Don't switch off the fiasco wake-up call

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
The exams debacle has given an added edge to the debate over the changing role of schools, says Graham Leicester

SO the Scottish education system is in "crisis", this year's examination process a "fiasco". You could be forgiven for thinking that we might be in for big change.

But there are two kinds of crisis. The first is the "crisis as cock-up". It follows a familiar pattern. The crisis is put down to administrative error, inquiries are held, heads roll and the system returns to normal - chastened but unchanged.

By contrast, the "crisis as wake-up call" is like the canary down the mineshaft that stops singing - an early warning of impending catastrophe. It acts as a catalyst, the opportunity people have been waiting for to transform old ways and try a fresh approach. The crisis as wake-up call is an opportunity: the beginning of wisdom.

I fear we are treating the fiasco at the Scottish Qualifications Authority as a crisis of the first type. Yet we have never been more in need of a wake-up call about the state of the education system. That is why the Scottish Council Foundation has launched a new publication entitled Changing Schools: education in a knowledge society.

The report records and reflects on a day's workshop earlier this summer on the future of schools in and beyond Scotland. The participants included officials from the Scottish Executive, local government, business, teachers, parents, consumers, researchers, consultants. By the end of the day they had reached a challenging conclusion: that if the education system in Scotland is to satisfy the changing economic and social needs of the modern world it is in need of radical transformation.

That conclusion reflects a global trend. More and more countries are questioning the effectiveness and the relevance of traditional state systems. Singapore has dropped 30 per cent of the curriculum, emasculated the inspectorate and devolved greater autonomy to individual schools to encourage experiment. In the United States the trend is for "charter schools" - school start-ups that need only apply for a state charter to operate.

Changing Schools starts from the premise that schools are a microcosm of society - they were established to prepare people to live and prosper in the industrial economy. Schools were built, managed and run like factories. And by and large they still are, right down to the clocking-in clock and the factory whistle. We still use a mass production model - in which one size is supposed to fit all and in practice fits nobody perfectly.

Meanwhile the world has changed. The technology industries have led the way in overturning the mass production model, looking instead to customisation and the "market of one". So how can we continue to believe that educational ability can be measured on one Bell curve, as researchers have claimed, or that intelligence, ability and capacity to learn can be asessed once for all at a specific age and time?

And where has the factory gone? We now have knowledge workers as "backpackers" operating out of airport lounges; or coming together in studio spaces to pursue individual projects; or in corporate complexes that look more like villages with hairdressing salons, supermarkets and flower shops on site. None of these scenarios looks anything like school.

There is a premium, too, on innovation and creativity. Research suggests that that means having the confidence to ignore or disobey on average one in 10 instructions. And it means having the judgment to know which they should be. Our present school system teaches neither skill - if anything it stifles both, and no amount of tinkering with the curriculum to introduce "entrepreneurial studies" is going to change that. Employers seeking this blend of creativity and judgment are having to look elsewhere - mostly to the United States and Scandinavia.

Even on the narrow view that the education system exists to prepare people for useful and productive lives in the world of work, it is patently failing and set to get worse as the transformation in the modern economy gathers pace.

Yet there is an equally, if not more powerful critique of the system from the perspective of underlying values. An education system that "educates" only for the purpose of satisfying the demands of the economy is skewed, incomplete and, some would argue, positively dangerous. Values and meaning are in danger of being driven to the margins just at a time when the knowledge society is placing more responsibility on individuals to decide how they live and work, whom they work with, how they cope with the constantly changing environment.

Self-confidence, judgment, emotional intelligence, "ambiguity tolerance" and some sense of the rooted self are now core life skills - hardly likely to be delivered under the present system.

These are not new observations. But to make them the basis of the public and the political debate about education in Scotland would be revolutionary.

What is the substance of that debate now? The administration of the examination system, teachers' pay and conditions, entrepreneurial studies and work experience, how many computers per classroom, Scottish Executive or local government control? It is technocratic and managerial, straight out of the factory age. These issues may be important, but only if at the same time we are prepared to engage with the more fundamental challenges. We cannot have a "radical" debate around obsolete concepts.

Let's hope that this time we wake up - continuing to claim it was all too difficult will cut little ice when the next generation comes to judge our timidity.

Graham Leicester is director of the Scottish Council Foundation. Changing Schools may be obtained from 0131 225 4709. Join the online debate at

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