Getting on shouldn't mean getting out

26th September 2003 at 01:00
On the day the Higher results were announced, a proud mother was interviewed on television. Speaking about her daughter's success, she said "It will be her passport out of X" (naming a "disadvantaged" area in Ayrshire).

Underlying this simple statement are a number of intractable issues which have individual, local and national significance.

At a personal level the mother's aspiration is natural and understandable.

Most parents want their children to do well in school and get a good start in life. Often they regret their own missed opportunities and are prepared to make sacrifices to enable sons and daughters to benefit from what education has to offer. They themselves may feel trapped in a locality which has few social amenities and limited job prospects. And in cases where antisocial behaviour, crime and drugs are commonplace, it is not surprising that "getting on" is interpreted as "getting out".

For the community concerned, however, the loss of talented young people is likely to mean that the cycle of decline will continue. It is easy for professionals (most of whom do not live in such areas) to recommend that the retention of able youngsters is essential for community regeneration, but the cost to individual and family ambitions may be unreasonably high.

In any case, people who do attempt to take on a development role in disadvantaged areas often find themselves subject to criticism and even attack.

Politicians see the development of "social capital" as the answer. This is now a favoured term in policy discourse and has been a powerful influence on a range of initiatives. Social capital is essentially about participation, networks and trust. The creation of social capital comes about when individuals and groups contribute to their communities in a wide variety of ways. As well as advancing worthwhile projects and activities, it is argued that this process generates mutual understanding and respect and encourages responsible behaviour. The benefits, which are both individual and collective, include greater social cohesion and an increased sense of security.

That's the theory. Realising it in practice is far from easy. Many schools now make a point of inviting back former pupils who have "made good" in various fields to serve as role models for the next generation. Some highly successful entrepreneurs who have come from modest backgrounds are generous in contributing to projects in their home towns.

These efforts are undoubtedly worthy and those involved deserve credit.

There is a difference, however, between the occasional high-profile event and the day-to-day experience of those who live in a rundown area.

At national level the danger is increased social polarisation, a widening gap between those parts of the country which are relatively prosperous and offer opportunities and hope to young people, and those which are economically, socially and educationally impoverished. That is perhaps the biggest challenge facing post-devolution Scotland.

There are, of course, no magical solutions. What is disturbing, however, is the extent to which the problem does not even feature in many educational documents. Inspectorate reports on individual schools, for example, usually only offer a brief scene-setting description of the social context before moving swiftly on to the usual in-school indicators of "success". There is a narrowness of perspective on what schools should be aiming to achieve and how they relate to wider society.

For interesting ideas on the future of schooling it is increasingly necessary to look beyond establishment thinking. I recommend the work of the Scottish Council Foundation, the Institute for Contemporary Scotland and Big Thinking - all independent organisations which are attempting to stimulate innovative responses to difficult problems.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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