Everyone's invited to this particular party

19th September 2014 at 01:00
Attainment for all is the focus of 2014's Scottish Learning Festival, and with the referendum result due just days before, a new spirit of togetherness could be abroad in Scotland, says ?Douglas Blane

Attempting to predict the shape of the debate at this year's Scottish Learning Festival is even harder than usual because it will take place in the immediate aftermath of the independence referendum, the result of which is due to be announced today. Even education secretary Michael Russell will not be able to start thinking about the contents of his opening address until the votes have been counted.

Big change could be on the way for Scottish politics. But the country's education system has always had its own separate identity. Scotland's long-standing belief that every child from every background is entitled to a good education will not alter. Nor will the content of the festival's seminars and keynote speeches be affected by the referendum, although many will no doubt refer to the result.

The overarching theme of this year's event, raising achievement and attainment for all, chimes with Scotland's social history. Three aspects - health and well-being, early intervention and prevention, and employability skills - are well represented in the seminar programme.

Under Curriculum for Excellence, teachers are now responsible for the mental, emotional, social and physical health and well-being of pupils. And this can be daunting. Staff worry that unskilled intervention, in mental health in particular, could make matters worse. So a seminar on promoting positive mental health in Edinburgh's schools will provide much-needed guidance for schools and parents.

One of the seminar's contributors will be Patricia Santelices of the organisation Growing Confidence, which offers training in promoting positive mental health. So far, teachers, parents and pupils from 10 schools in Edinburgh have taken part in its courses.

"The aim of the training is to highlight the latest research and demonstrate how caring relationships, healthy role models, participation in schools, families and communities and good social and emotional skills can help children to develop resilience and overcome adversity," she says.

Scotland's got talent

Exclusion is one factor that can harm both mental and physical health. To tackle this, Hazelwood School in Glasgow is trying an innovative approach known as asset-based community development. The first step of such a project is to draw up an inventory of the talents you have at your disposal. At Hazelwood, that starting point was "two talented pupils with sensory impairment and additional support for learning needs", according to teacher Julie McKenzie.

"We now have 75 per cent of our pupils involved," she says. "Our seminar will describe an innovative approach that brings mainstream and additional-support pupils together and enables them to belong to groups and bands at the appropriate level - through which they can showcase their abilities and experience a sense of achievement."

It is now widely accepted that early years education is crucial for an education system to foster the abilities of the most deprived children. Any investment at this stage offers a huge return, both for the individual and for society as a whole.

Poor literacy and numeracy hold people back and limit their prospects down the generations. In response to a Freedom of Information request by the Scottish Conservatives in 2012, the Scottish Prison Service revealed that approximately 81 per cent of prisoners screened were assessed as lacking functional literacy and 71 per cent as lacking in functional numeracy.

If this is the case for the parents, "what chance have their children?" asks Jean Carwood-Edwards, chief executive of the Scottish Pre-School Play Association. "It can seem like it's the children who are sentenced, as so many are destined to live disadvantaged lives," she says.

"With a focus on prevention, early intervention and learning through play, we work in prisons with prisoners, their partners and young children. In learning-through-play sessions, prisoners and their partners learn how to support their children's literacy, learning and well-being."

Words of wisdom

Once upon a time, Scottish children were told they should be seen and not heard. A more enlightened culture now prevails and has created organisations such as the Children's Parliament in Glasgow. This is proving to be effective in early intervention by teaching the children involved in its projects soft skills such as listening, collaboration and problem-solving.

"Our staff work with schools to introduce or build knowledge and understanding of children's rights and their power in helping to keep children safe, happy and healthy," says the Parliament's director, Cathy McCulloch. "In our seminar we will provide examples of when children's views have been used positively to effect better outcomes."

Giving young people the skills they need for the world of work is a vital function of education. Dumfries and Galloway, a sprawling rural authority where finding jobs can be a challenge, has been attempting to improve pupils' prospects. Under the umbrella of Opportunities for All, the Scottish government's programme that aims to guarantee a training or education place to everyone aged 16-19 who is not in employment, education or training (Neet), the council has been sending employability link workers into schools to inform students of volunteering and course opportunities.

"Our seminar will highlight their role, as well as our collaborations with partners to help young people reach positive destinations," says Lynne Burgess, a coordinator at Opportunities for All. "Employability link workers bring their knowledge of provision in local communities into schools and offer a single point of contact, as well as practical support in the removal of barriers to progression."

Music to their ears

On the other side of the country, schools in Aberdeen are using new media to stimulate young people's interest and improve their literacy, numeracy and employability. "Station House Media Unit supports residents in disadvantaged areas in radio and video production, music production and digital inclusion," says training coordinator Brian Webb. "Our employability and training arm supports 14- to 19-year-olds to positive destinations. It's open to all school pupils across the city."

Seminars at the festival must be booked in advance, so visitors usually come prepared. But drop-in sessions are also on offer. At the Education Scotland stand, staff will be on hand to answer questions, chat about key areas of work and national initiatives, and facilitate a series of conversations about important aspects of Scottish education. Scheduled topics to date include improving numeracy, extreme timetabling for secondary schools and the impact of new technologies on learners.

The half-hour sessions on innovative practice at the Education Showcase are always popular. Highlights this year include a musical performance by pupils from West Dunbartonshire, a demonstration from one of the Cooking Buses run by the charitable food education programme Food on Food, a repeat of one of the dances showcased at the recent Commonwealth Games and Ten Pieces, a new BBC initiative that uses classical music to inspire children's creativity.

Scotland may or may not be heading towards independence by 24 September, when the Scottish Learning Festival opens. But the country's education sector, and the festival, have always ploughed their own furrow.

For more information and to register for seminars, visit www.educationscotland.gov.ukslfslf2014

Skills, technology and boundless potential: highlights from the rostrum

The opening session, due to be delivered by education secretary Michael Russell at 10.30am on 24 September, is only the first of this year's keynote speeches.

Frank Dick, former coaching director at the British Athletics Federation, will be talking about sport's learning edge. Elsewhere, Alma Harris, a professor at London's Institute of Education, will be giving an address titled "Beyond Pisa: the power and potential of the Scottish education system".

Lastly, education consultant John Carnochan will be wrapping things up with a session on helping children to get ready for anything. "Professional and technical skills are important," Carnochan says. "But not more so than the human attributes that demand we care for our fellow humans, that help us to establish relationships and that keep us connected."

Teachers are on the front line in this respect, he says. "Technical skills alone will not be enough if children are to lead successful and productive lives. Many will be doing jobs that have not yet been invented. They may be working in industries that haven't been created yet.

"They will need to be resilient, adaptable, courageous, thoughtful and collaborative. They will need to communicate, problem-solve, negotiate and compromise. Most importantly, they will need to connect with others."

Harris, for her part, also believes that we need to look beyond data to find the secret of educational success. "There are important lessons that systems like Scotland can give to the global educational community," she says.

"The aim is not to dismiss Pisa [the Programme for International Student Assessment] but to underline that high performance in education is defined by much more than rankings. We need to put the learner at the forefront of reform and avoid being seduced by superficial explanations of `high performance' that objectify learners and place performance above learning."

Harris believes the findings from two recent studies, which she will share in her session, challenge popular assertions about high-performing systems.

"The power and potential for system transformation in Scotland lies in the professionalism of its teachers and school leaders, combined with an unshakeable belief that every child deserves the best education possible," she says.

"Putting the learner at the heart of the reform process - deeply, authentically and genuinely - gets us much closer to the outcomes we want for all young people."


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