'Great debate' on way

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Executive plans Green Paper to stimulate ideas for consensus on the purpose of education in society

THE SCOTTISH Executive plans to launch a "great debate" on education, in an attempt to gain consent for what the fundamental purposes of the system should be.

In a move reminiscent of the similar initiative by Labour's Prime Minister James Callaghan in the 1970s, the Executive is considering launching what ministers are billing as a "provocative" Green Paper early next year to stimulate ideas and test the water.

The Executive's latest thinking was due to have been unveiled today in a major keynote speech on education by Donald Dewar, the late First Minister, who was to have addressed the annual TES ScotlandEdinburgh City Council conference.

We understand his major theme would have been the need to modernise teaching, taking particular account of the impact of the new technologies on the way pupils learn and on what they learn. This is not a new preoccupation, having been flagged up by Mr Dewar in his speech to the Scottish Labour Party conference in March, and then followed up by Peter Peacock, the Deputy Children and Education Minister, in a speech in June.

It is unlikely that Henry McLeish, the new First Minister, will depart from this agenda since he has been regularly urging schools, colleges and universities to equip the young and the not-so-young with the skills required by the knowledge economy. A parallel message has been the impact of the changes which information technology in turn will make on the nature of teaching and learning.

The Executive is anxious, however, not to appear to be supplanting the role of the teacher and what it regards as "the essential human relationships" at the heart of education. But it is still determined to press home the message that teachers will have to start managing learning rather than jst imparting knowledge, as well as developing a wider range of teaching styles.

Plans for fleshing out these approaches are already being drawn up within the Scottish Executive Education Department, which is to establish a special unit to pilot "future schools" in collaboration with the education authorities. This will draw heavily on lessons from the new community schools and the accredited learning centres being set up under the Scottish University for Industry.

Ministers believe these are ideas whose time may have come as the fall-out from the exam results crisis has had wider consequences, with politicians and others being led by the emerging evidence to think about the purposes of teaching, the curriculum, assessment and the way reforms are implemented.

But there is also evidence that ministers too have learned some lessons, which Mr Dewar was also due to signal at today's conference. In particular, there is a recognition that there must be more room for local experiment and initiative, a constant refrain by critics of the Higher Still programme which they believe has fallen victim to its overly-centralised origins.

The brave new educational world now under consideration therefore starts from the premise that future changes will require the consent of both learners and teachers. Next year's Green Paper is likely to question the need for every pupil to experience every aspect of the curriculum, suggesting instead a narrower range of core subjects, with schools given more freedom to shape the rest of the curriculum.

These moves are partly influenced by ministers' preoccupation with their policy of engaging disaffected youngsters turned off by school and stimulating those currently languishing in the bottom 20 per cent of attainment - part of the social justice agenda which was so close to Mr Dewar's own political credo.

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