, parking, political protest, football and, inevitably, my earring.

The breadth of issues that I am now expected to have at least some grasp of has been one part of my learning curve (or in my case, "learning vertical"). It reminds me simply of the challenge of political life at the level I have now found myself. Having the ability to reskill again and again is now a core skill for any young person.

Research shows that most people will have between six and eight different jobs in their career, often with different skills required. This is a consequence of a global economy driven by rapidly changing technology. To stay employable means knowing how to learn and learn again. Lifelong learning is no longer about doing Spanish when you retire. It's what will keep young people in lifetime employment So with personal learning planning, which isn't just another way of delivering the curriculum. It's about giving young people a perception of the idea of learning that thinks about achievement and what the future might bring. It's about creating a set of priceless skills around self-awareness and the ability to think ahead.

But that's not the only reason personal learning planning is so important.

It is also the first step towards a sense of self-understanding that will take us away from the utilitarian view of education that saw schools as simply the gateway to employment.

Once young people begin to think in terms of having strengths and abilities that they can plan to nurture and weaknesses that they can overcome, they can be taught about who they are and what they might be. They can be told that they matter and that their journey, defined by who they are, matters.

And they can be told that contentment, fulfilment, happiness even, are not things that are bought but experienced.

The great failure of the "me" generation was that it believed material wealth, status and power were the gateway to happiness. It understood, if not in as many words, that the human condition was a search for something to be possessed. We know now that that was a false dawn and the search of meaning, which is at the heart of the human condition, is as much an inward as it is an outward journey.

I am on a personal learning journey that is travelling at breakneck speed right now, but I will probably never get near knowing all the things people will expect me to know as council leader in our capital city. What I do know is that it's not being an expert that will help me make decisions: it is discerning the right direction, given all the advice I will receive, solicited and otherwise, for which I will be politically accountable at the ballot box.

Ewan Aitken is leader of Edinburgh City Council

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