Children need the tools for citizenship

29th February 2008 at 00:00
In our series of interviews with outsiders who are close to education, Ewan Aitken meets Shonaig Macpherson

Shonaig Macpherson welcomed me into her office in the National Trust for Scotland's imposing Charlotte Square headquarters in Edinburgh with her usual warmth and enthusiasm.

Although she spends only about one day a week there, combining her chairmanship with her equivalent role with the Scottish Council for Development and Industry and many other activities (including being mother to two teenagers), she clearly feels at home there.

Ms Macpherson, a solicitor who specialises in intellectual property and e-business, has had a stellar career and was no doubt required to feel at home in many places. But describing her as a high-flying solicitor does not even approach half her story (see panel).

Although born in Irvine, her early school career was peripatetic: she attended six or seven primary schools because of her father's job as a mining engineer. She says she has no particular memories of her various schools, but recalls two teachers. Miss Bagworth, who taught Latin and French, encouraged her pupils to stretch their minds and their horizons, and RE teacher Mr Vaughan exposed the class to comparative religions, teaching them about values and commonality. His techniques included knocking on the ceiling to see if God was listening, the aim being to show them the idea of symbolism.

Their legacy was to imbue in Ms Macpherson the belief that the most important thing schools can teach pupils is to be curious, and to use that curiosity to challenge current thinking. While she acknowledges that schools need to teach the basic skills, she says those skills will not be used to their best effect if that curiosity is not developed.

Schools, she adds, need to focus on building confidence, developing teamworking, enhancing communication, and providing young people with the tools to broaden their understanding of who and where they are.

Ms Macpherson suggests schools should also expose pupils to values other than those experienced at home. But does that mean schools judging which values are the best or most important? Her reply is that schools need to give pupils the tools to be citizens, which is not just about learning basic skills but understanding the meaning of those skills in different contexts.

As an example, she turns to the work of the National Trust for Scotland. It teaches people about the past but, more importantly, teaches them what to learn from the past and how to form their own views. That takes good research, so people get to know the facts as opposed to the mythology - for example, that Culloden had Scots on both sides, sometimes from the same clan, as chiefs tried to cover their political bases.

I ask Ms Macpherson about the teaching of Scottish history. She has no objections, but only if it is done in the context of understanding that Scotland is a small nation in northern Europe and that its story needs to recognise the impact on it from Europe, the Empire, the Americas - and its impact on them. The Scottish Enlightenment happened because we were curious about the world, not just ourselves, she points out.

We need the narrative, but the skills of analysis that can result are what make it really powerful, she comments. "Answering the question 'what if a significant decision had not been taken?' is as interesting and useful in developing critical skills as looking at what actually happened," she adds.

Ms Macpherson has no difficulty chiming these views with what business needs. While employers need the basic core skills, she suggests that real business innovation comes from the "soft skills", such as the ability to see wider and look deeper in any situation. She describes the process as "finding pathways to yourself and the world".

Schools, she concludes, should be places where curiosity is encouraged through identifying the facts, assimilating them and analysing the consequences of decisions not taken as well as taken. Curiosity, she says, is what makes the world not simply something to observe, but a living place to engage with in order to understand ourselves better.

And I thought the National Trust was only about stately homes and bygone lives. I need to be more curious in future.


1958: Born Irvine

1976-82: University of Sheffield; College of Law, Chester

1982-85: articled clerk, Norton Rose, London (1984 : qualified as a solicitor in England)

1985-87: solicitor in corporatecommercial department, Knapp Fisher, London

1987-89: first head of legal department, Harrods

1989-91: partner, Calow Easton, London

1991-2004: partner, managing partner and senior partner McGrigors (1992: qualified as a solicitor in Scotland)

Chairman of the National Trust for Scotland and the Scottish Council for Development and Industry; deputy president, British Chambers of Commerce; director, Edinburgh International Film Festival; member, BT Scotland advisory board; member, Scottish Executive Management Group; Cultural Commissioner for the Scottish Government; visiting professor, Heriot-Watt University; member, Edinburgh University court; governor, Edinburgh College of Art; Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

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