It's not the school, it's the teacher

25th January 2008 at 00:00
In the first of a series of interviews, Ewan Aitken talks to prominent figures who have made a mark on education from the outside.

Ask CBI Scotland chief executive Iain McMillan what his memories of school were and the 56-year-old former Bearsden Academy pupil responds with his usual enthusiasm - but talks of his English teacher rather than the school.

"Bert Ross made sure we knew we were there to learn but, because he made his subject interesting, we wanted to learn as well."

The huge significance of teachers is a theme he returns to again and again as we explore his views on 21st-century education in Scotland. "Take science," he continues. "It's a popular enough subject to some young people, but when you move to the likes of molecular formulae, that's when you need a good teacher to make it relevant."

McMillan goes on to argue that it is when subjects lose their relevance to the real world as young people see it, that they become demotivated. "That's why teachers need to be more than simply imparters of information," he says, "but also to give real relevance to that information."

As a member of the board of the Scottish Qualifications Authority for 10 years and its vice-chairman for two, McMillan is keen to emphasise that he is not having a go at teachers or looking for someone to blame. On the contrary, he is absolutely clear that educational success is utterly dependent on the teaching profession. It is a profession - not simply, as he puts it, "a commodity trade".

I ask him what he thinks about educational standards, given some of the comments of his colleagues in business about falling standards. His answer is both blunt and conciliatory. "Scotland," he says, "has a very good education system on the whole, compared with the rest of the world. But literacy and numeracy are falling behind and, for some reason, those in education don't seem to realise the importance of those basic skills".

McMillan goes on to suggest that part of the problem is the marking system used by the SQA. "Positive marking, where you get credit for what you have done, is OK, but not when it means pupils don't lose marks for mistakes in grammar, spelling or addition," he says. "Where there are errors, marks should be deducted. Positive marking, while well meaning, has had unintended consequences."

Talking of the positive, McMillan is a big fan of the Determined to Succeed enterprise education policy where, he believes, things such as literacy and numeracy can be embedded and given real relevance. But he is keen to emphasise that, while there needs to be a real relationship between business and education, it should be focused entirely on the needs of the pupils, preparing them for the world of work.

The idea that a school can be run along business lines is not one to which McMillan subscribes. He is clear that, while teachers can learn from business about what business needs ("and that is no bad thing"), teachers are a profession in their own right and should be valued as such.

He is, however, a fan of competition between schools as a way of driving up standards. The motivation is not to be "consumerist", more for peers to want to do as well as each other. Thus his idea of competition is through initiatives such as the Scottish Education Awards, not placing pupils in a market place.

And if the CBI was in charge of education? He returns to his previous theme and underlines the importance of raising attainment in literacy and numeracy - as well as in communication skills, problem-solving and working in collaboration.

Iain McMillan is not an ideologue, although he might be regarded as holding dear some traditional values. But he is proud of having been state-educated and is committed to that system. He is also passionate in his belief that, without a strong economy, we will not have the tax base to provide the education that is needed.

In his mind, therefore, there is a clear link between schools and the economy: we have to produce literate, numerate young people who can get on with each other and work on producing the next big innovations which are essential for the economy to thrive. It is not rocket science, he suggests.


1951: Born Glasgow

1970-76: Trainee banker

1976-93: Manager and senior manager TSB Group

1993-95: Assistant director CBI Scotland

1995 to date: Director CBI Scotland

1997-2000: Chairman, Higher Still employment and training group

1999-2000: Member, review committee on careers service

1999-2003: Member, Young Enterprise Scotland board

1996-2006: Member, Scottish Qualifications Authority board (vice chairman, 2004-06)

2003: Awarded CBE for services to lifelong learning.

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