Focusing on the priorities

14th September 2001 at 01:00
Laurie O'Donnell, in our continuing series on the future of Scottish education, argues that it is important to ask the right questions first

IT may seem like just another session has started for those not closely associated with the life of a school. The reality is that every school year is unique; with new intakes, movements from pre-school to primary and on to secondary, some pupils embarking on courses that will lead to National Qualifications, others preparing for the next stage in their lives.

My youngest daughter started school last month - a milestone in any family history. As I left her on the first day, I was wondering what kind of future inheritance we are setting aside for primary 1 pupils. What will these young people need to help them to lead happy, fulfilled and productive lives after 2013?

Still thou art blest, compar'd wi me!

The present only toucheth thee: But och! I backward cast my e'e, On prospects drear!

An forward, tho canna see, I guess an fear!

When Burns penned these wonderfully dour (and very Scottish) words in November 1785, he was comparing himself to a mouse. Given an update to current usage could it be a Scottish teacher in 2001, making a comparison with a class, looking back over two decades of innovation and looking ahead with some well-grounded scepticism? Is it believable that the collective view of a profession uniquely positioned to make a difference to young lives and contribute to the development of our society, culture, environment and economy could be characterised as pessimistic?

The question of how we move forward is not only one of agreeing what we should be doing (the curriculum) and why we are doing it (the aims of education), but also how we build in the capacity for change and development without damaging the prospects of young people. The national priorities form the basis for moving forward - in as far as they provide the broad aims that should help education make a positive contribution to the future and against which schools and local authority improvement plans will be evaluated.

Attempts to paint detailed pictures of the future of Scottish education are doomed to failure. There are, however, discernible trends and the five national priorities can also provide a useful lens for focusing on some of these.

* Achievement and attainment. Scottish schools have become much better at recognising and celebrating the successes of their pupils. What more can be done here? How can we help every child to taste success and feel the warm glow of recognition without the red face of embarrassment.

What about attainment? As we strive towards 50 per cent of leavers going on to higher education, what about the other 50 per cent? What is to be their role in the Scotland of the future? The National Qualifications reforms have made a contribution here but what else needs to be done?

* Framework for learning. Are the schools of the present equipped for the future? Can we make the most of 19th-century classrooms and support 20th-century teachers to enhance the learning of 21st-century learners? Our understanding of how we reach understanding has progressed rapidly over the past 20 years.

A body of evidence has been amassed on learning styles, memory techniques, motivation, stress, diet and self-esteem. This research has not yet found its way into classrooms in any significant way - in part because we have not created the space for it but also because of our tendency to measure what is easy to measure and then certificate on that basis.

* Inclusion and equality. How can we value and celebrate differences and effectively challenge discrimination and exclusion while at the same time aspire to educational excellence? Do we need to do more to ensure that the outcomes of education are more equitable, rather than just the opportunities, and to better pattern our resources to that end?

* Values and citizenship. How can schools contribute to the development of the values of interdependency that promote community safety and the civilised way of life characteristic of our Scandinavian near neighbours?

* Learning for life. How can schools help to engender and retain a love of learning? This is not just learning for qualifications and employment opportunities, but a quality of learning for its own sake ensuring that preparation for life as a worker does not eclipse life's other important roles.

iving the future workforce capability in information and communica-tions technology, while being worth while, will be much more difficult to deliver. What will ICT in the workplace look like for my daughter? If using technology is becoming more intuitive for human beings, then it is what they are using the technology for that becomes essential. Perhaps understanding of the context combined with the knowledge of the appropriate application of technology - when and when not to use it - should take precedence over how to use it as this increasingly becomes trivial?

We need to ensure that we make the most of the opportunity afforded by a national discussion. This is not a time to experiment on children - their futures are too precious. But equally this is not a time to rest on our laurels. We have an opportunity to contribute to the design of the future.

We must build on our many strengths, learn from our own past and the best educational practice from around the world. We must also acknowledge that, however important the contribution of education, we are inextricably bound to the family and the wider community. If we get it right, it may just be that we can look ahead with much more hope and a lot less fear.

Laurie O'Donnell is head of future learning and teaching at Learning and Teaching Scotland.

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