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Scotland stares its futures in the face

What will the nation's education system look like in 2025? A provocative series of imagined scenarios, ranging from progressive and outward-looking to divisive and dystopian, may give policymakers food for thought

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What will the nation's education system look like in 2025? A provocative series of imagined scenarios, ranging from progressive and outward-looking to divisive and dystopian, may give policymakers food for thought

The year is 2025 and a Scottish universities' consortium has just won the global contract to build a space simulator to test commercial craft being sent to the Moon.

For the past six years, all teachers have been required to hold a master's degree; Curriculum for Excellence is in its second incarnation.

All children learn through Gaelic immersion - Mandarin and Arabic are the next most popular languages.

College lecturers are employed on six-month contracts and are itinerant workers, moving from one vocational learning centre to another; most run their own businesses on the side.

Society is divided between those who live in gated communities and have access to good schools and advanced ICT, and the "precariat" - an underclass of long-term unemployed who have access to neither.

All these scenarios are possible in 13 years' time, according to a paper to be published on Monday by the Goodison Group in Scotland (GGIS) and the Scottish Futures Forum (SFF).

Their year-long work is intended as a challenge to the Scottish government, the Scottish education sector and the business community to think about what education and lifelong learning will look like in 2025 - only 13 years from now.

By stimulating policy debate, the GGIS and SFF hope to encourage a cultural shift in Scotland's overall approach to learning. And through a robust scenario-planning process, four very different world views have emerged (see panels), which they describe as "challenging and provoking" but nevertheless based on extensive evidence and research gathering.

"If some elements of the scenarios do not generate indignation to some readers, the process will have failed," they say.

The scenarios include a "market-driven learning society" that is highly focused on competition and a "local learning society" based around small communities. Meanwhile, the alternative scenarios offer a picture of an outward-looking "global learning society" and a "divided learning society", where education is a commodity that is available only to a select few.

"The scenarios to emerge are not predictions and are not party political in any sense," insist Sir Andrew Cubie, chair of the GGIS - which he set up in 2006 to influence debate and practice in business, government and education on the changing nature of learning in the 21st century - and Tricia Marwick MSP, chair of Scotland's Futures Forum, created by the Scottish Parliament to look ahead to challenges and opportunities which the country will face in future.

Over a number of months, the roles of teachers, parents, employers, colleges and universities in Scottish education have been examined through presentations, panel discussions and seminars.

The idea, Sir Andrew told TESS, was to inspire people to think beyond an election cycle, to catapult themselves to a point in the future and then try to look back towards the present.

Some of the ideas in the scenarios developed by the partnership might be described as "blue-sky thinking", or even utopian, while others more closely resemble a nightmare scenario. "They are relatively loaded, in a sense," said GGIS director Graham Donaldson, author of the Donaldson report on teacher education.

The divided learning society, for example, sees deprived areas dominated by the "precariat" - those without job security or the prospect of regular work; life expectancy has dropped to the age of 72 in those areas and 10 per cent of children have been diagnosed with a mental health problem.

Meanwhile, in the "market-driven learning society", universities have been reduced in number to eight and operate as private companies. Colleges have been replaced by vocational learning centres and state schools subjected to year-on-year budget cuts.

Scarce financial resources have led to a reduction in the disciplines taught at Scottish universities, under the local learning society, while in the global learning society "entrepreneurs-in-residence" would support learning.

While none of these scenarios seems a realistic prospect at present, should we discount them as nothing more than fantasies?

Sir Andrew argues that the scenarios' relevance might be questionable if they were not in some way linked to current realities. The process of creating the scenarios was driven by two very real challenges - globalisation and social inequalities.

Indeed, a number of aspects of each of the four scenarios is already apparent to some extent, so their potential realisation in the future is by no means far-fetched.

While universities driven by the need to source funding through consultancy work and student fees, as suggested by the "market-driven learning" model, are a frightening prospect for students, the introduction of tuition fees in England has already led to its institutions being heavily reliant on students' financial contributions.

Fictitious they may be, but the scenarios pose the question of whether learning opportunities for all and Scotland being globally competitive as a country are mutually exclusive, Sir Andrew points out.

The recently reported struggle of some Scottish universities to widen access to Scotland's poorest while maintaining their reputation and priorities on an international scale is a case in point.

One of the outcomes suggested in the "global learning society" is the increased involvement of employers and businesses in shaping the curriculum and identifying the educational needs of their future employees. That has already been identified as one of the likely by- products of the ongoing regionalisation of the college sector.

Matthew Pearce, depute headteacher at Bishopbriggs Academy, who spoke about the role of teachers in 2025 at one of the seminars, now believes that although his presentation proposed some radical changes to an English teacher's timetable by 2025, it perhaps did not look far enough ahead. "Some of the things I was thinking about are maybe not as far away as 2025," he said.

Teaching in a number of establishments in a single school day - for example in a secondary and a feeder primary school - as well as teaching classes using modern technology, eradicating the need for a teacher to be in the room, were two phenomena he could imagine becoming commonplace in the near future.

Indeed, some remote schools in Scotland already connect to staff elsewhere via video-link, and in the further and higher education sectors, learning and teaching are increasingly taking place online.

The social isolation highlighted by some students in the scenario of the global learning society is no doubt already felt by numerous learners studying remotely or on predominantly online courses at college or university in Scotland today.

It is these links to current realities in each of the scenarios that make them so engaging and such a useful tool for experts. Indeed, Sir Andrew believes the scenarios could serve as a wake-up call and that all those involved should consider the measures they might have to take to avoid the most undesirable potential outcomes.

Professor Donaldson agrees that, as all scenarios incorporate some ideas which would seem reasonable to most in the education sector, there is a risk of "sleepwalking" into these "undesirable scenarios without realising this".

"This helps us think about bigger policy connections," he told TESS.

Louise Macdonald, chief executive of the youth information service Young Scot, says her organisation has already begun to use the publication for further discussions with young people, and that the scenarios should encourage those working with young people to debate these issues and consider what action is required to achieve some aspects and avoid others.

The launch of the document next week should be seen as an inspiration for further discussion, Sir Andrew said.

Others in the education sector are also keen to take the process forward. "A discussion like that is great as a starting point," said Arlene Black, headteacher of Williamston Primary in Livingston.

This was an "exciting era of Scottish education", with the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence, and teachers had for too long been focused on "the education system that we grew up with and are comfortable with, but which might not work for the children we teach".

Her school now plans to introduce a "wicked Wednesday", where all staff meet in the staffroom in a comfortable setting and have an open-ended discussion on any topic they bring to the table.

John Henderson, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said: "What came across strongly from our sessions with the authors was the need to focus on flexible, lifelong learning if the ambitions of creating a learning nation are to be achieved."

He pointed out that one of the prominent ideas in the scenarios - the scarcity of financial resource - is already very much a reality in the FE sector.

"Colleges are the largest provider of lifelong learning in Scotland, delivered in innovative ways that provide flexibility for the learner, but budget cuts being proposed over the coming years will threaten their ability to continue to deliver that important work," he said.


The government has made education its key budget priority; teaching is highly regarded and education is a key export. Lifelong learning is seen as a means of boosting economic growth and reducing costly inequalities in society. Policy is based on strong educational research.

There has been a decade of targeted funding going to early years education and deprived areas. The best schools have been based in the most challenging areas. Standards are rising, but the past five years have seen a particular improvement in deprived areas. There are signs that this will free up government resources by, for example, reducing crime and improving healthcare.

It is nine years since programmes in parenting skills, entrepreneurship and raising educational aspirations became part of the primary curriculum. The 2020 reformed Curriculum for Excellence is bedding in. The Inspiring Teachers programme, launched in 2019 to establish teaching as a master's- level profession, is now completely embedded.

A new system of Gaelic-medium education was introduced in 2016, covering all disciplines in primary and secondary; Mandarin and Arabic are growing in popularity.

The FE college network has close links with the school sector and is fostering entrepreneurship. Resources are raised through Scotland being a net exporter of education and research, boosted by a global reputation for excellence.

The university sector launched itself as Scotland's Universities three years ago and has won the contract to build a $100 million (pound;64m) space simulator, which will be used to test commercial craft on flights to the Moon.

There are fears that the increasing use of technology to deliver courses can lead to social isolation.


Inequality is entrenched. Rising crime and social unrest have led to the creation of "gated communities", where wealth is concentrated. The areas outside face increasing deprivation, housing the "precariat" - the people with poor or transitory job prospects.

There is a chaotic downward spiral and an increase in mental health problems, often resulting from substance abuse, which exacerbates other life problems and perpetuates social issues.

The government is struggling to contain these problems practically and financially and is responsive rather than proactive.

There is little investment in early years education or adult learning.

Over the past decade, growing discontent with poor school standards and facilities has led to the proliferation of private schools which serve the gated communities. These use state-of-the-art technology as standard, but there is a digital divide with poor access to up-to-date technology in deprived areas.

The latest report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development revealed that Scottish schools were still on a downward trajectory, outperformed by most European countries, North America and Asia. It also showed that almost 10 per cent of children now have a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder, and calculates that the cost of managing their mental health, alcoholism, drug abuse, possible criminality and lack of earnings as an adult will total pound;90,577 compared with pound;9,602 for a child with "no problems".

There is no long-term government strategy for education, leading to low morale in the teaching profession and a reluctance to innovate. But a growing number of educationalists are getting involved in a movement promoting informal learning within local communities as a means of empowerment.


What matters is quality and social justice: people think "local" rather than "global". The need to work productively for longer is supported by sabbaticals and retraining opportunities. There are incentives for part- time adult learners, and collaborative working and learning are prized, as are higher-order and transferable skills.

There is disillusion with central government and a reliance on a reformed system of local government to set policy and spending priorities. A loss of public confidence in council decision-making resulted in local government reorganisation in 2017; since then there has been an increasing reliance upon local "wisdom councils" to set policy and spending priorities.

Higher taxation of the wealthy is accepted, but there has been tightening up on benefits for those capable of work.

Lifelong learning, an educational mantra for decades, is at last a cornerstone of policy and is promoted to enhance individuals' economic and social contribution to society, with personal fulfilment seen to be as important as development to improve people's job opportunities.

Educational institutions have been reconfigured to create cross-sectoral learning hubs from nursery to HND level. These make use of teleconferencing and distance learning and offer "hybrid" classes which combine online learning with less frequent in-person class meetings. Modern languages have suffered, with learners having to work independently with no support from language teachers, apart from in Gaelic.

Universities offer undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, but have strong links with the learning hubs - through distance learning and face-to-face teaching. No region tries to do everything: resources are shared reciprocally.

Business education, supported by local small and medium enterprises (SMEs), is an important part of the curriculum. Many teachers take a year out to work in industry and commerce, with business people also able to work within the learning hubs. The latest update in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation shows the differences between the most and least deprived areas are continuing to lessen.


The market is the driver and the universities are the winners. Scotland has embraced globalisation, but it's everyone for themselves.

Under the government's laissez-faire approach, a number of universities have gone to the wall, leaving only eight - but those eight are regarded as world class. By 2016, it had become clear that the government could no longer afford to underwrite universities' core funding.

The college sector has all but disappeared and turned into a network of vocational learning centres staffed by itinerant tutors, whose staff contracts have recently been reduced from one year to six months. Many have expertise in entrepreneurship and run their own businesses alongside teaching.

Earlier attempts to ease the progression between school, college and university have foundered and the three distinct sectors are poorly linked.

Globalisation has made Scotland an attractive destination for multinationals in view of its comparatively low cost of living and wage structure. But small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are struggling to recruit staff, since school-leavers believe that they will have better prospects and greater job security with the big firms, even if that means moving to another country. Many of the multinationals have an established system of workplace learning opportunities, growing their own talent, while SMEs find it difficult to release staff.

Scotland's remaining universities are now private companies, answerable to shareholders, and have a high international reputation for the quality of their distance learning courses. They are competing against other countries' institutions, which have set up Scottish campuses.

Resources for state schools are tight as a result of the increasing costs of dealing with crime, healthcare and environmental problems, while budget constraints make it difficult for headteachers to plan ahead. There are no national initiatives investing in prevention, and as a result there is no early years education.

Private schools have much better resources, particularly in ICT, and promote pupils' future employability. They place emphasis on emotional intelligence and transferable skills. A trend has developed for celebrities and television personalities to lend their names to schools. There are partnerships with major IT multinationals, which want to contribute to the development of the learning process with their technology. Private school pupils are generally known for their strong interpersonal skills and see themselves as global citizens, thanks to Comenius partnerships with schools in other European countries.

Vocational education is steered by employers in the absence of a national strategy.

Original headline: Divided by four: Scotland stares its futures in the face

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