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Survey on the Mound

What does your average MSP think should be the purpose of education? Donald Gillies asked the question

ANY "great debate" launched by the Executive on the purpose of the education system (TESS October 27) is unlikely to reach an easy consensus. That is the clearest message from a survey of MSP views on the issue.

Responses varied hugely across the political divide and within party political groupings.

Traditional fault-lines emerged between those espousing a classic, liberal view of education and the narrower, "training" model. But even within these camps attitudes varied considerably.

Perhaps most worryingly for the Executive, there was no majority commitment to what might have been considered "given" in modern Scottish education.

After all, the new Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act has already stipulated that local authority educational provision be directed "to the development of the personality, talents and mental and physical abilities of the child or young person to their fullest potential". Yet only 46 per cent of MSPs referred to "the development of the (full) potential" of each child as being the purpose of education. Even fewer (39 per cent) felt that the system should be "developing the whole person".

Nevertheless, as these proved to be the most popular of the views aired, it should be possible for the Executive to win majority backing for a definition couched in sufficiently broad and inclusive terms. No doubt there is a Sir Humphrey at Victoria Quay with a woolly wording already prepared.

There were some colourful and unexpected responses to the question "What do you see as the purpose of the education system?" In Conservative ranks could be found the noble "to improve civilisation"; the faintly Darwinian "to gain something to offer an employer and have ability to compete in a competitive world"; and the blunt "impart knowledge, gain qualifications, get a job".

Labour MSPs encompassed the stark "equality of opportunity"; the materialistic "to prepare for the workplace with equal chance of building a well-paid career"; and the uplifting "for every individual to realise their full potential throughout their lives".

SNP members were capable of the optimistic "to develop humane, happy, responsible citizens who see education as a continuous part of life"; and the mundane "to prepare people to be able to take their place in society".

Liberal Democrats' views ranged from the Jean Brodie brevity of "to lead out (educare)" to the worthy but prolix. One did mention developing "respect for self and others" - traits, as we know, daily in evidence on the Mound.

Overall, although not the majority view, strongest support among MSPs was indeed for "realising (full) potential" (46 per cent); then for "developing the whole person" (39 per cent). Reference to "benefiting societycitizenship" (39 per cent) came next, then "preparation for adult life" (32 per cent).

References to the notion of education "for allequalityincluson" featured in 23 per cent of responses. "Gaining skills" featured in 18 per cent of definitions, but "acquiring knowledge" was mentioned only by Conservatives.

Explicit reference to education as being "for workemployment" featured highly with Conservative and some Labour MSPs but as it never once occurred in SNP or Lib Dem responses it registered only 14 per cent overall.

"Lifelong learning" occurred in 11 per cent of responses.

Clearly there may be some overlap as, for example, an MSP who indicated that the education system was about "realising full potential", may have understood that to include "developing the whole person". And "preparation for adult life" may well have subsumed the notion of "preparation for workemployment".

A hurried response by an MSP to "yet another" survey does not constitute a final, studied viewpoint, but nevertheless indicates the instinctive attitudes which could influence further thinking.

Within party political groups attitudes varied: only the notion of "realising full potential" was mentioned by a majority of Labour MSPs (50 per cent) but there was also strong support for reference to "benefiting societycitizenship" (44 per cent), the more general "preparation for adult life" (38 per cent) and for notions of "equalityinclusion" (31 per cent).

Among Conservative MSPs strongest support was for notions of "realising full potential" (44 per cent) and "preparation for workemployment" (44 per cent). There was little sympathy for ideas such as equality, inclusion, citizenship.

SNP MSPs had majority agreement only about the "development of the whole person" (50 per cent). There was strong support relatively at 44 per cent both for "realising full potential" and for "preparation for adult life". At 25 per cent, support for notions of "equalityinclusion" was close to Labour's 31 per cent.

The Liberal Democrat response was hampered by the relatively small numbers contributing but strongest support was for references to "benefiting societycitizenship" (80 per cent) and to the "development of the whole person" (60 per cent).

Perhaps it should not be a surprise that, on such a controversial issue as education, the Parliament could offer such a broad range of responses. On the other hand, if we don't know what it's for, how can we know if it's working?

Research for this article was done as part of the degree of Master of Education at Strathyclyde University, where Donald Gillies is a final-year student.

Note: The survey, conducted in OctoberNovember 1999, covered 54 MSPs (41 per cent of the total) with a gender balance reflecting accurately the Parliament's own. Responses also reflected the party-political balance of Parliament although there was a comparatively higher number of Conservative responses and comparatively fewer from Lib-Dem MSPs. The geographical spread also reflected the Parliament as a whole except for the West of Scotland (under-represented) and the South (over-represented).

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