SCOTLAND'S directors of education do not want to lose sight of "the big picture".
Reflecting on the directorate's annual conference in Edinburgh at the weekend, Keir Bloomer, new president of the Association of Directors of Education, said it was now more important than ever to raise its sights as schooling faces unprecedented challenges from online learning, the global market-place, home education and new discoveries on how and what children learn.
"The future is not just a matter of pay or the minutiae of working conditions or the next minor curricular adjustment," Mr Bloomer said.
As an earnest of its futuristic ambitions, the conference was addressed by Graham Walker, head of government services with Arthur Andersen, the consultants heavily involved in "outsourcing" public education services south of the border, and Stephen Hepple, IT guru and head of the groundbreaking Ultralab at the University of East Anglia.
The directors also heard from Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, who promised to set policy objectives and targets but then leave schools and authorities to get on with it, citing the diversity of approaches encouraged by the early intervention programme.
This was music to directors' ears. Mr Bloomer had cited this very programme in arguing for a change in educational culture which "puts creativity before compliance".
He added in a swipe at HMI and other educational decision-makers: "There can be very few people left now who think that educational progress can best be achieved by drawing up inflexible national guidelines, monitoring compliance at school level and subsequently disowning responsibility for the consequences."
Early intervention, Mr Bloomer suggested, was "a bottom-up model that answers real problems as seen by real teachers". If changes are not forthcoming,
Mr Walker warned, "home-based learning is the real competition for schools".
Mr Walker extolled the advantages of a new IT-based approach to schooling being developed by Arthur Andersen in Vista, San Diego, which showed "significant improvements" compared with the average for the area. Learning is project based and tailored to the individual. Teachers are facilitators. Technology is integral to the process rather than driving it.
Professor Hepple said long-term research tracking pupils from 1993 to 2003, being conducted by himself and his colleagues, shows that young people are highly creative in the ways they harness IT and are aided by far richer sources of information.
"We have gone from an Encyclopaedia Britannica costing pound;1,200 to CD-Roms at pound;90 to subscription-based access to the web to free Internet connections - and it has happened in less than a decade."
Mr Bloomer asked, however: "In an information-rich age, who will ensure that it is not only the rich who have information?"
But Professor Hepple said his research indicated that, like videos and satellite dishes, computers and Internet access cut across social class.
There was unanimity at the conference that, despite this IT-based future, teachers were going to be more necessary than ever. But, Mr Bloomer said, there would be fewer of them. "The way ahead does not lie in the doomed defence of restrictive practices nor in the outmoded concept that everything in a school requires to be done by a teacher," he said.
Professor Hepple agreed that "paraprofessional" support will be increasingly necessary as teacher shortages loom. He mused at the prospect of "the numeracy midwife - hm, no signs yet".
Shortages, Professor Hepple observed, will be exacerbated as schools face strong competition in the labour market from companies "hungry" to turn themselves into "learning organisations". At the same time applications for teacher training degree courses are down 30 per cent south of the border. "So boy are we going to need teachers - and better teachers."
The current dilemma was what Mr Walker referred to as "the big white hole", making change happen by persuading staff to change. The most hard-headed solution for teachers who could not cope with "this vague new world" came from Shelagh Rae, director in Renfrewshire, who suggested a one-off investment in early retirement to provide an honourable exit.
"After all that's what businesses do," Mrs Rae said.
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