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'Place to learn' bid by Highland

A secondary school without classrooms and teachers acting as enabling tutors. This is the vision for "a prototype secondary school of the 21st century" under wide-ranging proposals being circulated for comment by Highland Council.

The discussion paper suggests that the Highlands could become "the place to learn" as well as "the place to be" - providing different agencies start working together to release new funds for new projects.

The paper was prepared by Robin Lingard, former director of the University of the Highlands and Islands project. But its genesis came last year from Peter Peacock, the council's convener who is also vice-president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

Many of the ideas which are behind the UHI development are evident in Mr Lingard's proposals, which are based on informal soundings from 20 organisations throughout the Highlands.

Mr Lingard's current position as chairman of the Prince's Trust - Action in the north of Scotland is also reflected in his assault on the traditional approach to schooling and an emphasis on supported study, which the Prince's Trust funded in 345 locations last year.

Education will have a central role in developing the Highlands over the next 20 years, according to Mr Lingard's "vision". Secondary schools, in particular, are well placed to make a difference to the quality of life through changes brought about by information technology, supported study and new approaches to learning.

These three elements are central to the UHI concept and Mr Lingard told The TES Scotland: "An examination of the way secondary schools are organised seems the sensible next stage in thinking about how we deliver education."

The report describes a school that would be "pioneering in every sense - in the building, by abandoning the concept of classrooms in favour of flexible space for groups of different sizes; in its pedagogy, by adopting the best of current thinking on tutoring and supported study and by inculcating skills in the broadest sense; in its use of IT, as the central medium for transmitting knowledge and the basis of a new Highland learning industry."

Mr Lingard believes information technology holds the key, not only in enabling young people to study individually at their own pace but in bringing about a fundamental shift in the relationship between teacher and taught. Teachers would change their role from "the transmission of knowledge to the encouragement of understanding".

The report states: "(Teachers) become tutors who operate in support of the learner. Across Scotland supported study initiatives have already proved a successful means of 'turning back to learning' some of those turned off by classroom teaching.

"The changed role of teaching staff in such schemes is a key element in their effectiveness, as well as a source of greater staff satisfaction. Applying these principles systematically in secondary schools, with support from UHI and its educational IT network, could give the Highlands a real leadership in modern educational practice."

Mr Lingard goes on to stand conventional educational wisdom on its head by arguing that productive links between secondary schools and the tertiary sector could allow even the smallest secondary school to offer the full Higher Still curriculum. Glasgow, for instance, is justifying its school closures programme by suggesting that secondaries with fewer than 800 pupils will struggle to offer a complete curricular experience, a view which is being strongly contested by parents and some teachers. Highland has 18 out of its 27 secondary schools in that position.

Mr Lingard adds that with secondary rolls set to fall by around 2,000 over the next six years, a 14 per cent drop, "this could be an ideal opportunity for investing in new approaches to learning".

But his report warns against smugness and complacency in thinking that the Highlands will escape the virus of the "three Ds - disappointed, disaffected and disappeared" that infects secondary-age pupils in other parts of the country. "This matters not just because of the waste of human talent which is implied but because of the social and community problems which follow from underachievement at school. A successful region of the 21st century should be able to engage all its young people in effective and enjoyable learning. It must also be the place to learn."

While the UHI venture has clearly inspired much of his educational thinking, Mr Lingard also anticipates major threats to the project. "With all the existing universities starved of money at present, the risk is that at critical stages the pace of development of UHI will be restricted in order to feed other hungry mouths," he says.

One solution would be to widen the proposed partnership to loosen dependence on the Treasury by calling on employers, the community and the Highlands diaspora for financial support.

Mr Lingard also sees a threat to a Highlands university from "subtle" forces which may be at work to drive the project towards "a far more conventional curriculum and mission. This would strike at the heart of the UHI concept, which requires UHI to be different and rooted in its region."

The need for an inter-agency approach, which is seen as a key ingredient, is nowhere more evident than in the absence of a coherent youth strategy, the report states.

"This is the classic example of an issue without an owner," Mr Lingard suggests, "affected by decisions and budgets across a wide range of agencies, departments and organisations in the public, voluntary and private sectors. " Young people, he says, are the single most important key to the future success of the Highlands yet the risks of their disaffection are higher than for any other group.

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