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The one size factory doesn't fit all

I want to refer to two trends in Scottish education that may, at first sight, seem unconnected but which together highlight a much wider issue which deserves serious attention. The first is the increasing number of children educated at home rather than at school. Obtaining accurate statistics on this is extremely difficult. Official figures record fewer than 500 but, since there is no requirement on parents to register, some estimates are nearer 5,000.

The trend is upwards, albeit on a modest scale - between 2002 and 2003, an increase of 6 per cent in parental decisions to withdraw children from local authority provision.

Critics of this trend argue that there is a need for systematic monitoring of what is going on to ensure that real learning is taking place and that children are not subject to indoctrination by parents with "cranky" views.

There is a also a fear that parents who have unconventional lifestyles may fail to provide their children with the wider social and educational experience that will prepare them for making a useful contribution to society.

Defenders of home education advance several counter-arguments. First, they say it is a right enshrined in law and that there are important issues of civil liberty involved. Second, they say that most parents who make this decision do so after careful reflection and are well aware of the commitment required to ensure a balanced educational experience. And third, common reasons given for withdrawal from schools are that children are subjected to bullying and that the particular talents of individual children are not adequately catered for.

The other trend is, in many ways, a success story. I am referring to the vast improvements made in the identification of children with a range of specific needs and in making tailored provision for them to ensure that their experience of the education system is as positive as possible.

Advances in genetics and neuroscience have made it possible to assess many conditions at an early age and, while there are still major gaps in our knowledge, the potential of many children who used to be poorly provided for is now recognised.

There are, it is true, still ongoing professional debates about such issues as the appropriateness of mainstreaming in particular cases and the best method of deploying learning support teachers in the classroom, but the general picture continues to improve.

What is common to both of these examples is the focus on the individual, the desire to understand the particular needs of children who do not fit into the standard pattern of schooling.

A common complaint of home educators, and of some parents of youngsters with special needs, is that the "system" does not take sufficient time to try to understand the uniqueness of each child. This is generally not through lack of care: it is simply a function of the pressurised conditions in which most teachers work. Concern for the majority takes precedence over the needs of individuals.

But "the majority" is made up of individuals and in the future we will have to do rather better in responding to the distinctive learning requirements of all children. This cannot simply be a bureaucratic exercise, the ticking of boxes on some centrally produced checklist. It will take time and effort, and involve listening to parents and young people themselves.

Such an approach could revolutionise the work of schools as there would be major implications for the curriculum, pedagogy and teacher training. The factory model of schooling is under threat - and a good thing too.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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