Don't trap the kids in different boxes

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Education is about potential, not marking out learners as professors and plumbers, says Ewan Aitken

A headteacher I heard of made a confession in his retirement speech some years ago. He admitted that very soon after his appointment he had introduced a Latin motto for the school. The motto he chose was "Omnia neganda sunt" - "Everything must be denied", or more colloquially, "It wisnae me". No one had noticed the joke, the motto had stuck and generations of children had spent their primary years denying responsibility with their school badge.

That story crossed my mind during the recent media-inspired spat over the Scottish Qualifications Authority's consultation on slimming down the number of exams offered, like Latin and many others. It did so also because that debate rapidly fell into a trap that has hindered new thinking about the nature and objective of assessing or benchmarking progress and understanding in education.

Most of those asked to comment, including myself, talked of the need for balance between academic and vocational and in doing so made a distinction that is inherently destructive and should be banned.

I and others in places of policy-making and educational influence need to take responsibility for this and not blame anyone else. It was us and our language is wrong. There should be no distinction between so-called academic or vocational educational experiences. Whatever the experiences and opportunities needed to bring the best out of young people and to nurture their potential to be fully formed human beings, those experiences should be ascribed equal value. It does not matter whether an educational journey develops skills of the mind or the hands, each is of equal value because they reflect individual pupil potential to be fully human.

Unfortunately, because success in education is still articulated in terms of progression to jobs, further or higher education (with unemployment being the other category), we trap ourselves in a language that undermines the value given to some educational journeys.

It is particularly ironic for me to have done this as someone who, to follow what is called a vocation, needed to attend university not once but twice to achieve that calling and yet only stayed on at school because of sport. It was only in sport that I felt valued as a person and where I experienced my greatest sense of achievement in school. This in turn gave me the confidence to follow my vocation, including the elements that helped me learn to use my mind to greater effect.

Practitioners of many subjects were misguided by those with power and influence in education to believe that to have value (to be useful for access to jobs or more education), they needed to become more academic instead of focusing on how to use the experience of participating in their subject to bring out the best in pupils. Exams don't do that, the quality of the experience does, and the SQA is right to ask these questions.

The way forward is through the potential that personal learning plans bring to the table. I use "plans" deliberately, as I do not agree with the Scottish Executive's subtle change to "planning" for fear of creating a workload issue. I remain convinced that if we fully embrace the potential liberation these plans offer, especially if we underpin it with the ICT that they will need, we will recapture the core task of education as being each person's search for meaning and significance in their life's journey.

They will achieve this lofty aim because they will focus the educational journey on the needs, aspirations and successes of each individual child, benchmarked against targets that relate to each child's potential as understood and agreed by pupil, parents and teaching staff.

There will still need to be a nationally recognised benchmarking process as part of the development and monitoring in plans, but those benchmarks will not define the plans or their parameters. Pupils will finish school with hard evidence that they set out on an educational journey designed around them as a human being, a journey that had benchmarks and milestones that reflected on their potential and the distance they have travelled against those benchmarks.

The distance travelled on the journey will be what is important, not whether, in the first instance, that journey focused on their creativity, their practical skill levels, their mental ability or their sporting prowess. It will include all of these things but it will be a journey that speaks of them as a person whose human potential is of intrinsic value in itself and not defined by some category created by others to define them as potentially a professor or a plumber.

Ewan Aitken is education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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